SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/Special Report

Drug makers turn to NFL to challenge Viagra

In the parlance of football, Bayer Pharmaceuticals Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline anticipated U.S. government approval of a jointly marketed erectile dysfunction drug, Levitra, much as fans would view a point-after-touchdown kick. It was all but certain.

Yet until this presumed competitor to Pfizer's highly profitable Viagra brand had the Food and Drug Administration's formal blessing, Bayer and GSK, the NFL's first pharmaceutical sponsors, were prohibited by law from even talking in generalities about marketing and advertising Levitra among the NFL's weekly, mostly male television audience of 120 million.

When the FDA cleared Levitra on Aug. 19, the gag order dissolved but Bayer and GSK continued to veil in mystery their plans for the three-year deal with the NFL, which industry sources say represents more than $5 million a year in found sponsor revenue for the league.

"Obviously, we've been hoping and planning for an approval," said GSK's director of product communications, Michael Fleming. "At this point, we don't want to flag what we're doing for our friends at Pfizer."

With the regular season opening this week, what is known is that broadcaster, corporate speaker and NFL hall of famer Mike Ditka is the Bayer-GSK paid endorser. His public revelation about experiencing impotence is only part of Ditka's appeal, according to the brand's spokespeople, who insist he is not the Levitra poster guy but the point man for a broader medical awareness campaign called "Tackling Men's Health."

"[Ditka] is a real guy," Bayer spokeswoman Lara Crissey said. "We think he knows how to connect."

Now that the NFL no longer bans pharmaceutical advertising, the Bayer-GSK sponsorship is to be geared heavily toward TV ad buys during NFL telecasts, with separate themes for Levitra and Tackling Men's Health. A CommonHealth advertising and marketing agency, The Quantum Group of Parsippany, N.J., was awarded the NFL campaign, which is expected to debut along with the 2003-04 regular season.

NFL director of communications Brian McCarthy said the league has the right to review proposed and finished ad spots. The NFL had a collaborative role in the decision to hire Ditka and in the development of a parallel health awareness campaign, McCarthy said. "This is where we benefit, and we also think our fans benefit as well," he said.

Eventually, Bayer-GSK's presence will reach local NFL markets via TV and in-stadium signs, but there will be no NFL player filling the roles of Viagra spokesmen Rafael Palmeiro of Major League Baseball's Texas Rangers or Mark Martin of NASCAR. The NFL prohibits active players, coaches or team owners from endorsing a pharmaceutical brand.

The makers of Levitra are using tough guy Mike Ditka to promote men’s health issues.
The campaign also is being adapted to reach Internet users. In their quest for news and stats, NFL fans have made nfl.com one of the most heavily trafficked sports Web sites. Bayer's Crissey said a Levitra/Tackling Men's Health link is planned for the NFL site.

Bayer and GSK went after the NFL sponsor category aggressively to reach a vast, loyal male audience, not only in an attempt to erode Viagra's hold on the market but to establish itself ahead of a third erectile dysfunction drug, by Eli Lilly & Co. and Icos Corp., due to launch this year.

While Viagra did $1.7 billion in sales last year, the market remains lucrative. GSK's Fleming cited estimates that only about 15 percent of the 30 million American males with some degree of erectile dysfunction are being treated, and that half of that group does not refill their prescriptions.

The Bayer-GSK Levitra strategy is not only to drive sales through advertising the drug's effectiveness but also to persuade men to consult with a physician on a range of health issues, during which erectile dysfunction might find its way into a conversation. The companies behind Levitra intend Ditka, an NFL icon as a Chicago Bears player and coach, to be associated with the indirect part of the strategy. "He is not a product spokesman," Fleming said.

Even so, Ditka is on record about previously taking Viagra — before he was under contract to Bayer and GSK — and it appears inevitable that the attention fueled by his role will center on what he has to say about overcoming impotence. His comments in an Aug. 3 Chicago Tribune interview that Levitra is "supposed to be better [than Viagra], stronger and no side effects" caused a minor furor as the remarks came ahead of FDA approval.

Linking Ditka's image to the campaign "takes the stigma and the shame [of impotence] away," said Nova Lanktree, executive vice president of athlete marketing agency CSMG.

Lanktree has booked Ditka on behalf of numerous advertisers in the past. "He is someone we have all thought of in a John Wayne sort of way," she said. "[Ditka] is that stereotypically macho man."

Whether consumers can be persuaded to ask doctors to prescribe Levitra remains to be seen, but marketing consultant Dean Bonham, president of the Denver-based Bonham Group, said it is vital that Bayer and GSK not worry about comparing marketing strategies to anything Pfizer has done the past five years.

"I think it is right on target," Bonham said of the NFL strategy. "I think it can break through."

Ultimately, because Viagra long ago created awareness of erectile dysfunction on a global scale, the primary task facing Levitra's creative team will be empowering male football fans to translate awareness into personal action. That is the approach recommended by Sandeep Dayal, chief marketing officer of Zyman Marketing Group, the agency created by former Coca-Cola CMO Sergio Zyman.

"Admission [of impotence] can lead to guilt, and that is not a pleasant feeling," Dayal said. "So it can become a psychological barrier."

Bayer and GSK are spending more than $15 million in sponsorship fees and tens of millions more for advertising time to crumble that barrier.

"Pharmaceutical marketers have to be careful," Dayal said. "It is easy to spend money on sponsorships. But it is difficult to spend it smart."

Steve Woodward is a writer in Chicago.

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