September, 1996


Selling RU-486 is a delicate and risky venture

It is a legendary pill, miraculous to those who want it, murderous to those who hate it. Mifepristone, or more infamously the abortion pill, was introduced in France eight years ago. Ever since, a debate has raged between abortion foes and abortion-rights advocates about whether to bring it to the United States.

That debate ended last week, when the Food and Drug Administration announced it would approve mifepristone, also known as RU-486. By mid-1997, the abortion pill will be a reality in the American marketplace.

Stealth company. But how does a company go about promoting an item guaranteed to offend the most profound moral convictions of a substantial wedge of the American public? That is the question for one nameless company--and it may well be one of the thorniest challenges in modern marketing history.

For now, the strategy is secrecy. The Population Council, a family-planning research group sponsoring the drug at the FDA, will not even reveal the name of the company to which it has sold the rights--worth $28 million--to market the pill. Even the most promising customers of the drug--private clinics that perform 90 percent of abortions--may not peek behind the veil of anonymity, a situation more evocative of black-market arms dealing than the pharmaceuticals industry. The National Coalition of Abortion Providers will hold a conference October 19 to 21 to discuss mifepristone, but the conference syllabus is not allowed to refer to the company by name. "I have to call the speaker the mifepristone person," says Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the organization.

The insistence on secrecy is understandable. Since 1990, over a thousand acts of violence against clinics have occurred. On top of worries about physical violence come fears of financial loss. What company wants to be associated with a product designated by the Pro-Life Activist's Encyclopedia as "the chemical coathanger"? Antiabortion forces have already won enough battles over the pill to give pause to any marketing executive. In 1989, the Bush administration banned imports of RU-486 (the initials stand for Roussel Uclaf, the French manufacturer). That ban was overturned by the Clinton administration. Even so, the American subsidiary of the pill's manufacturer, Hoechst Marion Roussel, was intimidated enough to donate the licensing rights for mifepristone to the Population Council in 1994. "By donating the rights," explains Charles Rouse, a spokesman for the company, "we could be free and clean without any ties to it."

The marketing of the pill will be aimed at physicians rather than consumers--which only makes sense given that mifepristone will have to be administered by doctors. There will be no advertising, no real hard sell of the drug. Instead, the company wants to expand options for women, so that more doctors are willing to do abortions.

The strategy is shrewd. It implies the abortion pill won't be marketed at all. The company would like to be known as an information provider, as a bearer of medical alternatives, not as an entity with a profit margin. To the extent possible, it would like to be seen as something akin to a charity.

From a business standpoint, it's not clear how lucrative mifepristone will be. One estimate of the potential market is $100 million--not very big given the size of the controversy. The procedure takes time, and 5 percent of the women who undergo the procedure must have surgical abortions anyway. Some abortion providers also believe physicians will wait on the sidelines for a time to monitor the demand--and perhaps the backlash.