June 21, 2012 -- The drug company Merck is in hot water for using cartoon characters and stickers to market grape-flavored children's allergy medicine.
A complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission says packages of Children's Claritin that boast characters from the movie "Madagascar 3" and five free movie stickers unfairly market over-the-counter drugs to kids and create "a very real danger of product confusion" with Madagascar-themed fruit-flavored candy and gummy snacks.
"Before this trade practice becomes widespread, the FTC must send a clear message that child-directed marketing of OTC drugs is unfair and deceptive and violates longstanding FTC precedent," the Boston-based Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University wrote in the complaint.
The group, backed by 10 other public health and media advocates, argues that FTC rules that prohibit companies from marketing vitamins to kids logically extend to over-the-counter drugs.
"The commission clearly stated that 'children are unqualified by age or experience to decide for themselves whether or not they need or should use vitamin supplements in general or an advertised brand in particular,'" the institute wrote in the complaint. "Adult caregivers are the appropriate audience for information about such products."
The complaint also accused Merck of using social media to market Claritin to kids by offering "Madagascar" activity guides and games through a Facebook page and enlisting a Children's Claritin Mom Crew to blog about movie-viewing parties ripe with coupons and free samples for the allergy medicine.
"Photographs posted on Mom Crew member blogs show tables with children's food and product samples of Children's Claritin Grape-Flavored Chewable tablets, party favors that mixed toys, stickers and other favors with Children's Claritin samples, and children holding Claritin product samples," the complaint reads.
Cara Wilking, the Public Health Advocacy Institute attorney who wrote the complaint, said Merck is making a drug look like food, noting that Airheads and General Mills market candy and fruit snacks using the same cartoon characters.
"I think this kind of marketing presents a substantial risk of injury to children," she said. "A drug to be only used when a child is sick should not look like a food product."
The "Madagascar" marketing is only on the outer box of Children's Claritin, not the drug container itself, Wilking noted.
Merck spokeswoman Kelley Dougherty said the company is currently reviewing the complaint, but emphasized that it advertises "in appropriate venues to reach the parents of children, and not children themselves."