"Ultimately," says Robert Passikoff, president of the consultancy Brand Keys, "the problem is that it's touching on emotional terror, [which is] 'Well, they told me this was good and it's not. Now they're telling me this other thing is good, how can I trust them?' "
Zetia and Vytorin, which is a combination pill of Zetia and the generic drug Zocor, are prescribed 100,000 times a day and account for annual sales of $5 billion, according to published reports. Merck and Schering split the profits from the medicines equally, and the drugs have been growth engines, with sales up 25% in the most recent quarter over the same period last year.
According to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, in 2006 the companies spent $136.3 million to advertise Vytorin and $115 million from January to October of 2007.
The company did not respond to questions about the continuation of the well-remembered ads for Vytorin.
Last June, IAG Research, a firm that measures the effectiveness of TV ads, said the Vytorin ads were tied with Crestor, another cholesterol fighting medicine, for fifth among the most-remembered prescription drug ads.
"They're in big trouble," says Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, an Atlanta-based brand consultancy. "The advantage of being the main brand of drugs is that they work better and they back it with millions upon millions of advertising dollars. I thought the ads for Vytorin were terrific."
"I would pull the ads immediately--it would just rub salt in a wound when people read these articles [Tuesday] and over the next few days. It's a hot story and you don't want them laughing at the ads."
Researchers found that even though Vytorin dramatically reduced bad-cholesterol levels, it did not slow the growth of artery blockages more than generic Zocor.
Three bigger studies are underway that will test whether Vytorin can prevent heart attacks, strokes and other events in thousands of patients. The results from those studies won't be released until 2011.
Passikoff predicted a domino effect because of this fiasco as well as other recent glitches among pharma products.
"All of the expectations are chewed up," he says, "making it harder for any brand to compete in the category. In most categories, the efficacy and the safety are almost always the first two drivers."