Last Laugh for Viagra in Chemistry & Industry

March 1, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

by Neil Gussman

This month one of the most talked about chemical innovations of the 20th century will enter the generic market. Viagra, the first treatment in pill form for erectile dysfunction, has made billions of dollars for Pfizer since 1988. Like Kleenex for tissues, Viagra is the brand name that comes to mind when thinking of chemically enhanced copulation.

Sales alone attest to the success and effectiveness of Viagra and its later competitors, Levitra and Gaffs. But like all chemical innovations, success is never perfect. Think of anesthesia, for example. Before ether, patients were awake for surgery. But soon after ether’s introduction several patients never woke from surgery. Fear of anesthesia grips surgery patients today, even though the technology has vastly improved.

Perhaps because Viagra has been the subject of so many jokes, it provides one of the best examples of how to turn a problem into an advantage. In broadcast advertising drug makers must balance their sales pitch with a complete recitation of their drug’s side effects. A TV advertisement for an allergy drug will typically show happy people surrounded by flowers, trees, dogs, and other sources of allergens. A rich baritone voice extols the wonderfulness of life with the drug, but, after 20 seconds, the voice switches to the speed of an auctioneer to cram in every possible side effect into the final seconds before the rich baritone returns to repeat the brand name.

That was the format until about 10 years ago, when a Viagra advertisement turned the warning into an asset. The commercial’s warning of side effects was as clearly and slowly spoken as the pitch for the product. Some smart writer realized that potential Viagra customers would want to hear about one of the side effects: “for an erection lasting more than four hours, seek medical help immediately.” Drug marketers now know that not every side effect will be perceived negatively. . . .

Neil Gussman is strategic communications and media relations manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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