ED’s Parallel Universe

As Levitra ad shows, the category is all about contradictions

Did you hear the one about the fortysomething woman who got invited by an older guy for a romantic getaway at a country inn? She responded, “No way, unless we get separate tubs!”

Ba-bum. I refer to those unique side-by-side outdoor antique tubs (such as exist nowhere, not even in movies like Cat Ballou, where people tended to bathe in big tin tubs in the middle of fake Western towns). As a parallel-universe sort of visual, the independent tubs have become the defining image of the Cialis brand.

The spot is a great example of the bizarrely paradoxical qualities of erectile-dysfunction ads: Cialis offers a series of touching but oddly prim images while simultaneously unleashing its 4HE—”four-hour erection”—disclaimer on an unsuspecting public.

It’s not the agencies’ or the drug companies’ fault, really, because that paradox merely fits into the bigger contradiction of federal regulations: While the FCC is busy attacking indecency, the FDA mandates that any pharmaceutical ad that states a prescription drug’s purpose must also list risks and possible side effects, thus forcing the 4HE into the TV vernacular. Cialis, via Grey, was the first to go there in order to get specific about what distinguishes it from Levitra and Viagra: the 36-hour window of opportunity it provides.

Now the genie’s out of the bottle, so to speak. (I’ll try to refrain from the creepy double entendres that I would otherwise criticize in these ads, such as, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” for Viagra.) With the growing market for drugs in this category, perhaps we can look forward to “four-hour erection” becoming a phrase as familiar and colloquial as “the three-hour tour.”

Indeed, now Levitra, in leaving the cover-your-eyes-bad, world’s worst sex metaphor—the patented ball-through-the-tire imagery—also includes the erection line. The latest Levitra spot has switched over to something much more frisky: an attractive, early-40ish woman in a guy’s white shirt, purring, “Can I tell you a secret? My man takes Levitra.” Later, with a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary look, she says the difference is the “quality of response.”

She sits with one leg up, a rather provocative pose, considering that the shirt conveys that she’s wearing little else. (There’s no Sharon Stone moment, however.) The tone, in fact, is the opposite of that woebegone AOL ad showing Sharon complaining about the running man leaving too early. This woman seems like one satisfied customer. (And her man stands there like Mr. Smug.) Still, the parallel-universe rule comes in. Because while it might be outrageously sexual for the category, compared with your standard jeans ad from the ’80s, it’s really quite old-fashioned and innuendo-ish, like the Noxzema ad from the ’60s with the Swedish blonde saying, “Men, take it off. Take it all off.”

Still, I think it will get men’s attention, and women will find it much more bearable than a barking Mike Ditka (thanks, coach!) ordering men to “take the Levitra challenge.” (When did swallowing a pill become such a challenge? Based on his get-it-done, task-oriented approach, if Ditka were to become the country’s official sex educator, we’d all be mighty unhappy.) And I thought it was pretty outrageous to represent women as backyard tires, but I guess actual goalposts would have presented too much performance anxiety.

And to think it was merely five years ago that Bob Dole broke the ice in an ad for ED awareness that never even mentioned Viagra. Rather, he was shown looking very senatorial and dignified, and it was still shocking. Since then, Viagra has aired a series of ads that have not required the fair-balance language. Levitra and Cialis account for about 15 percent of the market so far—Cialis, though it was released later than Levitra, is ahead in sales—and Viagra is in the midst of an agency search.

Its current “Champions” spot, out of Taxi in Toronto, deserves credit for what seems to be a first for the category: a guy in a wheelchair. It starts with a guy bounding out of his suburban front door and then shows various middle-aged men on the street, jumping up and down in slow motion, in exultation, to the Queen song (“No time for losers, ’cause we are the champions”)—but the spot inadvertently proves the opposite. With the exception of the upward spikes of the white picket fence and a hydrant, everything in the ad is falling down. The slow-motion effect probably makes the footage less boring, but it also allows for excruciatingly slow close-ups of bellies flopping, jowls sinking and any other image of hangdog decline you can muster.

The spot was created for the Canadian market, which has more severe regulatory restrictions than the U.S., partly accounting for how odd it is. Taxi did an earlier, much funnier spot, which was not exported here. It showed a man bouncing out the door to “Good Morning,” the maniacally upbeat Donald O’Connor song from Singing in the Rain; he jumps all the way to work, and he’s an amazingly happy hopper.

The ED ads offer a fascinating window into the schizophrenic and sometimes hypocritical nature of talking sex (and drugs) in our culture. Because the irony here is that these days, your average detergent commercial is sexier than any of these spots. (Except for the FDA-mandated part, of course.) I guess when everything non-sexy gets sexed up, the only way to go in actually selling functional sex is the separate-tubs route.