Monday, November 17, 2008

Viagra Turns Ten— A Decade of Hard Times

It started with a run of unbelievable luck. A month or two before the Viagra launch in late 1998, someone at Pfizer in a pre-launch meeting said out loud, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if one of the late night comics did a joke about Viagra? It would be like free advertising.” What followed was an unbroken string of nightly Viagra jokes from both Letterman and Leno, week after week, with the result that Viagra— in its first year on the market— achieved a brand name recognition around the world equal to the Coca Cola brand. It was the kind of branding phenomenon that could truly be understood only in a business curriculum at the graduate level.

Pfizer’s advertising firm, Cline Davis & Mann, took this global brand recognition, along with the 100% market share that comes with entry into a new therapy class, and they promptly leveraged all of this with— drum roll please— a televised testimonial from Senator Bob Dole. This was followed by three years of TV ads for Viagra in which baseball and NASCAR played a prominent role. The entire ad campaign from day one was structured to implant the term ED, for erectile dysfunction, into the medical lexicon as well as the everyday vocabulary of otherwise macho guys who might benefit from a better erection. To be fair to Pfizer, using a DTC television ad to promote a prescription drug directly to the consumer was an experiment still in its infancy during these years, and Pfizer was cautious not to push the envelope too far by talking openly about S-E-X. And so we watched handsome men and white-jacketed medical doctors pussyfoot around the term, “erectile dysfunction,” in much the same way that a solitary white guy would utter the words, “African American,” inside a seedy Bronx billiard hall.

By 2003, Viagra had competition, first from Levitra (GSK), and later from Cialis (Eli Lilly). Grey Worldwide of New York, the advertising firm used by Lilly to promote Cialis, immediately put something into their TV ads that had never been seen before— a horny woman! The clear implication was that guys who took Cialis got layed. Who knew? Over at Pfizer, Cline Davis & Mann watched the Viagra market share drop from 85% in early 2004 to 75% by late summer of that same year. So Pfizer honchos decided that, if someone was going to get screwed, it might just as well be someone on Viagra, and they transferred the Viagra TV account over to McCann Erickson. This was the start of Viagra ads that began to look like Cialis ads, and today in late 2008, Viagra sales are up 13% year to date over last year, so the new ads seem to be working. There’s a lesson to be learned here. A man with an erection is better off if there’s a woman somewhere around.

3 comments:

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