For most creatives I know, the idea of working on a mainstream
consumer campaign for Viagra is like a wet dream. But why is Pfizer
bothering with a pitch at all? Just call Mark Wnek and ask him to
reprise all his Peugeot 306 ads.
Oh, alright: I know that’s never going to happen. As the leader article
next to this column points out, unless EU regulations about drugs
advertising change, the most likely upshot is a series of ’nudge-nudge,
wink-wink’ symptom ads with no mention of the product.
What does seem remarkable is that despite owning a property with huge
awareness, Pfizer is contemplating something like this at all. That it
is is the result of two conflicting pressures. One is on European state
health systems to reduce health spending - the simplest way to do this
is to cut back on prescriptions for proprietary drugs like Viagra in
favour of generics. This may please the taxpayer, but it isn’t much help
to the drugs companies.
You can tell they’re feeling the pressure by the fact that, so far this
year, we have seen three multi-billion dollar mergers: SmithKline
Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome; Pharmacia and Monsanto; and last week’s deal
between Pfizer and Warner-Lambert. Their rationale? Simple: drugs
companies stand or fall by new-product development, and if they can’t
afford to invest billions in research and development, they might as
well give up. Mergers allow economies of scale to be brought to bear in
At the same time, the days when one blockbuster drug might be enough to
fund the years of research it might take until the next wonder discovery
came around are no more: the switch to generic prescribing diminishes a
drug’s earnings potential.
Ultimately, the only way that drugs companies can combat this is to
bypass their direct customers - the medical profession and the
governments who provide funding - to the consumer. In essence, and it
will accelerate as patients’ knowledge of pharmaceuticals expands (just
look at the profusion of US consumer medical websites), we are at the
early stages of the secularisation of the branded drugs industry. Hence
Pfizer’s plan for Viagra.
Viagra also illustrates another potential trend: drugs that blur the
line between the purely medical and the recreational or lifestyle -
let’s call them ’recreceuticals’. You can quite easily imagine a
situation where the taxpayer-funded prescription of certain drugs is
tightly controlled but, if they can afford it, individuals can pay
privately for branded drugs.
But if they are to broaden their focus from the narrow confines of the
medical industry to consumers, drugs companies have a lot to learn about
marketing. Yes, Procter & Gamble may have called off its attempt last
month to gatecrash the Warner-Lambert deal, but the intention was
So too is that in last week’s joint venture between the Swiss drugs
company, Novartis, and Quaker.
As Viagra would no doubt like to say in its ads, this could be the start
of something big.