It should have been the hottest drug in decades. Headlines had been heralding the development of Upjohn's anti-baldness drug minoxidil (Rogaine) for years, long before its approval last August.
Millions of men with thinning hair were expected to spend $200 million this year to reverse hair loss. Instead, the Wall Street Journal proclaims the bald truth about Rogaine: So far, it's a flop.
According to analysts, Rogaine is underperforming its potential by at least $150 million even though the company maintains the product is doing OK. All the same, Upjohn is planning a marketing push, complete with direct-to-consumer advertising and rebates. It will even pay men $10 to consult a doctor about male pattern baldness.
Part of the problem is that the drug does not work for everyone. In fact, many people who try minoxidil for hair growth will be disappointed.
Although 30 to 40 percent will see cosmetically acceptable improvement, that leaves almost two-thirds of those trying the drug disillusioned. And men with the most stake in minoxidil -- those with a billiard-ball look -- appear to benefit least.
Another drawback to the drug is its price. A month's supply will run around $50. That doesn't count the visit to the doctor to get a prescription. Then there's the wait. Several months will pass before much progress can be seen.
A man in his early 30s beginning to experience hair loss might well benefit from Rogaine Topical Solution, but he'd have to shell out about $600 a year for the drug.
If he were to stop using minoxidil, most of his investment would go down the drain. Hair grown under the influence of this medication tends to fall out when applications are discontinued.
Given these handicaps, it's not surprising that some pharmacists report that Rogaine Topical Solution is moving slowly. It remains to be seen whether Upjohn's more aggressive media campaign will stimulate greater interest.
Few prescription drugs are advertised directly to patients. The manufacturers concentrate instead on convincing doctors that their product is the best treatment for a given disease. But as physicians don't usually treat baldness, Upjohn has tried to get the word out via low-key television and print ads suggesting that balding men should see their doctors.
The new campaign will be more hard-hitting, offering a toll-free number referring people to a physician in their area.
Scientists at Upjohn are busy in their labs trying to figure out how Rogaine Topical Solution works. If they can improve the effectiveness of their anti-baldness product, they may do more to boost sales than any media blitz the public relations department dreams up.