THE SOFT SELL

During the third quarter of the Super Bowl on Sunday, 90 million viewers will get a break from the rough- and-tumble. A languid 60-second commercial will open with a middle-aged couple in side-by-side bathtubs on a mountain bluff, taking in a golden sunset. To the gentle strum of a jazz guitar, the spot slowly cuts to another couple canoodling at a coffeehouse. Then there's the pair riding off in a convertible, wind in their silver hair. Finally, a rugged husband lovingly startles the missus in the kitchen and drags her off for who knows what? It might look like a pitch for a dating service, but what's really for sale is sex. Or, more specifically, a sexual aid: Cialis, the latest impotence drug to take on Viagra. The Super Bowl ad, shown exclusively to NEWSWEEK, is laced with Cialis's biggest selling point--it works for up to 36 hours (the French call it "Le Weekender"). Sure, there's a mention of an unsettling side effect or two, like erections that won't go away, but overall the tone is subtly suggestive. "When the moment is right," the announcer coos, "will you be ready?"

Now that Cialis's big moment has arrived, its proud parents are giving it quite a push. Drug giant Eli Lilly and the ICOS biotech firm are spending $100 million to launch their new creation. The ad blitz will highlight Cialis's 36-hour nookie window, compared with the five-hour effectiveness of Viagra and Levitra. Cialis (pronounced "See-Alice") won't be the only advertiser looking for love at the Super Bowl. Levitra, which debuted last fall with an ad showing a virile guy whipping a football through a tire swing, will advertise in the first half. Even market-leader Viagra, made by Pfizer, is considering showing up for the big game, where air time goes for $4.5 million a minute. That's peanuts, given the rapidly expanding market. Viagra had nearly $2 billion in sales last year, and the overall market will triple to $6 billion by the end of the decade, predicts Lehman Brothers analyst Tony Butler. By then, there will be a half-dozen drugs available for the 30 million American men who struggle in the sack. And it's not just Bob Dole anymore. In the six years since he taught us the meaning of "erectile dysfunction," impotence drugs have morphed from an old man's crutch to a baby boomer's little helper. These days, Viagra is pitched by 39-year-old baseball slugger Rafael Palmeiro. And there's so much buzz about the latest magic pill, men are asking for it without knowing its name. "People are walking in here and saying 'I want the weekend pill'," says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, director of Boston University's Center for Sexual Medicine.

Instead of appealing to the locker-room crowd with jock endorsers and blatant sexual metaphors, Cialis is going for a soft sell. Its emotional ads target not just guys, but also the women who love them. Cialis's ad team, led by two women at Grey Worldwide, figured they could get more men into the doctor's office if they appealed to the person in charge of health care in most households--the wife. The campaign Grey created has the feel of a romance novel for aging boomers, with plenty of tender moments. "The harder, jocky kind of advertising excludes the partner," explains Colleen Meehan, Cialis's creative director. "It's not just about the ability to have an erection. It's about getting back the emotional bond with your partner."

Discussing erections in mixed company wasn't so easy three years ago, when Grey started on the Cialis campaign. At first, Meehan and brand director Millicent Badillo planned to go naughty. The first commercial they dreamed up featured a train streaking into a tunnel. That and similar--ahem--"visuals" were never even shown to the client, says Badillo, because they didn't pass "the red-face test." To be more subtle, they crafted spots only suggesting sex. One showed a trail of clothes leading to a bedroom; another had a running kitchen faucet. But focus groups of impotence sufferers gave it a thumbs down. "They said, 'If I have 36 hours, I don't need to rush'," recalls Badillo.

Then they tried to make time the star of the campaign. "We thought if the benefit is time, why not show a clock?" says Matt Beebe, Lilly and ICOS's Cialis marketing chief. So the ad team worked up spots showing spinning clocks and men checking their watches. The slogan: "You've already chosen who to love. Now you can choose the right time." The focus groups hated it. For them, overt references to time replaced one problem with another: performance anxiety. "They said, 'You're reminding me I'm under pressure'," says Badillo. Even the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" stressed them out. Another slogan--"Now you can choose the right medicine for you"--wasn't working, either.

The light-bulb moment finally arrived on a hot summer night in Boston two years ago. After a brutal week of focus groups, the ad team locked themselves in a room at 2 a.m. to brainstorm a solution. Everything they'd tried had been a turnoff to couples starved for affection. But slowly, they realized that 36 hours of sexual freedom is shared equally in the bedroom. So by changing one word, they perfected the pitch: "Now you can choose the moment that's right for you."

The risk, though, is that Cialis's sensitive sell won't stand out. That bathtub couple "could have been selling soap," says Lehman's Butler. To clear that up, the Super Bowl spot repeatedly refers to "36-hour Cialis." And to build more buzz, Cialis marketers are meeting with sitcom writers and Broadway producers about working Le Weekender into their scripts. They've even mailed press kits to Letterman and Leno, who've both joked about it ("If I have a 36-hour erection, how am I going to go to work the next day?"). And eventually, the Cialis couples will get more frisky. Coming soon: an ad where a couple washing a car start hosing each other down. Isn't that a tad risque? "Sometimes a hose is just a hose," says Meehan. Thirty million men might beg to differ.

THE SOFT SELL | News
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