Laughter Will Be the Legacy of Viagra.
10.02.14 5:00 AM ET.
Everyone knows that the way to a man’s penis is through his wife. Or, at least, that’s the rationale behind Pfizer’s latest ad campaign for Viagra, which was released this Tuesday, marking the first time in the company’s history that it has explicitly targeted women. In its new 60-second television spot, a blond woman on a day bed directs her piercing blue eyes directly at the camera and speaks plainly to the viewer about erectile dysfunction: “You know what? Plenty of guys have this issue: not just getting an erection but keeping it.”
Although the ad addresses men with erectile dysfunction (ED), executives at Pfizer told The Associated Press that they hope the ad campaign will also encourage sexually unsatisfied women to get their husbands to take Viagra. The ad, then, is intended to work on two levels: Men are supposed to see a coy television spot not unlike a commercial for a 1-900 number while women are supposed to imitate the new Viagra spokeswoman by initiating conversations about ED with their own significant others. Television commercials already assume that women are responsible for feeding and cleaning up after their spouses. Why not add erections to the list of women’s domestic responsibilities?
Not only is Pfizer’s new ad campaign a shameless attempt to pull in a new demographic, it’s also something of a death knell for a drug whose time in the spotlight is coming to an end. Pfizer has already been dealing with a shrinking market share for Viagra due to stiff competition from the manufacturers of Cialis and Levitra. A new Australian study, too, has consumers worried that Viagra could cause blindness and other vision problems. And with sildenafil citrate going generic in three years, Pfizer will soon lose sole ownership over the Viagra formula. While Pfizer, as Sean Williams of The Motley Fool reports, retains the highest revenue of any pharmaceutical company in the world, its stock “hasn’t gone anywhere in nominal terms for 15 years,” in large measure because of the patent cliff of blockbuster drugs like Viagra.
But the end of Viagra as we know it signals more than just a change in the tides for Big Pharma. The death of Viagra is also the end of a cultural era. When Viagra was approved by the FDA in March of 1998, Bill Clinton was president, the iPod hadn’t been released yet, and cargo pants were still in fashion. In a strange way, that humble blue pill has been one of the most enduring through lines from the buoyant optimism of the 1990s to the grim postmodernism of the 2010s and it has seemed equally at home in both. It’s been a hell of a ride for Viagra, and it’s lasted a lot longer than four hours. Erectile dysfunction drugs won’t be going anywhere—they’re still part of a multibillion-dollar industry—but the age of Viagra, as it were, is finally coming to a close.
What will be the cultural legacy of Viagra as we move forward from here? Although the drug has reportedly been taken by 50 million men, a 2013 U.S. study found that nearly three-quarters of men who receive an ED diagnosis go untreated, electing not to fill or take their prescriptions. And, as Dr. Irwin Goldstein told AP, only 10 percent of men over 40 take medicine for ED despite the fact that nearly half of them suffer from it. When Michael Douglas told AARP’s magazine that Viagra was a “wonderful enhancement” that helped men his age “feel younger,” he wasn’t lying, but men like Douglas are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to being treated for ED.
Claims like NPR’s that the “[sex] lives of older men have changed in a significant way since 1998,” then, are perhaps only true in a softer, more qualified sense: Viagra has significantly changed the sex lives of a minority of men who suffer from ED. And doubtless, the effects of Viagra on this particular cohort of men have been nothing short of uplifting but dubbing Viagra a “sexual revolution” is overreaching, at least from a statistical standpoint. Cultural barriers like embarrassment that prevent men from following through with treatment for ED have foreclosed the possibility of a sexual revolution on a truly significant scale.
So if Viagra has altered sex lives less drastically than previously imagined, what cultural impact has it had over the last fifteen years? Call it tragic, call it comic, or call it both: The most enduring legacy of Viagra might be erectile dysfunction jokes. As fellow Daily Beast contributor Daniel Gross said in a phone interview, erectile dysfunction “wasn’t openly talked about in the culture before [Viagra].” Prior to 1998, he said, there were “just men who couldn’t get it up,” not men who were known to be suffering from a treatable medical condition. By becoming, as Gross notes, “the first erectile dysfunction drug to be marketed directly to consumers,” Viagra inaugurated the era of public discussion of ED.
But this public awareness of ED has been a double-edged sword. For the minority of men who have benefited directly from erectile dysfunction drugs, the open discussion of ED that Viagra brought about has been a godsend. For the rest of the world, however, the lasting impact of Viagra has been, simply put, laughter. Erectile dysfunction jokes have become a staple for comedy in the last 15 years.
According to The Wall Street Journal , it took Jay Leno only four years to make nearly 1,000 Viagra jokes on The Tonight Show . In 2008, too, TIME published a compilation of 10 years of Viagra jokes. Saturday Night Live , in particular, has a long history of constantly returning to the well of Viagra humor with parody commercials and a particularly memorable installment of the popular Ladies Man sketch. If you were in the business of telling jokes in the 2000s, Viagra and erectile dysfunction were the gifts that kept on giving. And 15 years later, comedians are still keeping it up. Just last week, for instance, Conan O’Brien compared the iPhone 6’s issues with bending to erectile dysfunction in a mock advertisement.
To an extent, Pfizer’s advertising has embraced the humor of Viagra throughout the drug’s history. While Pfizer tends to play it straight in the U.S. with straightforward advertisements that show men involved a variety of manly tasks like surfing, sailing, and commercial fishing, their international approach has been much more light-hearted. In South Africa, for example, Pfizer promoted the drug with a playfully suggestive image of a milkman re-buttoning his jacket as he leaves an estate. A Saudi Arabian television ad for Viagra shows a man struggling to push a straw through the lid of his beverage. And a Canadian spot promotes Viagra as a way for men to get out of tedious household responsibilities like helping out with the redecorating. As the author of one media studies journal article observes, Viagra’s relationship with the media has been a prime example of “media culture talking back to ads and vice versa,” with erectile dysfunction humor in the media unwittingly promoting Viagra even as Pfizer capitalizes on this humor to promote its drug in earnest. If we’ve been laughing at Viagra, Pfizer has taken our laughter all the way to the bank.
But our laughter may be about to fade. It’s been a long time, after all, since Bob Dole first let us know that Bob Dole endorses Viagra. With revenues for Viagra potentially on the decline soon and a shift in advertising strategies that reveal a pharmaceutical giant scrambling to maintain market share, it’s worth asking what Viagra has meant to American culture as we prepare to say farewell to its era of a dominance. For some, that will mean reflecting on an aged sex life that got a second chance; for most, it will mean looking back, for better or for worse, on 15 years of penis humor. Goodbye, Viagra. Like erections, all good things must come to an end.