Viagra and Co. get it on again

After being panned for sexy approach, ED ads return with health focus

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They're back.

Beaten up in the court of public and political opinion, dragged through the mud and generally held up as the bastard stepchild for direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising, the erectile-dysfunction-drug category that spent more than $380 million on advertising only two years ago is returning with branded-though decidedly less sexy-campaigns.

GlaxoSmithKline and Schering-Plough introduced new spots for Levitra earlier this month, while Eli Lilly and Icos retooled branded ads for Cialis and put them on the airwaves in February. Now Pfizer is preparing a rollout of broadcast ads for category leader Viagra, via its agency McCann Erickson.

The reason is a still-burgeoning market for the product and the potential for growth. Research by Glaxo showed that of the 30 million men suffering from ED in the U.S. alone, only 8 million are being treated.

All three medications covet the untapped portion of a $1.3 billion U.S. market, not to mention a $3 billion global market. Levitra is looking to climb out of its third-ranked place, Viagra to hang on to its rapidly slipping market share and Cialis to continue its amazing surge.

But the advertising won't be the same. Sexy, racy erectile-dysfunction ads became the poster child for everything wrong with DTC. The National Football League even dropped Levitra as an $18 million corporate sponsor earlier this year, citing a creative shift away from ED drugs as a men's health issue and toward more a more risque lifestyle choice.

pounding from critics

The marketers circled the wagons and virtually closed up shop as critics pounded away. Ad spending dropped precipitously by all three drug makers to $150 million, and neither Pfizer nor GSK/Schering-Plough have run branded TV ads for their respective ED drugs in almost a year, going instead the unbranded route.

Earlier advertising for Levitra, which included the infamous "My Man" campaign that featured a woman in a man's dress shirt talking about her partner's newfound prowess, "was all about sex and not about health care," GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Nancy Leone said. "This [new] campaign gives credibility to ED as a medical condition as opposed to the old ads, which increased the stigma about ED," she said.

The new ads, from Omnicom Group's BBDO, New York, feature two men talking about ED being connected to other medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Ms. Leone would not discuss a budget for the campaign, but said spots will appear on both network and cable TV programming. However, because of the Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America guidelines regarding DTC that went into effect Jan. 1, ad buys are limited to programs with at least an 80%-adult audience.

"We respect the PhRMA guidelines and, in fact, raised that to 90% internally," Ms. Leone said. "So that basically rules out weekend sports and daytime programming. But we're still in strong spots and we're still on the evening news."

Levitra needs to make a push. According to pharmaceutical information company IMS Health, it's third among the Big Three in the U.S. market. Viagra had a 62.7% market share last year, down from 73.4% in 2004 and 90% in 2003, while Cialis held a 23.3% share and Levitra 10.9%.

Cialis has retooled its ads from WPP Group's Grey Worldwide, but they still feature the same two key elements that have been part of the marketing since day one: The iconic statistic (Cialis lasts up to 36 hours) and the iconic image (a man and a woman in side-by-side bathtubs, talking and holding hands). The ads seem to be working. Cialis' market share grew 66% from 2004 to 2005, according to IMS, from $192 million in U.S. sales to $319 million.

Eli Lilly did not respond to inquiries at press time. Pfizer declined to comment about its future marketing plans.
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