Close-Up: Live issue - How should Pfizer advertise Viagra?

What's the best way to tap into the potentially massive UK market for Viagra, James Hamilton asks.

When it comes to iconic drugs, Pfizer's diamond-shaped blue pill is to the pharmaceutical industry what Coca-Cola's famous curved bottle is to soft drinks.

Viagra is arguably the best-known pharmaceutical brand in the world, and is the market leader in the US, where the erectile dysfunction (ED) market is estimated to be worth more than $1.5 billion. So the news that Pfizer is talking to agencies in the UK as it prepares to launch a pan-European consumer campaign for the drug, which it is planning to sell over the counter, will have agencies falling over each other to win the business: it's not every day that you get to work on a truly global brand with such creative potential.

Thus far, the UK's experience of ED marketing has been limited to a print ad starring Pele urging men who are suffering from ED to seek advice from their doctor. The ad was funded by Pfizer, although it made no mention of Viagra or pharmaceutical remedies for ED.

That will all change if Pfizer successfully petitions the European Union to make the drug available without prescription. And while a Pfizer statement attempts to cool agency ardour, arguing that the drug company "regularly works with marketing and communications agencies on both disease and brand awareness campaigns", it stops short of denying it is planning an over-the-counter petition, continuing: "Viagra is only available on prescription, and should only be used in accordance with its approved labelling."

That said, Viagra has had a successful over-the-counter test in three Boots stores in Manchester. The pilot, which fittingly launched on Valentine's Day this year, enabled men aged between 30 and 65 to purchase four pills for £50 after a consultation with the pharmacist.

Boots estimates that only one in ten of the three million men in the UK who suffer from ED are being treated, which equates to a rich market for the first treatment to go "over the counter".

The big question is how Pfizer will try to reach the 2.7 million potential users in the UK. Campaigns for ED drugs in nations where they are available without prescription, or where legislation permits their advertising, vary as they steer their way around cultural sensitivities while carving out their own niches in the market. In the US, Viagra is the brand that men know and trust; Eli Lilly and Icos Corp's Cialis, with its 36-hour working window, is the choice for couples; while GlaxoSmithKline's Levitra, which works in 15 minutes, is marketed from a woman's point of view.

Mel Sokotch, a former head of FCB HealthCare in New York, who worked on accounts including Pfizer's, argues that little brand building is needed from whichever ad agency wins the account in the UK. The Viagra brand is, he says, famous enough: "Since everyone knows what Viagra is, I'd get out the way of the news that Viagra, and an improved sex life, is available over the counter. I'd also restate that it has been used by millions the world over with a high success rate and with minimal side effects."

The Mother strategist Dylan Williams argues that the real problem Pfizer needs to address is not the fact Viagra will be available over the counter, but the social stigma at the point of purchase. For want of a better expression, while three million minds may well be willing, the flesh is clearly weak when it comes to facing up to the problem.

CREATIVE - James Cooper, joint creative director, Dare

"Does Pfizer need to advertise? Great products have a habit of selling themselves. If Pfizer is to advertise, it should go for quality and a little humour. The spam e-mails will never go away, they are too cost effective, but Viagra should avoid crap 'stiff' gags and try to inject some more sophisticated humour. The Americans are good at this. Think the funny bits in The West Wing, rather than American Pie.

"Celebrity endorsements are tricky. Like hair-loss, who wants to admit they have a problem? This sensitivity would, I think, preclude the normal community sites, but online is a good way to target niche audiences, and is also good for private research."

PLANNER - Dylan Williams, strategist, Mother

"If Pfizer follows the pharma-marketing text books, it will cock it up. Convention says ED is a sensitive subject, so organise your targeting around consumer need, identify community and 'smart target' in narrowcast media.

"The real barrier, though, will be the social stigma at the point of purchase. Buying Viagra says you're crap in bed, and that's what any communication has to address.

"One could learn a lot from the vibrator market. Once the cold loveless substitute boyfriend for the lonely and frustrated woman, the Rampant Rabbit is now the love tool of choice for the sexy, modern couple.

"I'd go big and sell Viagra to men and women as another additive to a spicy love life. I'd also ditch Pele."

HEALTHCARE EXPERT - Dr David Ingram, senior account director, Grey Healthcare Group

"Viagra has iconic brand status, which is a unique position for a pharmaceutical brand that has never directly been promoted to the public. The large part of the perception of the brand has been created from the multitude of counterfeit 'alternatives' and misinformation that exists.

"As a prescription-only drug, Viagra cannot counteract those misconceptions, or engage directly with its potential customer base. Moving Viagra to an over-the-counter medicine will allow the brand to seek out its customers.

"The creative should address the fact that ED affects both partners. It is often women that encourage their partner to seek treatment."

BRAND CONSULTANT - Jasmine Montgomery, deputy managing director, Futurebrand

"Viagra is a hugely strong brand, and one of the few drugs that is truly a household name in the UK.

"It has three things going for it: it has huge awareness; it's got very positive associations; and it's visually iconic. You can show the blue pill unbranded and everyone recognises it. It has the three things all successful brands want.

"I don't know if Viagra needs to advertise in the traditional way. Is it really going to maximise return on marketing investment?

"It would be interesting to see what a viral internet campaign could do, and it would also be interesting to see whether or not agencies will target women. Behind a lot of male purchases lies female decision-making."