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March 14, 2005

Pill Gets Rave Reviews

Aleve's movie-style ads quote health reporters like they're movie critics—and misquote one of them badly.

Carl Bialik

Aleve's ads have gone Hollywood.

Much like movie ads that quote favorable lines from reviews, TV spots for the Bayer painkiller—as well as the pill's official site—excerpt articles about the Food and Drug Administration's recent hearings on the safety of painkillers.

Movie ads are notorious for finding gold in crappy reviews. (eHow, in a humorous guide to critics' movie ad blurbs, advises, "Be skeptical of critics' comments that are surrounded by ellipses (three dots). A word such as 'spectacular' with three dots on both sides could be lifted from a sentence such as 'This film is a slick, silly, spectacular flop.' ") But in ads about potentially fatal drug side effects, more is at stake than a $10 ticket and a couple of hours.

For the most part, Bayer HealthCare's consumer care division is above-board in the Aleve ads; there's no need for out-of-context quotes, as by all accounts the FDA panel was gushing in its positive outlook about naproxen, the generic name for Aleve. But Bayer's ad team couldn't help itself, stretching one quote outside its original meaning.

The ads accurately cite a New York Times article ("Several panel members said that patients in need of pain relief should first try naproxen, sold as Aleve ... Panel members largely concluded that naproxen was the safest pain killer") and an NBC News report ("... the panel said that heart concerns about naproxen, sold as Aleve, were almost certainly a false alarm").

But the third quote, from Dow Jones Newswires, is misleading: "... naproxen is probably one of the safer pain medications on the market." Bayer makes it look on its site like these words come directly from Dow Jones, as if the news service is recommending Bayer's drug. But here's the actual sentence from the DJN article: The FDA panel's chairman, Alastair J.J. Wood of Vanderbilt University, "also said he believed naproxen is probably one of the safer pain medications on the market." Just as eHow warns, that opening ellipsis is a telltale sign that something is amiss. DJN isn't advising its pained readers to take Aleve; it's quoting someone else who's saying so. That's not at all clear from the ad copy.

Regulators aren't likely to tell Bayer to change the ad. Even though the ad references media reports about FDA hearings, the agency regulates only prescription drugs, not over-the-counter pills, and a spokeswoman confirmed to Gelf that the ad is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission. For over-the-counter-drug ads, "The standard for what can be said is much, much lower," Larry Sasich, of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, told Gelf.

Again, it's worth emphasizing that the panel largely concluded naproxen is safe, despite previously reported alarming studies (HealthDay News has the details). Had Bayer's ad folks wanted, they could have instead quoted the Los Angeles Times ("the committee largely absolved naproxen—the active ingredient in Aleve—a drug whose safety has been questioned") or the Boston Globe ("The panel also looked at over-the-counter painkillers that have been on the market for years. The FDA should tailor warnings with the individualized risk posed by each of the older painkillers, advisers decided. But naproxen, found to be neutral or beneficial to the heart, should be free of such warnings, many on the panel said.")

But instead, the ad misleads. Bill O'Donnell, a Bayer spokesman, told Gelf on Friday that the text above the media excerpts makes it clear the reports are about FDA hearings: "Reports are out from the FDA Advisory Committee meeting about naproxen, the active ingredient in Aleve." Yet the quote itself comes from an interview with just one panelist. Mr. O'Donnell added, "All Bayer ads undergo comprehensive regulatory review by the legal and medical departments. ... We're always reviewing our ads."

Perhaps Bayer will give the ad a closer look when it hears from Dow Jones. A spokesman for the business-news company (for which I used to work, and continue to write for as a freelancer) told Gelf on Monday evening, "We alerted Aleve to this and we've pointed out the error and asked that it be fixed."

More broadly, let's hope media blurbs don't become a fixture of drug ads, alongside the cheery music and images of happy pill-poppers. I'll give the closing line to another quote from the New York Times article that didn't make the Aleve ad:

''It's hard in the media to boil these issues down to a sound bite,'' said Dr. John Jenkins, director of the Office of New Drugs at the Food and Drug Administration. ''There are a lot of issues. We have to find the right balance between the desire and need for new products and the desire to limit the risk for those products. I think you saw the committee struggle with trying to find that balance as well.''

UPDATE, 3/18: As I noted above, when alerted by Gelf Magazine about the ad, Dow Jones asked Bayer to change it. According to a Dow Jones spokesman, Bayer agreed to revise the ad "to make clear that the quote is not a conclusion reached by Dow Jones Newswires." By Friday, the change had been made on Aleve.com; the quote now reads:

The committee Chair said: "... naproxen is probably one of the safer pain medications on the market."

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Comments

- Ad Watch
- posted on Mar 13, 09
Gail Fitkall

I have nothing but positive comments about Aleve, I have arthritus and Fibramyalgia and had been in such pain with the above and also carpal tunnel and Bursitis going to the Dr sometimes twic a week with the pain and taking differents meds prescriptions, I was truly at a bad time in my life and thinking I would never get better. I had seen Aleve advertised so I thought I would try it. And I have had such relief from pain and also my carpal tunnel completly cleared up without surgery, which was going to happen within about 3 weeks, with the Aleve it was just such a complete feeling of feeling so much better. I have recommended Alvev to thers, and they too have found relief.

Thanks Aleve.
P.S. why is Aleve not sold in Canada?


Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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