Pfizer Courting More Controversy with Viagra 'Advergaming'

Last Updated Sep 3, 2008 1:56 PM EDT

First it was a pill. Thvvideo-2.jpgen it was a cultural phenomenon. Now Viagra is a video game. Pfizer is currently advertising its blockbuster erectile dysfunction drug with an online game called "Viva Cruiser." In doing so, the company seems to be courting controversy -- as it has done in the past -- over whether it believes Viagra is a legitimate treatment for a medical condition or a party drug.

In the game, players are instructed, "You're about to take your partner on a romantic getaway. Pick up a few things on the way." Players must then guide a motorcycle rider down a desert road picking up gifts for a date and avoiding orange hazard cones. The gifts include roses, scented candles, gift boxes -- and of course little, blue, diamond-shaped pills.

As the game progresses, players get points for running over gifts and are penalized for hitting the orange cones. As a stopwatch counts down the available gametime, Pfizer's "Viva Viagra" theme song can be heard in the background. The desert and the song are a play on the "Viva Las Vegas" theme that Pfizer has borrowed for its campaign. Simultaneously, a man's voice offers advice: "Don't let erectile dysfunction slow you down ... erectile dysfunction is a common issue so doctors talk to men about ED all the time," and so on.

(The game isn't likely to threaten Grand Theft Auto. In only three attempts, I doubled my points from an initially disappointing 27 to a more robust 47. )

The game appears if web users click on a sky-scraper-shaped Viagra ad that has been placed on some pages of Forbes.com. (The ad does not appear for every user.) In the last few years, Pfizer has repositioned Viagra. It was once pitched as a treatment for an embarrassing medical condition brought on by prostate-removal (ads once featured Bob Dole addressing the camera). More recently, Viagra has been presented as more of a casual, lifestyle accoutrement. The company has been criticized for this approach.

In 2004, Pfizer yanked a TV commercial at the request of the FDA. In the spot, a voiceover said, "Remember that guy who used to be called 'Wild Thing'? The guy who wanted to spend the entire honeymoon indoors? Remember the one who couldn't resist a little mischief? Yeah, that guy. He's back." As the voiceover came to an end, the Viagra logo appeared behind the man's head, giving him blue devil horns. But the ad contained no risk or side effect information. Pfizer appeared to be running the ad as a "reminder," a loophole in FDA law which allows companies to promote the names of drugs without making any claims for them. The FDA believed the ad indicated Viagra was for sex, and thus came too close to making a medical claim.

In 2007, Pfizer came under heavy criticism from the Aids Health Foundation of California, which claimed Viagra's promotion was leading to increased HIV infections among drug abusers. Crystal meth users often abuse Viagra as well. The AHF also claimed that Pfizer used frivolous occasions such as the Super Bowl, New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day to advertise Viagra as a recreational drug. The AHF banned Pfizer's reps from its clinics and sued the company.

Pfizer did not respond to two messages seeking comment. The move into so-called "advergaming" is a new one for the drug business. The industry is traditionally slower to adopt new marketing media than others. Pfizer, for instance, only got seriously into online video in its web ads in 2006.

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