How ironic that the marketing of viagra should turn out to be hard

Pfizer faces a dilemma/ how to advertise Viagra when regulations ban the mention of the ailment it remedies. The answer, of course, is humour

When Pfizer patented and launched Viagra it created a treatment for a serious medical condition and a worldwide joke. In marketing the product it finds itself torn between the two.

Humour is impossible to define or to explain, but among the many things that make us laugh there are plenty that should not. In the 1980s, alternative comedy sought to remedy this and was, as a result, unamusing. Though it may offend some people – and giving offence is an inescapable part of humour – we find the embarrassment, hurt and indignity of others funny. Slapstick comedians got their laughs that way. Perhaps, as some argue, humour is a form of catharsis, it somehow makes the pain less real, but for whatever reason certain medical conditions border on the hilarious.

Constipation is funny, as is its opposite, diarrhoea. Piles are funny. In fact, almost anything to do with the lower alimentary regions is a hoot. Weak bladders are funny. Ingrowing toenails are funny and so are fallen arches. Certain physical conditions are the butt of humorists; cleft palates, wall eyes, bat ears, bulbous noses, bald heads, gap-teeth, there’s hilarity in every oddity. But of all bodily bits and pieces nothing is so guaranteed to cause a laugh as the sexual organs, their characteristics and deployment.

The malfunctioning of the male member is doubly funny: it is funny simply by dint of being the male member, it is also funny because its failure to perform as intended is a cause of embarrassment and dismay. In providing the means to overcome the problem the makers of Viagra, far from robbing the joke of its potency, so to speak, simply added to it. For now we can combine our laughter at erectile dysfunction with another comic standby, the onset of old age.

All sex is funny, but geriatric sex especially so. There are scores of jokes about octogenarian men with lively libidos (one follows later) though for some reason far fewer about women of a similar age and inclination. Anyway, the genre was given a boost with the advent of a pill capable of restoring vigour to an old friend fallen on soft times.

The earnest pharmacologists at Pfizer could not have expected that their wonder drug would make people laugh, but it did. Joke or not, it needed no marketing. In fact, once its existence became known the ground shook beneath the feet of stampeding older men. In the UK, however, Viagra was classed as a prescription-only drug, hence the daily blizzard of e-mails offering supplies that by-pass the doctor and the chemist.

In North America, by contrast, Viagra is advertised, but with restrictions. In both the US and Canada drug companies can advertise medicines without discussing side-effects as long as they do not mention the condition the drug is supposed to treat. With Viagra that ought not to be a problem, since the whole world and his grandma knows what the little blue pills do. However, Pfizer does not have the market to itself; far from it, in fact it’s losing market share to rival impotence drugs. So it needs to advertise, but it cannot openly say why the product is so efficient at delivering consumer satisfaction.

The task of solving the conundrum fell to Taxi, an advertising agency in Toronto, which, after who knows how much deliberation, tooth sucking and daydreaming came up with the answer – gobbledegook. The TV ads, so far shown only in Canada, feature middle-aged men and women talking in a language that will remind older Britons of the late Professor Stanley Unwin, inventor of Unwinese:

“Viagra spanglecheff?” says a man to a friend at a bowling alley.

“Spanglecheff?” the friend replies.

“Minky Viagra noni noni boo-boo plats!” says the first man with a lascivious grin.

The ads end with the slogan, “The International Language of Viagra”.

Maxine Thomas, an executive at Taxi, says the ads do not need to say what Viagra does: “Consumers can fill in the blanks for themselves.”

One hesitates to speak of a “marketing first”, since there is nothing new under the sun, but there cannot be many ads that have employed gibberish to tell potential consumers something they already know.

Would it not have been better to use an out-and-out Viagra joke, such as the following:An elderly man goes into confession and says to the priest, “Father, I’m 80 years old. I started taking this Viagra pill, and last night I got lucky with two 18-year-old girls. Both of them. Twice.”

The priest says, “Well, my son, when was the last time you were in confession?””Never Father, I’m Jewish.”

“So why are you telling me?””Are you kidding? I’m telling everybody!”Noni noni boo-boo plats!

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