During the months leading up to the first Vioxx trial this summer, Merck doubled the amount of advertising money spent to promote its bruised corporate image.

From January through June, just a few weeks before a closely watched trial began in Texas, Merck spent $8.9 million on image ads, up from $4.6 million during all of last year, according to TNS Media Intelligence, a market-research firm.

The onset of the multimedia campaign, which is called “Putting Patients First” and continues to run on television and in magazines nationwide, followed Merck’s withdrawal last fall of its popular painkiller Vioxx over links to heart attacks and strokes.

The withdrawal came amid mounting consumer anxiety over the safety of prescription medicines. Since then, about 5,000 lawsuits have been filed against the Whitehouse Station-based drugmaker in state and federal courts, including some 2,400 in New Jersey.

A Merck spokeswoman, Amy Rose, said the ad blitz wasn’t designed or scheduled in response to legal problems, and in fact was conceived two years ago. She said the ads were submitted for regulatory review in July 2004, two months before Vioxx was pulled.

“The decisions made about the advertising were made long ago and without any regard to the legal proceedings,” said Rose, who added the ads are expected to run through the end of the year. “The advertising has no bearing on the litigation, and vice versa.”

The advertising campaign was still running earlier this month when Merck asked a state Superior Court judge to ban video equipment in her Atlantic City courtroom, where the first Vioxx trial in New Jersey got under way last week.

In explaining its request, which the judge later denied, Merck wrote in a legal filing that broadcast coverage of the trial may “imperil” the company’s ability to find a “fair and impartial jury” to try the Vioxx cases in New Jersey or elsewhere.

The company also cited negative publicity about the Texas trial as it unsuccessfully sought a delay in the Atlantic City case. In August, a Texas jury awarded a woman $253.4 million after finding Vioxx caused her husband’s death, which made national headlines.

Lawyers involved in the Vioxx litigation criticized Merck’s advertising campaign, saying the timing could influence jurors. They also accused Merck of being disingenuous about trying to ban video cameras from the Atlantic City courtroom.

The ad campaign “is a game drug companies have played in other cases in hopes of influencing jurors and their families,” said Stephen Sheller, a Philadelphia attorney whose law firm has filed numerous lawsuits against Merck concerning Vioxx.

Said Chris Placitella, another attorney involved in Vioxx lawsuits in New Jersey: “Apparently, they think it’s okay for jurors to see the commercials, but not the trial. Unfortunately, the plaintiffs don’t have the resources to pitch their image on television to a jury pool.”

Some media experts questioned whether the image ads will help Merck, which spent nearly $24 million on all forms of advertising last year. As they see it, such advertising mostly preaches to the converted, but won’t win over consumers as do ads for specific drugs.

“It won’t change anyone’s mind,” said Laura Ries, a corporate image and branding expert. “The ads are way too self-serving. The easiest thing for a company suffering from the we-need-to-do-something syndrome is to buy ad time. But it’s money down the drain.”

One industry insider agreed. Bob Ehrlich, a former Warner-Lambert marketing executive who publishes DTC, a magazine devoted to pharmaceutical advertising, said: “The best way to tell people you have safe drugs is to make safe drugs. It’s all in the proof.”

The ads were prepared by Ogilvy & Mather, a large ad agency whose chief executive, Shelly Lazarus, joined Merck’s board last year.

At the time, the move prompted criticism from corporate governance experts, because the agency also designs ads for Merck’s Zocor cholesterol pill.

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