Viagra challengers ante up big bucks

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Two rivals plan to take on Pfizer's Viagra this fall, increasing spending in the category to $200 million even though the challengers, Levitra and Cialis, have yet to receive marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Pharmaceutical giants Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, co-marketers of Levitra, and Eli Lilly Co. and bio-tech firm Icos, co-marketers of Cialis, have bought significant time in the TV upfront market for their respective products, according to executives close to the situation. In addition, executives also confirmed that Bayer/GSK has inked a sponsorship agreement with the National Football League, and former Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka will act as spokesman for Levitra in a series of ads.

That sets the stage for one of the most intriguing ad battles in recent memory. Viagra's success speaks for itself, with $1.7 billion in sales in 2002 backed by $87 million in media spending by Pfizer. The "little blue pill" also has the advantage of a five-year head start in the market.

An executive working closely with Bayer/GSK on the Levitra campaign said he expects $50 million to $75 million in spending on the drug when it receives FDA approval-and a similar amount spent by Cialis.

"Viagra isn't just the market leader in this category, it's the most well-known pharmaceutical drug in the world," the executive said. "That's an uphill battle, and both Bayer-Glaxo and Eli Lilly have no choice but to kind of bust out of the gate with big spending."

Levitra's campaign will center on its claim that it works more quickly than Viagra; Cialis will rely on a platform that states the drug lasts longer than either of its competitors. A Pfizer spokeswoman said the company "takes our competitors seriously" and will determine if it will respond in kind with a campaign from Omnicom Group's Cline, Davis & Mann when the rivals hit the market.

Levitra's creative agency, Quantum Group, part of WPP Group's CommonHealth health-care unit, and Grey Worldwide's Healthy Grey, which will handle Cialis' direct-to-consumer launch in the U.S., both declined to comment.

Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly and Icos either declined to comment or did not return calls. The pharmaceutical companies are in a peculiar position in that they cannot appear to be marketing the respective drugs prior to receiving FDA approval.

Living up to its claim that it is the speedier impotence drug, it appears Levitra will get to market before Cialis. An FDA panel will review Levitra on May 29, and approval is expected sometime in August, hence the marketer's decision to be well-prepared with buys in the upfront market and the NFL sponsorship.

Cialis received preliminary approval from the FDA in 2002. But Icos and Eli Lilly were late in delivering supplementary data to the FDA, leading to speculation that the agency has further concerns about the drug. An Eli Lilly spokeswoman said the company expects approval sometime in the second half, but declined to comment further.

first in line

To sponsor the NFL, Levitra will pay $6 million a year for three years, with additional spending of $10 million to $15 million in media buys. That makes Bayer and Glaxo the first drug marketers to sign a deal with the NFL since the league lifted its ban on pharmaceutical advertising (AA, March 17).

According to NFL rules, only the drug-not the pharmaceutical company-can be a sponsor, and the league will only take sponsorships from drugs in eight specific categories. Erectile dysfunction is one.

Mr. Ditka will endorse Levitra in a series of TV and print ads, as well as public service announcements.

The NFL declined to comment.

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