So… erectile dysfunction. Awkward.
Nevertheless, today I’m writing a blog post about the goofy commercials for E.D. medications, because it relates to my debut novel, Sweet Dreams.
Senator Bob Dole said it best sixteen years ago in the first Viagra commercial: “You know, it’s a little embarrassing to talk about E.D., but it’s so important to millions of men and their partners, that I decided to talk about it publicly.” In his typical Kansas-country-gentleman way, he basically told us all to grow up.
Ads that followed were less direct. They implied that if a man used Viagra or Cialis or Levitra, it didn’t make him a wimp. Rather, commercials showed that manly men used E.D. medication. Guys in the ads were all tall, muscle-laden fellows with lots of whiskers. They gathered at biker bars and threw footballs through tire swings. They drove pick-ups, classic Ford Mustangs, and teams of horses.
Honestly, I didn’t even think about these ads when I wrote Sweet Dreams. But when I created its hero, Dakota Kohler, I made him a courageous nurse anesthetist who also deals with E.D. (If you didn’t know this fun fact– buy the book!) Like all brave men, Dakota found inner strength. With the help of medication he (ahem!) rose to the occasion.
But here’s the thing: lots of men aren’t dealing with their E.D. In an A.P. article about Viagra’s newest commercial, the physician Irwin Goldstein, a pioneer in the study of impotence and one of Pfizer’s earliest paid consultants for Viagra, said that more than 50% of men over forty suffer from E.D. but just 10% are getting treatment. What can advertisers do?
A year ago, the New Yorker looked at E.D. commercials and the impact these ads have on sales. They reported that, to date, Pfizer’s most productive ad for Viagra was the first one featuring Senator Dole. Ad companies realized their error and decided to return to the direct approach. Sadly, their efforts have been laughable.
In the latest Viagra ad, a female was chosen to be the straightforward spokesperson. A ten-out-of-ten woman lies on a bed and twice in the same minute she purrs that many guys over forty have problems “not just getting an erection,” and then she raises an eyebrow and emphasizes, “but keeping it.” Finally, she encourages men to call their doctor. Good times are just a phone call away is the obvious implication. It’s as simple and fun as a 1-900 number.
But men still aren’t picking up the phone and calling their doctor. The reason that even the new ad is a bust, I believe, relates to the following lesson I learned when I first began advertising my book:
Sweet Dreams was published in August 2015, and my initial sales efforts began at nursing conventions. I set up vendor booths, and sold autographed copies to nurses interested in reading a fun midlife romance. Before attending my first convention, I Googled ‘vendor booth success.’ I learned quite a bit: if a salesperson stands behind a podium, she sells more. If she wears make-up, she’ll sell 60% more product than going au natural. But if she’s too good looking—insiders call these women booth-babes—men won’t approach her booth. Young customers report that they feel intimidated by booth babes, and older attendees don’t want to appear as if they’re “hitting” on the vendor representative. (This is why I send my husband to be my “booth babe.”)
For me, the lesson from all this is clear. Making potential customers feel separated from the in-crowd or not worthy will simply alienate them. It will not sell a product, no matter how much the consumer may benefit.
I asked my husband for his thoughts. How could guys be made to feel more comfortable asking for help? In my wildly non-scientific survey with a sample size of one, I learned that some men (like my wonderful spouse) would rather ask for an E.D. prescription from a female health professional. “I guess it’s a nurturing thing,” he said.
I believe he’s right. And since many Americans can now receive their primary care from nurse practitioners, advertisers should capitalize on it. By definition, nurses nurture. These days, many nurses (those of us with advanced practice degrees) have prescriptive authority. Also, encouraging men to ask a nurse for help implies that the problem is readily fixable. Brain surgery must be performed by a physician; regular things for regular people can be handled by a specially trained nurse.
Considering all this, I have come up with a new advertising plan and a commercial idea for the pharmacy industry. Here’s my idea:
Get back to being direct. And for God’s sake set the bar at the level of the typical American guy. I’ve Googled this, too, and he’s five foot, nine inches tall and 204 lbs. Fairly sedentary.
For our new commercial, we need a model who’s paunchy but clean-shaven. Direct but charming. The ad should be shot while he’s standing in a room with a bookcase and a television. Here’s my script for our Jason Alexander/Danny DeVito kind of actor:
“Guys, let’s face it. We hate going on job interviews. We get nervous asking someone on a date, and we don’t like asking for directions. Matter of fact, we don’t like being vulnerable in any little way.” Then the camera should come in closer, and he should say, “Want to know what’s really uncomfortable? Talking about Erectile Dysfunction. I have it and if you’re over forty years old, chances are you do, too. But, you know what I did? I talked to my nurse practitioner. And, yeah, the conversation felt awkward at first. But here’s the thing: It was worth it. And by the way, my N.P. really didn’t laugh out loud, point at me and say, ‘You think somebody would want to sleep with you?!’ She acted like a regular professional adult. I’m glad I got help, and you will be, too.”
What do you think? Should I offer my consultation services to the advertisers? Why aren’t men getting the help they need? Why are we so uncomfortable with it all? How much does the high price of these medications play into the conundrum? A second can of worms is whether or not the ads should be aired during prime-time television—another conversation for the nation. Please feel free to comment; I’d love to get a healthy discussion going.