WORLD: ANALYSIS - P&G opens up virgin territory with female sex-drug Intrinsa

New drugs and relaxed laws on their availability open a huge market.

Procter & Gamble, whose advertising has always epitomised the home, hearth and apple-pie values of middle America, has gone into the sex business.

And, in doing so, has given the signal for a potentially huge global market to come out of the closet.

Not least because the household products giant plans to do for the sex life of millions of women what Viagra has done for men.

This, if you'll excuse the analogy, is virgin territory. While Viagra slugs it out with its newer rivals, Eli Lilly's Cialis and Levitra, launched by SmithKlineBeecham and Bayer, for share of a global market numbering an estimated 152 million potential users, no comparable treatment has been available for women.

Now that's about to change, with P&G set to put $100 million behind the US launch of Intrinsa, a transdermal testosterone patch for post-menopausal women.

Publicis Groupe agencies are understood to be preparing marketing plans for the patch, which is in the final stages of clinical trials before its expected approval by the Food and Drug Administration.

Intrinsa's appearance will mark a leap forward in the efforts of major drug companies to tap into a previously taboo subject. Many believe the arrival of such drugs could hardly be more timely as the ad-literate "free love" generation refuses to grow old gracefully and moves toward retirement with its sexual appetite undiminished.

At the moment, the advertising of Viagra-type drugs, currently available only on prescription, is strictly controlled in the US and across Europe and Asia.

Rules allow treatments for male impotence (erectile dysfunction) to be promoted only to healthcare professionals. However, in some countries, including the US, the regulations have been liberalised to allow companies to advertise directly to consumers, provided the ads confine themselves to raising awareness of the problem, where to get advice about it and make no mention of a particular drug.

How much longer the line will hold is debatable. The internet offers consumers a wealth of information about the drugs and their availability.

Moreover, it seems only a matter of time before Viagra and its competitors are made available over the counter.

Cue heavyweight advertising as the drug manufacturers lose their lucrative prescription business. "Commercials for cystitis and thrush treatments have already taken away the 'snigger factor'," Sheila Kelly, the chief executive of the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, says.

Meanwhile, advertising messages must remain somewhat oblique in a market in which Viagra had been unopposed since its US launch in January 1998.

No longer. Levitra, which received FDA approval to launch last year, claims its users can have satisfying sex within 16 minutes compared with a wait of up to an hour for Viagra takers. Cialis claims it can outperform both rivals, lasting up to 36 hours. It has already captured one-third of the market in Australia, Germany, France and Italy.

Promotion of the drugs reflects considerable cultural differences between east and west. In the US, the drug companies have linked their products to sport - Viagra with baseball, Levitra with American football and Cialis with the Americas Cup yachting.

This activity has been supplemented by mainstream advertising. Levitra, whose account is handled by Grey, has adopted the theme "choose the moment", emphasising the fact that the drug allows more natural, romantic behaviour because it can be taken hours in advance and then be practically forgotten about. Levitra's ads, produced by WPP's Quantum Group, features a man failing and then succeeding in throwing a football through a tyre.

A voiceover says: "Sometimes you need a little help staying in the game."

In the Far East, it is a different story. "Virility is a big thing with Asian men and the issue is highly sensitive," Mark Webster, the chief executive of J. Walter Thompson in Thailand and south-east Asia, explains.

JWT's advertising for Viagra in Thailand includes a TV campaign featuring a kick-boxing bout in which the contestants will do anything to prevent their private parts being damaged. A print campaign focuses on the region's tradition of using animal parts for their claimed aphrodisiac properties. The ads show animals with signs that warn: "Don't rely on my parts. I can't help you."

Wherever Viagra and its rivals are promoted, one big moral issue will have to be resolved. When the drugs get over-the-counter status, how long will it be before they are being advertised to consumers of all ages?

Last year, the Brazilian government banned the advertising of all such drugs after McCann-Erickson's Viagra work featuring Pele was accused of encouraging young people to use Viagra to spice up their sex lives.

A more immediate question is how Intrinsa will be promoted. While male sexual dysfunction is often a purely physical problem, female sexuality is a complex issue involving psychology and biology. As a Publicis source is the US says: "There's no question that we will have to handle this one very sensitively indeed."