There are now three big competitors for the wang dang doodle dollar:
- Viagra vs. Levitra vs. Cialis. It is a Madison Avenue dream. And nightmare.
It is a dream because the three rivals are flush with cash and eager to compete aggressively in a market that is already big and is forecast to grow fast. Ad agencies have been panting like lovesick suitors over the idea of clients willing to spend more than $300 million this year when many other clients are pinching pennies.
The problem is that the products in question treat erectile dysfunction, a condition, like adult incontinence or hemorrhoids, that is hard to discuss without being too vague or too vulgar. So the advertisers have to figure out how to build customer demand and loyalty without offending people and without providing additional fodder for endless gags by late-night talk-show hosts.
Even worse, the products are prescription drugs, so they come freighted with federal restrictions and requirements about advertising content. For instance, if an ad mentions the product name and what it treats, side effects must also be disclosed – in this case eyebrow-lifters like “erections that last for more than four hours.”
“My 6-year-old daughter turned to me and said, ‘What’s a four-hour erection?’ ” said Kelly Simmons, executive vice president and chief creative officer at Tierney Communications in Philadelphia, who studies sex issues in marketing. “How do you explain it?”
The whole endeavor is mined with awkward moments, beginning with those faced by the 30 million American men who the drug companies estimate have trouble getting and keeping erections. Only 13 percent of those men are being treated, drug makers reckon, so analysts at Lehman Brothers figure that the market for Viagra, Levitra and Cialis should more than triple by 2010, to $6 billion a year.
That is, if the ad agencies can help destigmatize seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction, said Nancy Bryan, vice president for men’s health marketing at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in West Haven, Conn. It sells Levitra in a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline.
In recent weeks, Levitra has slipped to third place in sales, having been overtaken by Cialis, which is marketed by Lilly Icos, a joint venture of Eli Lilly & Company and the Icos Corporation. But together they have already grabbed 15 percent of the market from the leader, Viagra, which created the category when Pfizer introduced it in 1998. Levitra was introduced last August; Cialis, in November.
As the rivalry heats up, the ads are flooding television, radio, magazines, newspapers, the Internet and even mailboxes. The drug makers are sponsoring sports like golf and auto racing; Pfizer has initiated a frequent-user “value card,” offering a free seventh prescription for each six a customer fills. Levitra and Cialis have even tried the Super Bowl of advertising: the Super Bowl itself. Their makers paid more than $4 million each for 60-second spots during the game in February.
The ads are running so often and in so many forums that the drug companies say they feel compelled to change pitches frequently, to keep them fresh. On April 15, Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline relinquished the aggressively macho posture they had taken since introducing Levitra. The old campaign was fraught with symbols: a man failing, then succeeding, at tossing a football through a tire swing.
In its place, Levitra released a commercial created by the Quantum Group in Parsippany, N.J., a unit of the WPP Group. The ad focused on a woman’s sultry testimonial to Levitra’s effect on her man: “Let’s just say he notices a difference in the experience, like a ‘we should do this more often’ difference.” If that is too subtle, she adds that Levitra gives her guy the “quality of response that he wants, time and again.”
The ads may be oblique, but the strategy is not. “We give men the quality erections they want,” said David Pernock, senior vice president for pharmaceuticals marketing at GlaxoSmithKline in Philadelphia.
….TASTE is why Grey chose his-and-hers bathtubs rather than a shared hot tub. “We don’t want to put Cialis that close to the sex act,” Mr. Beebe said. “You won’t see a lot of sexual innuendo: a train going through a tunnel, a football going through a beat-up tire.”
That jest, clearly aimed at Levitra, points up another way the brands’ fight mimics more traditional consumer-product skirmishes: rivals take potshots at one another. For example, the commercial run by Levitra for the Super Bowl featured Mr. Ditka suggesting that football is superior to baseball, a sport that Viagra has sponsored.
“It would be lovely to see them use more humor,” said Ms. Simmons of Tierney Communications. She said she was bothered by how many of the ads so far have concentrated “on the man figuring out how to get ‘it’ done.” Humor not only lightens the mood, she added, but also acknowledges that “men and women have been talking to each other about sex in veiled terms for centuries.”
One idea she offered gratis to the drug makers: hire the comedian George Carlin to discuss erectile dysfunction in the context of his routine about “the seven words you can’t say on television.”
“He’d be hysterical,” Ms. Simmons said, “and he’s the right age.” [NY Times]
With this much money available and at stake, no one is going to let something like “taste” get in the way of marketing to the 87% of wobbly wang sufferers who haven’t seen the pharmaceutical light. And we all get to go along for the ride.