World: Stuart Elliott in America

In a new twist, the heated, three-way battle for hegemony in the US market for erectile-dysfunction drugs has gone to the devil (Campaign World, 20 August). That's because a new campaign for Viagra, the category leader under pressure from two upstart competitors, is promoting the prescription drug with the provocative device of the devil's horns. The horns are formed by the tops of the letter "V" in the Viagra logo - in the same shade of blue as the triangular Viagra tablet - that appears behind men's heads in the commercials and print ads. The men have a glint in their eyes and somewhat satanic smiles, intended to underline a roguish cry in the new strapline: "Get back to mischief."

This sly approach is a dramatic shift from the tone of several previous campaigns for Viagra, whose market share has been eroding steadily in the last year since the two rival drugs, Levitra and Cialis, were introduced.

Between them, the newcomers have captured about 25 percentage points from Viagra since August 2003, gains that have been attributed partly to the much less conservative tack taken by the ads for Cialis and Levitra.

While Cialis was showing couples side by side in romantic settings, and Levitra was presenting a woman who praised her man's prowess since taking the drug, Viagra was adhering to the motto voiced by Gene Kelly's character in Singin' in the Rain of "Dignity, always dignity". The Viagra campaigns have been for the most part staid, sedate, even stuffy; only in recent months, when a commercial from Canada was imported featuring the anthemic Queen song We Are the Champions, did consumers get the idea the drug had something to do with ... you-know-what.

No doubt Viagra's inability to match its competitors in the hotcha-hotcha department was a big reason behind a decision in late June by Pfizer - which created the ED market when it brought out Viagra in 1998 - to replace Cline, Davis & Mann, the brand's only creative agency for general marketing since its inception. The mischievous ads are the work of the new agency, McCann Erickson Worldwide, which hopes they will convey how much better off men can be when they use Viagra to revitalise their sex lives.

"Remember that guy who used to be called 'Wild Thing'?" an announcer asks in the first new commercial. "The guy who wanted to spend the entire honeymoon indoors? Remember the one who couldn't resist a little mischief? Yeah, that guy. He's back." That's when the Viagra logo materialises behind the man's head, forming the horns.

"Horns? As in horny and horn dogs? Say it ain't so!" That was the reaction of Barbara Lippert, the ad critic for Adweek. While praising McCann for "giving Viagra an ownable identity after all those years of hit-and-miss campaigns", she called it a "cheap shot" and wondered whether the campaign may somehow legitimise the abuse of Viagra, and other ED drugs, for recreational purposes instead of as impotence treatments.

Indeed, days after the campaign started, a public health official for the city of San Francisco, citing studies showing a link between such use of ED drugs and higher rates of venereal disease and unsafe sex, asked the federal Food and Drug Administration to reclassify them as controlled substances.

What could be behind such a drastic proposal? Maybe the devil made him do it.

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