“One pill. Twenty-four hours. Zero heartburn,” proclaimed the launch advertising blitz for Prilosec OTC, Procter & Gamble’s former prescription-only drug, now delisted for across-the counter purchase by consumers.

One pill? Not so, say rivals Johnson & Johnson and Merck Pharmaceuticals, who jointly market competing brand Pepcid. “Prilosec OTC treats heartburn with 14 pills – not one,” charge the duo in a joint filing against P&G – the globe’s largest advertiser – in a New York District Court.

The complainants, alleging false advertising, refer to Prilosec OTC’s labelling which states it “is to is to be used once a day [every 24 hours], every day for 14 days … This drug may take 1 to 4 days for full effect.”

J&J-Merck argue that P&G’s advertising is misleading, creating an impression that consumers can take the pill for intermittent bouts of heartburn. The advertising doesn't stress the 14-day required treatment, the lawsuit says.

Hands aloft in pious indignation, P&G denies the allegation. Every ad in its $100 million campaign [WAMN: 22-Aug-03], it insists, tells consumers to “use as directed for 14 days.”

J&J-Merck also take exception to P&G’s strapline which, they aver, is mighty close to their own claim: “Just one and heartburn's done.”

P&G produce Prilosec OTC – regarded as a potential blockbuster medicine – under licence from British pharma company AstraZeneca.

After prolonged discussions with the US Federal Drug Agency, approval was given to market Prilosec direct to consumers after P&G convinced the FDA it would ensure consumers understood how to take the drug without a doctor’s supervision.

According to the lawsuit, aggrieved rival Pepcid currently holds about 16% of a $1 billion market for nonprescription heartburn remedies.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff