Oh God, You Devil

There’s no doubt they’re a breakthough branding device for Viagra, which in six years of leading the E.D. market has never had a memorable or consistent visual signature. But I have to say, I’m not loving the horns.

Horns? As in horny, and horn dogs? Say it ain’t so! I guess it was bound to happen in a culture where everything has been sold with sex, except for sex drugs, which have tended toward the prim and awkward.

The campaign, the first from McCann Erickson for the category founder, firmly places a male head in front of the capital V in the brand name, so the tops of the letter stick out like triangulated blue horns (cleverly echoing the shape of the little blue pill.) Various men sport the horns in a series of print ads; at the end of the TV spot, released last week, a salt-and-pepper-ish, roguish guy steps out of the frame, smirks and looks up, as if he expects an angel and a devil to land on his shoulders and argue. But there’s no debate here–while we watch his Jack Nicholson-like eyebrows quiver, he grows said nubs on his head.

Of course, until then, the spot strains to be classy-it’s nicely shot in black and white with a bit of a blue tint (there’s that branding again). It’s quick to leave the dysfunction junction of previous ads and show the attractive man and wife (there are rings) shopping together in a ritzy little town. But since it’s so carefully art directed, let’s look at this subliminally: What does this mean to walk around with a digital erection on your head? Two blue one-inch triangles, at that? Anyone?

It is kind of amusing to watch them shoot up–the effect is done so well that it does mimic some organic process. But despite (or maybe because of) the attempted subtlety that precedes this moment, the shock of watching the horns fire is so huge that it’s a little like getting hit over the head with a groin.

Some of the research apparently showed that with couples in their 50s and 60s, the men were not interested in sex and the women were. Imagine the results, all the Rosemary’s Baby-ish conversations that will take place across the nation, when women start sharing: “Yes, thanks to the little blue pill, I now have my husband back!” It’s been a little strange, and he now insists on being called Lucifer, and then, of course, I started having cravings for all that raw meat, and then Damien came along, even though I’m 52, and he seems sort of cursed, but heck, it’s never boring!”

Neither is the category. It seems a hundred years ago, not six, that Bob Dole made that painful E.D. ad that so strained for dignity that it didn’t even mention Viagra by name–but still managed to put the Dole in doleful. Then we had Viagra’s “new haircut, Tom?” phase, and the racing cars, and the jumping up and down.

Meanwhile, two scrappy challengers have entered the fray, each establishing its own clear brand identity: Cialis, with roughly 14 percent of the market, has the famous 36-hour window, a clear advantage for some people, not to mention those separate tubs and the four-hour erection clause. Levitra, with 11.6 percent, has the babe-acious one saying, “My man takes Levitra, and let’s just say …” In the case of Levitra, anything beats a barking Mike Dytka and womanhood represented by an old tire hanging in the yard.

With that change in imagery, Levitra joined Cialis in taking a more female-friendly approach. Obviously, this devil’s horns thing seems more aimed at men. The action in the TV spot also seems to be male-targeted. The Hornman stands outside a shoe store, waiting for his mate, but he pulls her into a lingerie store when he sees the black skimpy stuff on a model in the window. Even though the whole Sex and the City, female shoe fetish has become a cliche by now, poll any woman on this–in terms of shoes vs. lingerie, there’s no question which we’d prefer to receive, hands down (even for cloven feet!).

Even the music has a bit of a swagger as the announcer says, “Remember that guy who used to be called ‘Wild Thing’? The guy who wanted to spend the entire honeymoon indoors? … The one who couldn’t resist a little mischief?” Yeah, that guy. He’s back.”

I understand that this is supposed to destigmatize the issue and give men confidence, and not make them look silly. But isn’t talking about ‘Wild Thing’ a little embarrassing? In the signature 1966 song by the Troggs (time honored makeout music played by garage bands, along with ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Gloria’), Wild Thing was a woman. She made his heart sing. She was everything, and groovy, too. He thinks he loves her, but he has to know “for sure.” So he says, “Hold me, hold me tight.” And sure enough (here’s the link to Viagra), after checking, he confirms, “You move me.”

Of course, there might be some danger for Viagra in carving out this studly, Mr. Mischief niche, considering the growing recreational use (abuse) of the drug. More and more men are apparently using Viagra not to treat impotence but as an enhancement or recreational agent. According to a study by Express Scripts, men 18-45 were the fastest-growing group of users of Viagra, or its generic equivalent, with an increase of 312 percent.

Clearly, the agency has done good work in giving Viagra an ownable identity after all those years of hit-and-miss campaigns. Still, while this sort of boys-will-be-boys attitude will probably be effective, it is a cheap shot. What we need on the planet is for men to be grown-ups. Because yes, women do like bad boys. Unless you’re married to one.