Public health group files FTC complaint about Merck's 'Madagascar 3' marketing

Public Health Advocacy Institute cited this product tie-in in its complaint to federal regulators.

Merck is now atop the pharmaceutical most-wanted list of at least one public advocacy group.

The Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston, joined by 10 other organizations, complained in a letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission that Merck should not be allowed to use characters from the children's movie "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," to promote its children's allergy medicine.

Merck licensed the images from Dreamworks Animation, which produced the movie, and is using them to market Grape-Flavored Chewable Children’s Claritin and grape-flavored syrup, both of which are available as over-the-counter products.

"This campaign is in violation of longstanding FTC precedent to protect children from child-directed marketing of OTC supplements and, by extension, OTC drugs," PHAI attorney Cara Wilking wrote in the letter. "Dreamworks licensed its Madagascar characters for use on a number of children’s food products including General Mills’ fruit-flavored gummy snacks and fruit-flavored Airheads candy. The use of the same licensed characters on fruit-flavored OTC allergy medication, children’s candy and children’s gummy snacks creates a very real danger of product confusion and may induce children to over-consume Grape-Flavored Children’s Claritin allergy medication."

Merck is based in Whitehouse Station, N.J. and has several facilities in the Philadelphia area. Though products might be sold there, the Merck web site does not indicate that it has a facility in Madagascar.

PHAI did not like that Merck’s marketing campaign uses customized packaging with free stickers of movie characters, has mail-in movie ticket voucher promotions in retail drug stores such as Walgreen and encourages its “Children’s Claritin Mom Crew” members to create social media buzz. According to PHAI, 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.

The other groups on the letter were Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, ChangeLab Solutions (formerly Public Health Law & Policy), Corporate Accountability International, Eat Drink Politics, Public Citizen, The Public Good Law Center, Public Health Institute and the Prevention Institute.

Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty said in an email that the company is reviewing the complaint.

"We advertise in appropriate venues to reach those parents of children who may benefit from the use of children's Claritin, not to the children themselves," Dougherty said.

A link to letter sent to the FTC is here.