Merck: Using Moms and Madagascar to Market to Kids

Merck, the pharmaceutical conglomerate, is getting some pretty bad press this week for releasing a children’s version of Claritin with a Madagascar 3 marketing campaign integrated in its packaging.  And they’re using mommy bloggers to shill it.

Here is the offending packaging:

Merck Packaging

Now to me, that looks like a pretty good time if you’re a three year old.  I mean, of course it does.  That’s the whole point of marketing, isn’t it? Stickers!  Grapes!  Animals!

Don’t take my word for it, though.  I asked three year old Mary Tyler Son to weigh in — my kitchen table marketing sample of one.  Sure enough, he liked it.  He liked it enough to exclaim, “Madagascar!  I want some!”  I’m not joking. This is a kid who has not seen Madagascar, sitting with his Mom, me, who has not seen Madagascar.

Marketing works, folks.

Beside the fact that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has rules established against marketing vitamins to children directly, there are no such rules applying to over-the-counter (OTC) drugs.  Yet.  A complaint was filed with the FTC on Wednesday by the Public Health Advocacy Institute that attempts to duplicate the rules for vitamins to OTC drugs.  The complaint is backed by ten leading public health and media advocacy groups.

A second complaint involves the Merck social media campaign to market the meds.  This is where the mommy bloggers come in — oh, I’m sorry, the “Children’s Claritin Mom Crew.”  Each member of the Mom Crew was gifted the items below to host a Claritin Madagascar viewing party.

Mom Crew Package

Now I hate to get all self-righteous here, but I’m gonna.  Seriously, mommy bloggers?  I get that blogging is a money making venture for a lot of us moms out there.  I don’t play for that particular team, but shill away if that is what floats your boat and helps provide for your family.  I get it.  I do.  But please, have a line in the blogging sand.  Have a thought in your head that tells you that when Big Pharma comes knocking, you best question them.

Read this.

I mean, honestly, I rest my case.  A kid’s party revolving around medicine? Does no adult in the room see the problem with that?  Claritin is medicine. Not candy.  Not fun and games.  Not popcorn party time.  Medicine.

These are the folks that give mommy bloggers a bad name.  Some of us will sell our soul for a free DVD.  Ugh.  And aside from the superiority complex I am obviously afflicted with, there are the ramifications for kids.  WOW! Allergy medicine is fun.  I wish I had allergies.  Now that may sound silly, or like an overreaction, but already from three year old Mary Tyler Son, I see that for him, medicine can be an enticing yummy treat.

When he has a fever, he gets dye-free acetaminophen and ibuprofin.  I generally go generic with these, so the only exciting thing on the packaging are pictures of grapes or cherries, but he likes the flavor.  He recently had a bout of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease, so was on a heavy rotation of both for a few days until the fever died down.  Weeks later, he is still asking for medicine at bed time.  Yum!  Last night at dinner he told me he had a fever, “I think I need some medicine.”

Kids don’t need Madascar characters to encourage them to take meds.  Kids also don’t need moms throwing them parties that revolve around medicine. And us moms?  We don’t need Big Pharma using moms who live down the street from us to encourage our kids to use Claritin.  Creepy.

Merck’s official line is that their marketing is geared towards the adults purchasing on behalf of children.  And I have no doubt that the Children’s Claritin Mom Crew will tow the company line and tell you about what a difficult time they have getting their allergy ridden kids to take their meds.  Slap a licensed character on Claritin and PRESTO, problem solved.

I reject that argument with the strength and fury of a million Cancer Moms standing behind me.  Suck it up, Mom Crew.  If you can’t get your kids to take their allergy meds, it’s your job to figure it out.  If I can put on gloves to mix toxic chemotherapy in ICE CREAM to make it more palatable to my terminally ill daughter, you can find a strategy to give your child allergy medicine that doesn’t have a licensed character on it.

So I’ve already established that I can be self-righteous.  May as well get indignant here too, right?  Embrace my flaws.  Hell, I got nothing to lose.

Big Pharma has produced one pediatric oncology drug in twenty years.  One. ONE.  Most pharma companies don’t invest in research for children’s ailments, including cancer, because the numbers simply aren’t there.  There is no profit in sick kids as there are simply not enough of them.  But there is profit in over the counter drugs, and if slapping licensed cartoon characters on medicine can increase that profit, by all means, they will.

Will the kids start confusing medicine for sweet treats?  Meh, Merck will leave that for the Mom Crew to figure out.  And with all those free product samples and DVDs, the mommy bloggers are happy to accommodate them. Pretty cheap freaking price to pay for marketing, I’d say.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t sell my kid’s well being for some DVDs and product samples to make more of a profit for Merck.  My kid deserves better than that.  And so does yours.

Rant over.

Correction:  I had originally stated that only one cancer drug specific to children had been developed in thirty years.  It is twenty years.  I apologize for the mistake.

23 Replies to “Merck: Using Moms and Madagascar to Market to Kids”

  1. I disagree, I don’t enjoy med time and this is one perk for my kid. He will get a kick out of it. Children’s vitamins use characters, those work for me, too. Since Claritin is available generically, you will pay more for the brand name, so you may as well benefit from the premium cost.


  2. Hmm, MTM, I don’t think AmyH really read your article. Her argument seems vastly underwhelming, especially in comparison to your well thought out, well spelled out points. Personally, all you had to say to me was “Big Pharma has produced one pediatric oncology drug in the thirty years.”. If that isn’t enough to get AmyH fired up, I can’t imagine what it would take. I can’t say that I always agree with you, MTM, (okay, most of the time I do) but mention drugs and kids in the same sentence and I got your back. 🙂


    1. You don’t always agree with me? What? Well, neither does Mary Tyler Dad, so we’re good. Yes, I am not a fan of the lack of R&D for children in pharmaceuticals. Thanks for reading and commenting. MTM.


  3. I am absolutely outraged to hear about these – yes, I’ll tell it like it is – drug-pushing parties for children. Big pharma will do what it can get away with, legally, to make its billions. It is up to us to refuse to be accessories to their profits, particularly when the end message to our children is “medicine is fun.” That is such a safety-compromising end result, I shudder to think of the consequences.

    I have enough of a problem with the flavors…my son’s eyes light up when he sees the cherry and grape and other attractive decorations on bottles of what he at this point considers to be his favorite “candy” – children’s tylenol or motrin. The endless discussions of how this is medicine and is to be taken after much thought and only when he is really sick or it will make him more sick are to no avail. My son, like yours, will pretend to be sick in the hopes that his Mama will have a wisdom-less moment and give him a swig. Makes me wish for the days when I was young and my mother would sweeten up the medicines with a bit of honey to make them more bearable for ingestion – yes, bearable, not “wow-this-is-the-best-treat-ever-and-I’d-like-it-by-the-bottleful-please” desirable.

    And your point about it being the parents’ domain to find ways to impart both the medicine and the message behind it….absolutely, no way would I let big pharma or any drug manufacturer tell me how I should package something so critical to my child’s well-being.


  4. Let me start by saying my son likes the taste of children’s claritin and thinks it is a vitamin. However, if Merck argued they were trying to promote compliance and helping kids take the medicine – that is understandable. I do not agree with adding characters to get my kid to ask for claritin rather than the generic as he does with cereal boxes. In addition, the “promotion party” is slimy and if I was the mommy bloggers involved I would be ashamed – however, Big Pharma promotes all their drugs to the prescribers (MD’s) in this manner all the time – it is the mom’s that need to do the right thing.

    On the other hand, Big Pharma is out to make money any way possible and I think it is unfair to compare children’s cancer drugs and OTC allergy meds. Why not compare chemotherapeutics with cholesterol lowering drugs, arthiritis drugs or impotence drugs? Big Pharma like drugs people need to take for the rest of their life, and unless R&D becomes less expensive that is the way it is going to stay. This is unfortunate for those suffering from diseases with a short or no-drug pipeline… but I think it is a reach to bash OTC marketing by stating how many new children’s chemotheraputic drugs are available.

    I understand your passion but I think this time it misses the mark.


    1. Hi, Sharon. Thanks for reading.

      In response to your comment, I don’t think I am comparing so much as stating a fact. And labeling that fact as biased, given my experience in the pediatric cancer community. The reality is that Merck has $ to pay for licensing these characters, and let me tell you that licensing involves BIG bucks. The only possible reason to utilize those characters is to appeal to the children, especially when you see the comment directly below yours, from a Mom Crew member who states that the packaging is completely separate from the meds. What is the point then? To get to the kids.

      The larger truth is that they would rather spend $ on getting new customers and hooking them young than on developing drugs that would result in longer lives for those customers.

      Apples and oranges, you say, and I cannot disagree. I am simply going to seek my produce elsewhere. Thanks for reading. MTM.


      1. You make a good point about the high liscensing fee which could be better spent elsewhere. I did not think of that. If they used those fees for a sponsored research grant to a cancer research lab or even an allergy lab for that matter – the money would be better spent.

        Glad I switched to OTC Allegra…LOL.


  5. As a Claritin Mom Crew member, I would like to say that we did not, in any way, have a party that revolved around medicine. We did however have a few friends over to watch a funny childrens movie with us. The instructions to us were to invite 5 moms over with their children who suffer from allergies. While the children watched the movie and played fun circus themed games, the moms chatted about allergies and what we do to help our children.

    Claritin chose the members for the mom crew based on consumers that were already loyal to Claritin. The mom crew has provided me with invaluable tips and friendships with moms that are experiencing the same problems I am.

    As far as the packaging goes, Childrens Claritin did not change the actual package. The Madagascar part isn’t part of the actual box. When you open the outer package, the two separate. That way, the kids can have the stickers and the parents can put the box of medicine (that has no cartoon on it) out of reach of the children.

    I am not saying that I whole-heartedly agree with Claritin using cartoon characters. That is the reality of the situation though. They are a business trying to make money.


    1. Rachel, I am so grateful for your comment, as it sheds a lot of information on the actual process behind the parties Merck encouraged.

      Your information, though, just raises more questions and concerns for me. So all you got out of this was some free samples and DVDs. I guess I wonder why the Mom Crew members would be willing to work for Merck for that kind of pay. What you are providing them — an avenue to other parents with kids with allergies is worth a hell of a lot more than DVDs, samples, tips, and friendships. Do you know how much Merck pays its drug reps? ENORMOUS sums of money. Piles and piles of it.

      And if the Madagascar packaging is totally separate from the meds themselves, then what is the point at all for their presence? You can get Madagascar stickers for your children in the sticker aisle, not the med aisle.

      I went to the Target today to actually see the packaging and it was right at sight line of a kid sitting in a cart. Right there. There is absolutely no need for it.

      I honestly do not get what is in it for you or the other Mom Crew members. They are using you to further their profit. Nothing else. You are extremely cheap sales reps for them. I believe you are worth more than that.

      Thanks again for your insights. MTM.


      1. Sorry, but I totally forgot to respond to your last comment. You seem to be excusing the behavior of Merck because they are a business trying to make profit, “that is the reality.” Well, I question and reject that reality. I ask questions about a pharmaceutical company, making massive profits, though admittedly not what they used to be, and now seemingly targeting children in its packaging. You, yourself, question the use of cartoon characters. Listen to that voice inside you, because what Merck is doing is wrong and they are using you to do it. MTM.


      2. With word of mouth marketing, many business’ are turning to bloggers for advertising. I would never put a price on the friendships that I have made throughout this process. Also, the amazing advice that these moms who are going through the same things I am are priceless. It is nice to get free samples too, but that is not why I signed up for the opportunity. To discuss allergies, parenting, and many other topics with like minded mothers is the main reason I joined the mom crew.
        As far as the stickers and product placement go, like I said in my original post, Claritin is a buisness trying to make money, what more can we expect? Should they hide their product where parents can’t find it? Most of the time I am watching my child when we are walking through the store so my eyes are at their level as well.
        I hate to seem like I am “sticking up” for Claritin because I definitly have major issues with big pharma as well. My point is, I guess, that Claritin along with all of the other big pharma companies are trying to make a profit. The main reason I commented at all is because I want people to know that mom crew members who hosted a party didn’t have a “drug pushing party.” That is just rediculous!


      3. “What more can we expect?” As a lawyer who represents pharmaceutical companies, I can tell you – much more, much more. It really is possible to survive on a profit of one billion dollars instead of two – why not forfeit the extra one billion you are getting by selling the whole “Madagascar 3” deal? Focus on the merits of the drug as a therapeutic (Lord knows I am always looking for effective, safe options for my allergic son), not the “Hey, with my medication, you get Madagascar 3 stickers! Yippee!!”

        The drug companies are making a huge profit even without the cartoon characters, trust me. It is unfortunate but true that, however naively, you become accessory drug-pushers who only boost those profits.


      4. Just to clarify — the words you use, “drug pushing party” are yours, not mine. I just don’t want folks to be confused.

        Thank you for presenting your alternate POV, Rachel, I really do appreciate it and believe it has added greatly to this conversation. It works for you, clearly, and you are getting something out of it less tangible than $, but more valuable to you.

        All my best to you and your family. MTM.


      5. Yes, actually, it was I and not MTM who used the term. I believe everyone who hosts these parties becomes an unwitting (and I do sincerely mean unwitting) accessory to drug pushing. I am curious how big pharma manages to show that they have met the legal criteria of ensuring that adequate medically relevant information is being provided and/or exchanged at these “viewing” parties. What authority does a mom blogger have to talk about the medical merits of using Claritin? (some may have the professional qualifications to do so but most, like me, don’t).


      6. The Claritin Mom’s Crew members are provided with free products to use for their families. Saving HUNDREDS of dollars on allergy medications, is well worth the time I put in to telling other mom’s the benefits of Claritin, which I would be doing anyway because it’s a product I really believe in.


  6. The reality of this situation is that Big Pharma is willing to put thousands upon thousands of dollars into marketing a drug that in all likely hood will sell anyway, it is a tried and true product. The reality of this situation is that Big Pharma is not willing to put money into the research needed to actually save lives. How about that marketing money being used for research? A child suffering from cancer has far more to lose, as in their lives, than does an adult suffering from high cholesterol or my son with with allergies. I for one am not willing to accept that this is the reality of the situation. After you’ve watched your child die from cancer, you wouldn’t be willing to accept it either. At some point it has to be more than about the money.

    MTM you ROCK!


    1. Yes, Deb. I fear you and I and every other Cancer Parent out there are just seeing this through a completely different lens that makes the money question crystal clear and the reality argument paper thin.

      Let’s just both keep on keeping on, shall we? I so appreciate your awareness. Thank you. MTM.


      1. I don’t even think its just limited to Cancerville parents. I think any parent who must watch their child suffer from an illness for which their is no medication to help likely would agree. My 4 year old daughter suffers from 2 disorders which have no cure, and research is grossly under-funded. While she is not likely to die from either of them, she does, and will continue to suffer from them until more research is done. What I wouldn’t do for a sliver of their profit to go towards research to help my child, instead of lining their already fat pockets. I have major issues with so many facets of big pharm, that this story was just the icing on the cake.


      2. Amy you are right! Any rare disease,especially with our kiddos receives little attention or funding. I am sorry for your daughter’s suffering and hope for only the best!


  7. How far distant are these Claritin Crew Mom parties from “pharm parties,” where teenage kids grab all their parents’ prescription drugs, throw them in bowls, and take random handfulls? I’m not saying they are the same; I merely raise the question because of messages sent by making medicine the basis for entertainment.

    I don’t mean to sound like a paranoid alarmist fool, but please, someone from Claritin marketing, tell me *what* you are thinking. MTM, thank you for bringing this issue to light. The lack of funding for oncology meds is obscene given what the big bucks are actually spent on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.