E(rectile) D(ysfunction) TV


Since the FDA's approval of Cialis and Levitra in 2003, television has become clogged with ads for ED (erectile dysfunction) drugs. In opposition to the "We are the Champions" Viagra ad that uses the Queen song to celebrate that triumphant feeling of getting free Viagra with every seventh prescription refill, the Cialis ad asks men the worrying question, "If a relaxing moment turns into the right moment, will you be ready?" Levitra's launch campaign included a partnership with the NFL and tried to entice men away from Viagra with a sex-as-sport pitch. This approach failed miserably, illustrating the difficulties of selling new ED drugs in the wake of Viagra's overwhelming market lead. Although Cialis and Levitra have been on the market for almost a year, Viagra still retains 75 percent of the $2 billion ED drug market, Cialis has managed to capture 14 percent and Levitra 11 percent.

After it received FDA approval in March 1998, Viagra had five straight years of being the only clinically tested ED medication available and immediately cornered the world market. Having no other similar products from which to differentiate itself, apart from a few herbal remedies of the "Horny Goat Weed" variety, Viagra didn't need to create an image for itself. Viagra's original advertising consisted of endorsements from spokesmen like Bob Dole; older respected men who basically said, "It's here. It works." Enthusiastic reviews from Hugh Hefner and other aging playboy types didn't hurt, either. Soon, Viagra was being used by all sorts of people, many of whom didn't even suffer from ED. Several years later, Viagra is so sure of its universal recognition and consumer brand-loyalty that it can joke about the high price of Viagra, while surreptitiously gloating over its market supremacy in the "We are the Champions" ad.

Viagra's advertising campaigns were never the key to its success, however. Because of its unique clinical function, Viagra became an immediate cultural point for all issues relating to virility, male sexuality, and aging, and through this continual popular referencing, much more than the effects of its $100 million advertising budget, Viagra has achieved a level of brand recognition that is reserved only for superstar drugs like Tylenol and Prozac. Five years later, Viagra continues to be a constant source of office jokes and comments for late night talk show hosts. More than simply spreading the word on what Viagra is, the enormous street and media buzz that Viagra has inspired over the last five years has established Viagra's image overwhelmingly in terms of power and efficacy as the remedy for impotence.

A popular Viagra email tells the story of an office team-building exercise in which the staff is encouraged to brainstorm 10 Viagra slogans. This type of joke is typical, in that it limits the discussion of Viagra to purely positive expressions. The slogans are: 10. Viagra – It's Whazzzzup! 9. Viagra, the quicker member upper. 8. Viagra, Like a rock! 7. Viagra, When it absolutely, positively has to be there tonight. 6. Viagra, Be all that you can be. 5. Viagra, Reach out and touch someone. 4. Viagra, Strong enough for a woman, but made for a man. 3. Viagra, Tastes great! More filling! 2. Viagra, We bring good things to life. 1. This is your penis. This is your penis on drugs. Of the hundreds of Viagra jokes on the Internet (Several crates of Viagra were stolen today. Police are looking for a hardened criminal), none raise questions about Viagra's effectiveness or even refer to impotence except in the most oblique terms. The key to Viagra's importance in popular culture is partly that it allows a topic that is excruciatingly embarrassing for many men to be broached in a positive and even celebratory way. In Viagra jokes, failure to achieve an erection is mentioned, but only in terms of its opposite: success and rock-hard tumescence.

Viagra's reputation makes marketing Johnny-Come-Lately competitors like Cialis and Levitra an unusually tough challenge. As Robert Krell, president of pharmaceutical advertising company Krell Advertising says, "It's a monumental task for a new drug to take the lead away from the first drug to market". This is especially true in the case of Viagra. Since Viagra is already a potent and unfailing remedy for impotence in the popular imagination, alternative drugs are fighting an uphill battle against their own apparent redundancy. Why reinvent the wheel? A significant dimension of the marketing challenge that faces the makers of Cialis and Levitra is that they must re-establish the problem of impotence – a problem that many consumers see as already having been solved by Viagra – in order to offer their products as a cure. Impotence, however, is such an unpopular topic, that it is almost impossible for advertisers to refer to it without alienating the very consumer base they are trying to reach.

The most high-profile Levitra ad to date tried to present erectile dysfunction in a sporting analogy. An aging jock fails to toss his football through the center of a tire swing. "Sometimes you need a little help staying in the game," purrs a sympathetic male voice-over. Then the sound of a match being struck ("come on Levitra, light my fire") coincides with images of the male tossing his ball repeatedly through the hole. After this display, the male embraces a female and the couple disappears indoors. Despite featuring what probably appeared on paper as a winning combination of sport and sex, this ad was exceptionally unpopular. In a USA Today Ad Track consumer poll conducted in January 2004, only four percent of those polled liked the ad "a lot", a figure significantly below the Ad Track average result of 21 percent for this question.

The interesting thing is that the last series of Viagra ads were not much more popular than the Levitra ad. In the Viagra ads, workmates and friends tried to guess what was "different" about two men whose secret was that they had "finally asked their doctor about Viagra." Only seven percent of Ad Track respondents liked these ads a lot – three percent more than those who liked the Levitra ad. This may suggest that, however it is presented, people don't like to hear about impotence and that Viagra is successful in spite of its ads, not because of them. But because Viagra already exists, Levitra and Cialis must rely on advertising to increase their market share, and since ED appears to be a distasteful topic, advertisers are concentrating on enhancing ED's image, rather than its products' images.

Levitra has now dropped the sporty, macho tone of its first campaign and created a new ad featuring an attractive brunette who addresses the camera confidentially to tell us a "secret" about her man: He has erection problems. But not to worry, "For him Levitra works," she confides, "just look at that smile." This ad eschews innuendo for a direct discussion of sexual performance, a daring but risky approach, which also limits the ad to evening slots. Whether or not this change helps Levitra's market share remains to be seen; what is significant is that the new ad focuses on the positive concept of sexual performance rather than the negative concept of impotence. Instead of a guy who can't even get his football in the hole, we are presented with a desirable woman whose Levitra-enhanced man has evidently pleased her and himself. This ad suggests that Levitra is about making a good thing better, not helping desperate men to "stay in the game." It also introduces the element of female approval, for although the woman tells us to look at her man's smile, it is her smile that counts.

Cialis differentiates itself from both Viagra and Levitra by offering a 36-hour window of efficacy. This beats Viagra's and Levitra's four-to-eight hour period, and allows Cialis to focus its advertising on timing rather than performance. The first series of Cialis ads showed a couple in bathtubs in a romantic, natural setting. and asked if the man was "ready" for this opportune moment. Like the ball-throwing Levitra ad, this Cialis ad uses fear as its basic motivator, but the fear has been shifted from the stark question of ability – can you do it? – to the less threatening question of preparedness; will you be ready when the time is right? This ad presupposes the existence of drugs like Viagra and Levitra, but implies the limitations of the time frame they offer: In a spontaneous moment of desire, do you want to have to pop a pill and wait an hour for it to take effect? In France, Cialis is already known popularly as "le weekender," a buzzword that suggests Cialis's potential to ultimately threaten Viagra's primacy in the market with its superior convenience.

All three advertising campaigns ultimately suggest the discomfort, shame, embarrassment, and fear that surround sex in general, and the lack of any compassionate, humane, truthful discourse on sexual dysfunctions in our culture. Viagra's ad featuring a commentator barking, over gunning race cars, "Gentlemen, start your engines" and Levitra's ad using ex-NFL coach "Iron" Mike Ditka to encourage men to "Take the Levitra challenge," both present male sexuality as a competitive sport. Sex appears as a paranoid game where invisible spectators cheer winners and boo losers. According to the Cialis website, which may or may not be guilty of wishful thinking, 30 million American men suffer from some degree of ED. It is in the interests of the ED drug manufacturers, not only to reach all these men, but to manufacture more like them. Since the majority of ED is psychologically induced, perhaps the drug ads are not so ineffective after all in their reduction of male sexuality to a crude, "put your duke up" challenge of power and identity.

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