Health Advocates Challenge Madagascar 3 Claritin Marketing

For weeks now, my daughter and her friends have been chanting, "Circus, afro, circus, afro, polka dot, polka dot, polka dot, afro!" In case you live in a different, less annoying universe, that's the hideously catchy jingle from 'Madagascar 3," a Dreamworks movie now out in cinemas.

"Polka dot, afro" has been punctuating children's commercial television about every five minutes for the last month, it seems to me, but a letter just filed with the Federal Trade Commission has a far more serious complaint about the marketing of Madagascar 3: That it links the movie's comic animal characters with an over-the-counter drug — grape-flavored chewable Claritin — in messaging directed at children. (Almost like a jingle: Polka dot, polka dot, polka dot, Claritin!) From the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law:

Today, the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI) at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, joined by 10 other organizations, sent a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking that it investigate Merck & Co. Inc.’s Madagascar 3-themed marketing campaign for its flagship pediatric allergy medication, Grape-Flavored Chewable Children’s Claritin®.

“Marketing medicine directly to children at all, much less through entertainment tie-ins, is well beyond the pale and is not only inherently unfair, it is downright dangerous,” said Mark Gottlieb, executive director of PHAI.

To promote its June release of the Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted movie, Dreamworks licensed its Madagascar characters to Grape-Flavored Children’s Claritin®. It also licensed the characters to market other children’s foods including fruit-flavored Airheads candy, General Mills (Betty Crocker) Fruit Snacks, and McDonald’s Happy Meals. The use of the same characters on candy and gummy snacks and Children’s Claritin® creates the impression that the medicine is candy and could lead children to over consume the product at great risk to their health.


Merck’s campaign utilizes customized Madagascar 3 packaging including “5 Free Stickers.”with Madagascar 3 characters and containing “5 Free Stickers.” Mail-in movie ticket voucher promotions were prominently placed at retail outlets such as Walgreens and downloadable Children’s Claritin® Madagascar-themed activity games further targeted children. Merck also enlisted its “Children’s Claritin® Mom Crew” members to create social media buzz. Mom Crew members held Madagascar-themed viewing parties for children featuring product samples, coupons, DVD’s, popcorn containers and, Madagascar stickers and then featured the children’s parties on their blogs and websites.

Bloomberg reports this response from Merck & Co:

“We advertise in appropriate venues to reach those parents of children who may benefit from the use of children’s Claritin,” said Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty in an e- mail. “The advertising is directed to the parents of children viewing the movies, not to the children themselves.”

I spoke with Cara Wilking, The Public Health Advocacy Institute senior staff attorney who wrote the letter. This kind of thing has a precedent at the Federal Trade Commission, she said: A key ruling on using Spiderman to market children's vitamins in the 1970s. The FTC set out a "pretty bright line," she said, "that you couldn't advertise directly to children on television and in comic books using cartoon characters for vitamin supplements."

It appears to be a new tactic, she said, to use cartoon characters to advertise an over-the-counter drug to children.

The idea behind the vitamin ruling, she said, is that "it's unfair and deceptive to children because they're incapable of knowing if they need generic vitamins versus branded vitamins." And also, "having Spiderman tell you to eat your vitamins might lead kids to overconsume."

Hmmm, I wonder what happens if you think Alex the lion wants you to take more yummy grape Claritin?

Ms Wilking said the advocacy groups argue that "The FTC needs to send a clear signal to the industry that this is completely unacceptable. You can't be targeting children with materials designed to appeal to them for over-the-counter drugs."

So what happens now? The letter was submitted this morning, she said, and the commission will decide whether to open an investigation against Merck. If it so decides, it can issue an order against the company — but such orders generally focus on future tactics, because by the time the decision is made, the marketing campaign is long over.

So maybe the decision could come in time for Madagascar 4?

This program aired on June 20, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

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Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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