Levitra, a Rival With Ribald Ads, Gains on ViagraBy GARDINER HARRIS
After one of the most expensive and ribald advertising blitzes in drug industry history, Levitra, the new impotence treatment, has in less than a month captured half of Viagra's market share among new prescriptions.
The secret of Levitra's extraordinary success is an unapologetic push for recreational use.
Janice Lipsky, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, which makes Viagra, said that Levitra had benefited from "false claims and public relations in which they inaccurately state that Levitra works faster and is better, neither of which is true."
GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer, the co-marketers of Levitra, boldly admit that they are focusing on men who may have successful sexual relationships but who simply want to improve the quality or duration of their erections.
Federal drug regulators only started allowing widespread consumer drug advertising in 1997, and for years the drug industry — worried that its newfound right could be taken away if it was seen to be abused — mostly ran high-minded ads that sought to educate consumers about serious diseases.
Pfizer's initial ad campaign for Viagra, for instance, used Bob Dole as its pitchman and educated the public about a serious condition called erectile dysfunction, a phrase that was meant to be a euphemism for impotence. Pfizer insisted at the time that it was not trying to encourage recreational use among otherwise healthy men.
Levitra's campaign has no such high-minded purpose. The company's ads feature a young man whose attempt to throw a football through a tire bounces off the side. After Levitra is mentioned, he shoots the ball through the tire again and again and is joined by his attractive wife. Executives at GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer are unapologetic about their attempt to corral healthy men into trying the drug.
Simply achieving penetration and ejaculation — the main goals Pfizer initially set for Viagra — are not the goals set by Levitra's sellers. Sexual satisfaction is. "We've done a lot of research on trying to understand what men want," said Nancy Bryan, vice president for marketing at Bayer. "And what they want is to improve the quality of their erections, to get one that's hard enough and lasts long enough for a satisfying sexual experience."
Data collected by ImpactRx, a pharmaceutical promotion research company based in Mt. Laurel, N.J., found that Levitra had captured 50 percent of the share of new prescriptions in the erectile dysfunction market by Tuesday. New prescriptions represent only a fraction of total sales because they do not include refills of existing prescriptions. The data also show that sales representatives from GlaxoSmithKline and Bayer are talking to doctors about Levitra 50 percent more than sales representatives from Pfizer are speaking about Viagra.
Ms. Lipsky said the ImpactRx data was "grossly inconsistent with the audit data that we use, which shows that Viagra still dominates the category." With 11,000 sales representatives, Pfizer generally dominates marketing among physicians in almost every category of drugs that is important to the company. But GlaxoSmithKline has 8,000 sales representatives itself, and Bayer has 3,000 more. Levitra is the most important drug introduction for either company in years.
"We're committed to being very competitive," Ms. Bryan said.
Tony Butler, an analyst for Lehman Brothers, said he thought that Levitra's fast start would soon begin to fade. Many men who have tried Viagra have been disappointed, Mr. Butler noted. Others have been waiting to use an impotence drug and, with a new entrant, have decided now is the time, he said. Levitra is capitalizing on both sets of men.
But Levitra offers few benefits over Viagra, Mr. Butler said, so many of those trying Levitra may return to Viagra or will again cease using either drug, he said. "It's way too early to make a decision as to whether Levitra will be preferred over Viagra," he added.
Just months away is another competitor, Cialis from Eli Lilly, which is under final review by the Food and Drug Administration. Cialis is effective for 36 hours while Viagra and Levitra work for four to five hours.