OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

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,

BUY-er.



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

emergency".



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.



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