Popular marketing campaign reaps sales boost but is costly
By John Russell
A 50-something couple is cuddling on the couch. The passion is building. Suddenly, the door bursts open.
"Surprise! I'm home," their clueless college daughter says with a big smile. She hands Dad a bag of laundry and gives Mom a hug.
So much for the special moment. It might take the parents hours to find the magic again, even if their daughter spends the rest of the day at the movies.
But the intimacy problem, captured in a television commercial for erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis, is paying off in spades for Indianapolis drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co.
The commercial has been seen by millions of television viewers. It recently was named the No. 1 most-recalled drug ad last year by the Nielsen Co. And it helped boost worldwide sales of Cialis last year by 26 percent, to $1.4 billion, making it one of Lilly's fastest-growing products.
Today, Cialis commands nearly one-third of the U.S. market for ED drugs, gaining ground on market leader Viagra, made by competitor Pfizer, which once dominated the market. That's up sharply from less than 2 percent in 2003, the year Lilly launched the yellow almond-shaped pill.
Although Cialis still trails Viagra in the U.S., it's the leader in more than 20 nations, from Mexico to France, in the $3 billion worldwide market.
But it also raises the question of whether drugmakers are spending too much to develop and advertise what some people call a "lifestyle drug." Some critics say the industry should be focusing more on treatments for serious, life-threatening medical conditions such as cancer and heart disease.
They also say that advertising medicines to consumers, a practice not permitted in most other countries, drives up the cost of health care.
Lilly won't say how much it spends to advertise Cialis. But according to Nielsen, Cialis was the seventh-most-advertised drug in the country in 2007, with $152 million spent.
That money helped the company blanket the U.S. with a series of sometimes humorous, sometimes squirmy vignettes, showing how middle-aged couples deal with ED.
The spot about the couple interrupted by the college daughter is one example. After the girl greets her parents, the commercial shows the couple gradually getting back into the mood by necking on the couch, holding hands as they wander through an art museum, and later, watching the sun set over the ocean, while sitting in side-by-side bathtubs.
The message: Cialis can start working in as little as 30 minutes and stay effective for up to 36 hours. "Because when the moment is right, you can be ready," the announcer says.
Lilly recently launched another spot for Cialis focusing on different dosing options, including a new once-a-day version. The pill is designed for men who anticipate having sex two or more times a week, without confining it to a limited time.
Neither Viagra nor Levitra, another drug for ED made by GlaxoSmithKline, is sold in once-daily doses, which could give Lilly an edge.
The commercial features lots of bathtub moments -- at the beach, in a forest, in a backyard -- that convey what no one can really say on television. Lilly has used the bathtub motif since 2004.
Sex seems to command a brisk market. Even in a recession, drugmakers have raised the price of erectile-dysfunction drugs by hefty margins. In the first three months of this year, Lilly boosted the price of Cialis 14.2 percent, while Pfizer raised the price of Viagra 20.7 percent, according to Credit Suisse.
"The drug companies are raising their prices like mad," said Melody Petersen, author of "Our Daily Meds," an expose of drug marketing. "Lilly raised the prices of some of its drugs this year by 15 percent. That's many times the rate of inflation. Now we know where that money is going -- to make more ads for lifestyle drugs like Cialis."
Some industry consultants acknowledge that drug advertising remains a sticky issue.
"People are treating drugs like they treat buying a refrigerator," said Matt Modleski, vice president of Stovall, Grainger & Modleski in Centreville, Va. "If the commercial sounds good, you're going to ask for it. It's crazy."
Still, drugmakers are pulling back in commercial advertising. Last year, they spent 8 percent less -- $4.4 billion -- than the year before to advertise drugs, making it the first downturn in such spending since the 1990s, according to IMS Media Intelligence.
Lilly said ED is not a lifestyle issue, but a real medical condition that causes men embarrassment, strains relationships and often signals other medical problems, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The company said it is trying to educate patients about treatment, not only through the ads, but on its Web site and in educational efforts with doctors.
"There is still a huge stigma associated with erectile dysfunction," said Shawn Heffern, U.S. director of Cialis Brand Marketing. "Men are fearful to talk to their partner about it, or to their physician."
Some doctors say they don't mind the commercials because they put the issue on the table and lead to broader treatments.
"My hope is when the man goes to see his doctor, the doctor will evaluate his entire condition," said Dr. Harry Fisch, director of the Male Reproductive Center at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. "It could be caused by a lot of different things."
CIALIS AT A GLANCE
Launched: 2003, five years after competitor Pfizer introduced Viagra.
Purpose: Treats erectile dysfunction, which affects up to 30 million men in the U.S.
Maker: Eli Lilly and Co.
Versions: Standard version is 10 or 20 mg, which is taken occasionally and is good for 36 hours. A newer, 5 mg, once-a- day version is for men who expect to have sex twice or more a week and want to be constantly ready.
Patent expires: 2017.
Source: Eli Lilly, Star research