Wednesday, March 9, 2011


If you are pining to share an awkward moment in front of the TV with your children or mother-in-law, look no further than a commercial concerning erectile dysfunction. Gone are the days where “equipment failure” was a discussion only embarked upon once HIPAA forms were signed and diplomas were inspected; now anyone sitting through two full quarters of an NFL game is exposed to enough innuendos to understand a Color Me Badd album.  

While I am all for progress in modern medicine, I am not sure that listening to Mike Ditka combine thinly-veiled sexual euphemisms with football terminology is the dawn of a new era. However, even Ditka’s Levitra ads seem like subtle poetry compared to Enzyte’s ubiquitous spokesman “Smiling Bob” who apparently grins like a mental patient at the first sign of arousal. The most disturbing thirty-second spot involved Bob dressed as Santa Claus while his female co-workers lined up to straddle his “north pole.”

The onslaught is not limited to television commercials. Anyone with an e-mail account is constantly bombarded with spam messages promising to end the apparent scourge of male flaccidity plaguing the country. Ever other line promises to make you “bigger,” your anatomy “rock-hard” and help you make the best use of your “power-rod” and God knows I hear that enough from the Bowflex commercials.

So how did we get here? Why are we being constantly being subjected to elderly couples slow-dancing in their kitchen and ex-ballplayers coyly reminding us that it might be time to “mobilize our special teams?” I believe the blame rests squarely on two events.

The first event occurred at the 1983 meeting of the American Urological Association in Las Vegas, Nevada where British physiologist Giles Brindley went to the podium, removed his pants, and invited those in attendance to inspect his chemically-induced erection. Ironically, Jim Morrison recently received a posthumous legal pardon for a similar display while Giles went on to receive knighthood. Having injected himself with phenoxybenzamine, Brindley publicly demonstrated the possibility of treating erectile disorders with pharmaceuticals while proliferating the stereotype that the only thing more uncomfortable than seeing a urologist is visiting one of their conventions.

The second event occurred in 1997 when the FDA amended their guidelines concerning direct-to- consumer marketing of pharmaceuticals. The change effectively allowed drug makers to present their product without requiring written disclosure of side effects and health warnings. This allowed them to replace written lines like “Prolonged use has been shown cause spontaneous ocular and rectal hemorrhaging in zoo animals” with the spoken refrain “Talk to your doctor to see if Viagra is right for you.”

While most medications utilized the revised FDA parameters to minimize their often dramatic side effects, erectile dysfunction commercials have taken an opposite approach by highlighting one very specific side effect: the four-hour erection. Each and every E.D. commercial includes the line “Call your doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting longer than four hours.” The implication is that while playing all four quarters of the game is desirable, spilling into overtime could indicate a serious medical condition.  I believe that such a statement is a marketing ploy with no basis in medical science for two reasons:

1.  Most humans in possession of a male reproductive organ do not need a commercial to inform them that involuntary genital engorgement exceeding the running time of Schindler’s List is abnormal. 

2. The wording implies mythical results without ever claiming to actually invoke them.  The viewer is encouraged to insinuate outcomes so impressive they can only be controlled by trained medical professionals.

The truth is that we might as well get used to the awkward moments because erectile dysfunction drugs currently generate more than $2 billion in annual revenue and a recent study published by the Kaiser Foundation showed that every $1 spent marketing prescription medicine directly to consumers generated over $4 in sales. And they are finding new uses every day.

In 2007, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claimed that Viagra could be effectively used to treat jet-lag. This means that while on a flight in the near future, you may discover that more than your neighbor’s tray table is “locked in the upright position…..”

*Special thanks to Brien Turner whose intense dislike of direct-to-consumer marketing of E.D. drugs served as the catalyst for this rant. 

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