The National Football League plans to cut its ties with erectile-dysfunction drug ads, highlighting growing concerns about increasingly risque creative in the category and leaving manufacturers with a dearth of major sports marketing platforms for their brands.
The League has decided not to renew its $18 million sponsorship agreement with Levitra when the three-year deal expires on March 31 and will, in fact, distance itself from ED ads altogether. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said, "We do not have plans to secure a sponsor in this category."
This is a blow to Schering-Plough, which co-markets Levitra in the U.S. with Bayer, and to their ED drug rivals, all of which have used televised sports as a way to communicate their message to American men in a context that helps reduce any stigma attached to taking the pills.
The NFL in particular seemed a perfect home for their ads: Football is the most popular team sport in the country, has the highest TV ratings and has a male-skewing audience. Two years ago, both Levitra and Eli Lilly's Cialis advertised on the Super Bowl.
But, to the dismay of critics, the content of the advertising changed from addressing the issue of impotence to a more sexy, provocative feel. The erectile dysfunction category has been a lightning rod for criticism of direct-to-consumer advertising from the public and politicians.
"When we began [sponsorship in] the category it was a men's health issue," an NFL executive said. "The marketing and advertising took a different direction in the entire category."
The league signed the deal with Levitra in August of 2003, and initial advertising included a separate campaign called "Tackling Men's Health," which featured former NFL coach Mike Ditka.
Few remaining deals
ED drug marketers have a few remaining sports-sponsorship deals. Cialis sponsors a golf tournament on the PGA Tour and Viagra is a partner of Major League Baseball, sponsoring the Comeback Player of the Year awards, (which prompted San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler to opine, "I'd love to see that trophy.")
John Brody, Major League Baseball's senior VP-corporate sales and marketing, said the league was happy with its Viagra partnership and hopes it can expand in the future. "We've had a number of meetings with Pfizer on how to work within the framework" of a new Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America code of conduct, Mr. Brody said. "But we want to work with them. The category-and I want to emphasize that we don't believe this is true of our partner-has changed a bit in its advertising creative. ... But we entered this partnership believing ED is a men's health and wellness issue, and we still believe that and still believe Pfizer portrays it as such."
Pfizer's Viagra had also been the main sponsor for Nascar driver Mark Martin since 2000 before ending the sponsorship after the 2005 season. Nascar said it is up to individual teams to decide whether an ED drug sponsorship is right for them.
Neither the National Hockey League nor the National Basketball Association have ED sponsorships.
NFL spokesman Mr. McCarthy said the NFL's Web site and TV networks that air pro football games will still be free to accept ads from the category. But it seems doubtful ED ads will run on those platforms. The PhRMA guidelines include one that states, "DTC television and print advertisements should be targeted to avoid audiences that are not age appropriate for the messages involved." That would all but prohibit ED drug ads on TV until late evening hours and makes Web ads for the drugs a tricky proposition.
Mr. McCarthy stressed that the NFL is not shying away from pharmaceutical partners. The league reversed a self-imposed ban on health-care sponsorship and advertising in 2003 and, in fact, has open categories in seven of the eight areas it initially identified as acceptable: allergies; cholesterol reducers; dermatology; diabetes; gastrointestinal; hair renewal and growth; and prostate medication. The eighth was erectile dysfunction.