It's an advertiser's dream: your brand, hitherto unknown to 99.9
per cent of the general population, suddenly becomes a household word,
so much in demand that consumers clamour for it like children for
ice-cream in summertime. The anchorman of one of the three national
network TV nightly newscasts holds up a package to the camera and
praises it by replacing "God" with your brand name in the American
motto: "In God we trust."
Almost immediately thereafter, though, the era of good feelings comes to
an abrupt end. Your brand is derided, even castigated, as your company
is branded an unpatriotic profiteer. Congress seeks to break your patent
on the product, of all things, and you're forced to lower the price by
almost 50 per cent. Where's a good spin doctor when you need one?
As you have undoubtedly guessed, the brand in question is Cipro, the
antibiotic used to treat anthrax that is made and marketed by Bayer AG,
the German pharmaceutical giant. Although Bayer has been a familiar
trust mark to American consumers for decades, the hysteria generated by
the continual scares over mail laced with the anthrax infection has led
to a witch hunt, 21st century-style, centred on a peculiar question -
not "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist
Party?", as was asked five decades ago, but "Are you now or have you
ever been someone who sent a powdered substance in the mail?".
Poor Bayer, if a multibillion-dollar, multinational conglomerate can be
pitied. Cipro may not be better than other drugs to treat anthrax, but
it happens to be the only branded drug whose label states specifically
that it is effective for treating the pulmonary form of the disease.
That looked like a unique selling proposition, as the old Ted Bates
agency would have proclaimed, until the rapidly increasing number of
cases up and down the Eastern Seaboard transformed Cipro from a branded
product to be chosen by consumers exercising their free-market
discretionary rights to the equivalent of a public necessity to be
commandeered by a government worried that brand identity and profit
margin were luxuries not easily affordable in wartime.
It didn't help that Bayer has been about as successful in figuring out
the American market as, say, an American brewer has been in selling its
watery beer to the patrons of German rathskellars. Bayer lost the rights
to its Aspirin trademark after World War I, regaining that invaluable
property only in 1995. As has been pointed out, Americans still don't
even know how to pronounce the corporate name, rendering it as BAY-er,
as in Chesapeake Bay, rather than the preferred European pronunciation,
Appropriately enough, Bayer can't seem to bay, or buy, a break, as
increasing resentment among American consumers over the high prices for
prescription drugs collided with the unexpected urgent need for Cipro.
After years of upholding drug companies' rights to sell patented
products to treat AIDS and other scourges at higher prices than generic
equivalents, Bayer was demonised and threatened with a federal push to
break its patent to Cipro unless it substantially reduced prescription
prices. The company caved in, ostensibly in response to "a national
Make no mistake: today Cipro, tomorrow Crisco, or Citgo, or even
Coca-Cola. Maybe Bayer can protect its profit margins by bringing out an
upscale, designer version of the drug, still called Cipro but pronounced
CHIP-ro, as in Harry Cipriani.