The hokey new ad for Levitra.

The hokey new ad for Levitra.

The hokey new ad for Levitra.

Advertising deconstructed.
Dec. 30 2003 11:06 AM

Romancing the Tire Swing

What's up with that hokey Levitra ad?

Spot: "Stay in the Game."

Product: Levitra.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Click here to view the ad Synopsis: A middle-aged guy, just about to mow his lawn, sees a football in his backyard shed. He tries to throw the football through a tire (conveniently strung from a nearby tree). Doink—no dice. The voice-over suggests you "ask your doctor about new Levitra." Levitra's logo (the word next to the silhouette of a burning flame) pops up on screen, and you hear the sound of a match being struck. The suddenly reinvigorated man throws the ball straight through the tire, again and again. A smiling woman joins him in the yard. They nuzzle.

Analysis: This Levitra spot recently hit No. 1 in an ad tracking poll (run by the Intermedia Advertising Group) that measures things like viewer recall, message understanding, and likeability. So it's a big hit. Which is astonishing, since it never once explains what Levitra is or what it's for.

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This is a "non-indicated" ad, meaning it doesn't indicate what the hell the pill does. If it did, it would be required to include "fair balance information," including warnings about potential side effects. (You know—a pleasant female voice mentions "sudden internal bleeding" as though she were saying, "I like your sweater.")

I asked Michael Fleming, of GlaxoSmithKline product communications (Levitra's jointly marketed by GSK and Bayer), why they used a non-indicated ad. He said it was to avoid wasting precious airtime on the side effects rigmarole. Plus, when the product launched in August, they ran lots of indicated print ads, so they felt people were plenty familiar with Levitra's purpose.

In case you haven't figured it out, Levitra is an erectile dysfunction drug. The football-through-tire imagery—at once hokey and icky—makes that pretty obvious to viewers of the ad. (The woman's gratified smile reinforces the point.) I asked Fleming if, given the wink-winkness of the spot, it didn't come dangerously close to being indicated. In other words, at what point is the hint so blatant that you have to list side effects? Is the football-through-tire image almost too on the nose, in a legal sense?

"I don't think anyone has drawn that comparison," he said, totally deadpan.

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Honestly, you've never heard anyone compare the football-through-tire thing to, um, doing it? "I've never heard that."

OK, we won't give him too hard a time for doing his job, but that's absurd. The image is almost hilariously obvious. Fleming says they considered several other concepts before choosing this one, but he won't reveal any rejected ideas because they might still be used in future spots. Sweet! Can't wait for the one where a man shoots pool with a length of rope!

Levitra is locked in battle with Viagra (the ED king, by a wide margin) and Cialis (the new kid on the block, just launched), and the marketing budgets for these pills reportedly reach up to $100 million annually. So Levitra needs to differentiate itself, and do it fast. I'm not in the target demographic for these drugs … if you know what I mean … but allow me to offer my take on their branding efforts.

First, the names. "Viagra" is supposed to suggest vigor and Niagara. Ehhh. "Cialis" is supposed to suggest—well, I have no idea. And then there's "Levitra." I love this name. It sounds like the Harry Potter spell for summoning an erection. Levitra! Winner: Levitra.

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Now, the ads. Viagra ads used to feature Bob Dole. My question is, who does Bob Dole appeal to? Does he even appeal to Elizabeth Dole? Lately, Viagra's switched to baseball player Rafael Palmeiro. Again, ehhh. The Cialis campaign has apparently just launched, but I haven't seen any ads yet and so can't judge it. Levitra, as previously mentioned, is tracking superbly. Winner: Levitra.

And last, the overall brand strategy. Viagra's message seems to say: Don't be embarrassed, even famous dudes like Bob Dole and Raffy Palmeiro admit to trying this stuff. Not a bad angle, since studies show that even now just a small percentage of men with ED seek any treatment.

Levitra's central branding move has been its partnership with the impeccably virile NFL, but there may be another, more subtle strategy at work in the Levitra campaign. Pay close attention to the burning flame logo, and the sound of the match being struck. The suggestion is that, unlike cold and clinical Viagra, which simply treats a health problem, Levitra is hot hot hot! Woo, let's spark up this fire! Though Bayer/GSK would never say this, it's been suggested that Levitra's real market is men with no physical problems at all who just want to perform "better." Evidence for this: The Levitra ad voice-over says, "Sometimes you need a little help staying in the game." If it were really for men with impotence, wouldn't it say "a little help getting in the game" and not "staying in the game"? Or am I over-deconstructing? Notice the rejuvenated man throws the ball through the tire three times in rapid succession before he's done.

As for Cialis, all I know is that it's referred to as "The Weekender" because it stays in your bloodstream for 36 hours. I'm not sure you can top a nickname like "The Weekender." I hope Cialis ads will show a man throwing a football through a tire hundreds of times, over and over, until his arm is sore and he's totally exhausted and doesn't even want to do it anymore.

Grade: Yes, the tracking numbers are great. And I love the sound effect when the football hits the tire and bounces off—"doof!" Nice touch, that. Adds an audible element to the guy's futility. But the object-through-hole metaphor is just too cringe-making. Eww. C+.