Assessing a Decade of Viagra

It was 10 years ago today that a little blue pill was approved by the FDA. Professor Meika Loe is an expert on Viagra, the first oral pharmaceutical for impotence, world phenomenon, and billion-dollar blockbuster for its manufacturer, Pfizer.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

It was ten years ago today that a little blue pill was approved by the FDA, the first oral pharmaceutical for impotence.

(Soundbite of Viagra Ad)

Unidentified Woman: Step, two, three, four. And turn...

Unidentified Announcer: Whatever steps you're taking to impress your partner, don't let erectile dysfunction get in the way. Viagra, America's most proscribed E.D. treatment can help you enjoy a more satisfying sexual experience.

STEWART: Well, that wasn't the original purpose of the trials of Sildenafil Citrate. The active drug in Viagra, Pfizer was testing it as a cardiovascular drug for its ability to lower blood pressure, but it raised something else, earning it the nickname "the Pfizer Riser." So how did the researchers find out? Well, the apocryphal story goes, you can take this or leave it, the trial subjects who took the drug for its original purpose, they wouldn't give back the samples.

Well, in the past ten years Viagra has become a billion-dollar blockbuster drug. Pfizer says 35 million men around the world have taken it. Here to talk about the cultural measure of that little blue pill is Meika Loe, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Colgate University, and the author of, "The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America." Good morning, Meika. Thank you for taking the time.

Dr. MEIKA LOE (Sociology and Anthropology, Colgate University; Author, "The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America"): Good morning.

STEWART: Well, let me ask you the question in the title of your book. How has the little blue pill changed sex in America?

Dr. LOE: Oh, wow. Well, the short answer to that is it has truly contributed to our intensified sexualized society. I talk about how the sexual status quo has shifted, and we now live in a pharmaceutical era where ads for sexual enhancement are commonplace. You're watching the Super Bowl, you see the ads for Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis, and medicine is yet another commodity that's all about selling sex. And then just the Association of Sexual Health and Pleasure was being a legitimate citizen in our society has truly intensified in the Viagra era.

STEWART: Let's go back to the beginning. You had this venerable old company, Pfizer. I mean, they helped make penicillin during the war, finding itself trying to sell an impotence drug. How did the company go about taking this to market? Was it a little bit of a "wink, wink, nudge, nudge"? Or did they go for clearly just the medical route?

Dr. LOE: You know, they really needed to do very sanitized, scientized campaign in order to create an association with the sex drug that made it feel legitimate and scientifically worthy. And so they brought in Bob Dole, and you remember those original ads. Bob Dole, who's dressed in, essentially, red, white, and blue with the flag behind him, an elder statesman, talking about erectile dysfunction.

And this became really a textbook case in condition branding, where you have this new diagnostic category, erectile dysfunction, that we hadn't heard of before, and Bob Dole was the one to tell us, as an American population, about erectile dysfunction and how serious this can be. What's interesting about this particular condition is that, it's kind of a re-branding of impotence.

Now, erectile dysfunction is a much broader category that can include a much larger demographic, including men who have erectile dissatisfaction, all the way up to severe impotence. So it's a much larger market. And so, again, it became this textbook case for conditioned branding, and a case for how to market to a very large demographic.

STEWART: And I'm wondering, you know, as you look ten years ago, and you look at the baby boom generation, was this sort of a perfect storm? The right drug at the right time? Maybe 25 years ago, this might not have been as successful?

Dr. LOE: Right, right. No, we have the aging of our population and a real denial and concern about aging in our culture. You know, it fit right in with, you know, in fact the timing was absolutely perfect in terms of bringing kind of a respectable sex back into the American culture. This was around the time we were hearing about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. So who better to bring in than Bob Dole, this respectable elder statesman, who may not have won the election, but he's coming back kind of victorious saying, hey, I've got potency, erectile potency, and I'm a true man, and I'm bringing respectable sex back to the population.

What's ironic about that early ad campaign is that, in the end, what Pfizer found out is that man who, like Bob Dole, who are post-prostate cancer survivors, probably had the least effective demographic for Viagra worked least effectively. So they moved on with their ad campaigns to the one that you just played and many others.

STEWART: I'm sort of curious about the couples that you had spoken to in writing your book and doing your research, because I have to imagine that Viagra has had a big effect on intimacy in relationships, not necessarily positive all the time.

Dr. LOE: Right, right. We tend to hear all the success stories, and you know, there are billions of dollars behind that type of marketing. But you know, (unintelligible) is quite a - when I was conducting these interviews in the years after Viagra was available in the population, men were talking about, kind of a surprise that it didn't work for them.

We were led to believe that it works for everyone, and this is a very effective and safe drug. And I heard quite a few concerns about the safety, the side effects, bodies that were out of control. Not only that four-hour erection that people kind of, you know, chuckle about these days, but you know, heart palpitations and then the risky fatal kind of concerns.

STEWART: Yeah, Meika, I mean, it sold billions and billions of dollars worth of these drugs. So, there are clearly people who are happy with it.

Dr. LOE: Sure, sure.

STEWART: Finally, what inspired the name "Viagra"?

Dr. LOE: Another example of conditioned branding. You can associate it with the kind of power of Niagara Falls and then, the vigor or vitality, and the two together, "Vi" and "Agra" really created a beautiful name for a drug that conjures up those kinds of powerful potency and masculinity.

STEWART: Meika Loe is a professor of sociology and anthropology at Colgate University and author of "The Rise of Viagra: How the Little Blue Pill Changed Sex in America." Thanks for taking the time, Meika.

Dr. LOE: Sure. Thanks a lot.

MARTIN: Hey, next on the show, a man who documented the graffiti found in military latrines through photographs. We're going to talk to him next. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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