Viagra In An Age Of Sarcasm

“This is the age of taking action," says the announcer in the Viagra commercialI caught on TV this week. 

And really, is there anything more awkward and poignant, more can’t-win-for-losing, than showing these winky male actor-types preparing for a little “action” in a Viagra ad? Think about it: We live in the most hypersexualized, pornified culture that has ever existed. And yet, presumably due to government restrictions, these ads have to dance around the sex act while being aggressively unsexy.

As with all pharmaceutical ads that offer a brand name, the main thing is to come up with a series of extended images over which to voice disclaimers. In this case, we hear about possible “headaches, flushing, upset stomach and abnormal vision.” (Wait, is that why the entire spot has a blue tinge?)

All this is in preparation for dropping the other shoe -- or in this case, the big lead boot of priapic shame. It’s the phrase that has gone from terrorizing unsuspecting children (and their parents) while watching TV, to becoming part of the vernacular, and a massive comedic mainstay: “See your doctor if your erection lasts more than 4 hours.”

So when I saw this spot, about a sailor and his boat, it seemed a lot more poetic and open to interpretation than the usual crop, featuring middle-aged couples exchanging goo-goo eyes while dancing in their kitchen. That sort of goony stuff reduces me to the zero tolerance level of an 11-year-old, utterly repulsed by the idea of having to think about anyone’s parents “doing it.”

But that’s the thing about our paradoxical, hypocritical sexual culture. Having to make these spots so odd and prim, while at the same time offering such intrusive clinical language, creates a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of repressed sexual content, rife with hidden meanings, double entendres, old-time dirty jokes, and bad puns.

So in this case, interpret we must.

We see a handsome, late-40s guy, a rugged individual on his boat, looking worldly, and as if he knows how to “take action.” It seems he is having a little trouble, um, raising his sail, so he goes down below to the hold, and fashions a strap-on (he rips a nylon strap from the life jacket) to manipulate the block back up to the boom. Yup, he whips that thing right back into shape! And he does this all on his own, without a first mate! 

Still, that’s nothing compared with the biggest parallel-universe image that has come to be accepted as perfectly normal in the bizarre world of ED ads.  That honor goes to the separate, side-by-side outdoor tubs of the Cialis brand. As has happened nowhere, each of these antique tubs has been dragged to a cliff overlooking the ocean, and somehow has a naked half of the couple in it.  (I hope all 50-plus women who travel with their boyfriends start demanding “separate tubs!”)

And yet, these ads have actually come a long way, (baby). Nothing will ever be quite as cringe-worthy as a barking Mike Ditka ordering men to "take the Levitra challenge." (Historians, take note: This was when the act of swallowing a pill officially become a challenge.) Even worse, once the actor guy in the spot did just that, in direct problem/solution form, he was shown being able to throw a football through a backyard tire. (Swish!) I thought it was pretty outrageous to represent women’s private parts as old rubber tires hanging by a string, but I guess actual goalposts would have presented too much performance anxiety.

Actually, when I first saw the Viagra sailor,  it reminded me of the classic Old Spice commercial from the 1960s, showing a sailor coming into port, carrying a duffel bag.(Fun fact: The actor who played this manly sailor who bags women was Matthew Perry’s dad.) A sweet, sexy lass in sexy-lass clothing awaited his arrival on the dock and off they'd go, but not without throwing a bottle of Old Spice as a sort of bone over to the creepy loner dude watching and wondering how it's done. Jaunty nautical music up, over and out.

These days, Old Spice has brilliantly come full circle, using all the old nautical notes while turning every earnest, manly cliché on its head.

The same can be said for “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the star of the Dos Equis campaign, which offers a hilariously sarcastic and skewered take on the massive world-mastery and outsized virility of Hemingway and James Bond-types: “Sharks have a week dedicated to him. . . . He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels."

Unfortunately, there’s no distancing and humorous take on the whole idea of masculinity allowed for the heroes of ED-land.  They must be earnest and cliched, and forever sentenced to having majorly awkward moments.

The odd part about our Viagra sailor/hero is that  the action he took on the boat had nothing to do with a relationship with another human being, but with fixing mechanical parts: doing a work-around to get them, well, in ship-shape. Also odd: the placid waters.

Thus, he is not able to recount the famous George Costanza line by way of Hemingway: “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli!"

Thus he is able to, uh, dock his boat neatly in the slip. By this time, it’s dark out, and he leaves the port, and walks until he comes upon a welcoming house with the lights on.

What or who awaits him is left open to interpretation, which is actually kind of nice.

All I hope is that it’s not a rubber tire swing out in the backyard.

Tags: ad campaign
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28 comments about "Viagra In An Age Of Sarcasm".
  1. David Kleeman from PlayCollective , July 30, 2014 at 5:49 p.m.
    Oh, my...brilliant as always. Of course, feminine hygiene products have long tippy-toed that same line of winking euphemism. Only recently, and only on select channels, have they begun to hint that there's a period at the end of the commercial, not an ellipses... And then there's the Depends Shields and Guards ad with football player (tackle, not guard) Tony Siragusa, promising to "train guys who leak a little to guard their manhood." Huh?
  2. Leslie Singer from SingerSalt , July 30, 2014 at 6:15 p.m.
    You should include a Mascara alert to this article! I laughed so hard. Thank you. I needed that.
  3. david marks from self , July 30, 2014 at 6:48 p.m.
    Oh, Barbara, what a universe you have opened up here. I dare say, we all have our intimate thoughts while watching these commercials, even wondering what it all looks likes in the next, never to be seen, scene. Come now, Viagra and Cialis, in a perfect universe, all women will look like these ladies, and that blue pill will be but a byproduct of our fantasies. Hell, these men are too rugged and handsome to be identified with by most of us, and I am not about to waltz into the ER with a 4 hour erection. I’d rather have a hangover, thank you. Great piece, Barbara.
  4. Nancie Martin from Tell My Story , July 30, 2014 at 7:08 p.m.
    And by "nautical notes," you mean these? http://m.youtube.com/watch?autoplay=1&v=SAj01fYE4yg
  5. George Parker from Parker Consultants , July 30, 2014 at 7:13 p.m.
    Barbara... When I worked on Old Spice back in London in the seventies, we had to follow the "Four B's" rule... Boats, Birds, Bikinis & Boobs. Mind you, we shot everything on the French Riviera, stayed at the Hotel Negresco and ran up the world's biggest bar bills. The core message of men's toiletries advertising hasn't changed since then. "Splash this on - Get laid!" Can't run up those massive bar tabs any more, though. Cheers/George
  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , July 30, 2014 at 8:01 p.m.
    Wouldn't it be fab if the person waiting was the sailor's husband ?
  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , July 30, 2014 at 8:05 p.m.
    Paula-- yup! I think it's a distinct possibility.
  8. Mark Myers from A Smarter Way to Learn , July 30, 2014 at 9:04 p.m.
    I don't even register to vote, but this post was so delicious, I—gasp!—registered for this site, exhausting myself.
  9. Mark DiMassimo from DiMassimo Goldstein , July 30, 2014 at 10:20 p.m.
    If Virgin America can make the airplane safety message cool, then can't someone do the same for a Viagra commercial?
  10. Mark DiMassimo from DiMassimo Goldstein , July 30, 2014 at 10:24 p.m.
    "For instance, Virgin's in-house group created a cheeky, animated flight-safety video that satisfied federal regulations while providing a bit of entertainment, then posted it on YouTube to give the outside world a sampling of Virgin's moxie." MediaPost, 2008 http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/88972/cross-media-case-study-air-waves.html
  11. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER , July 31, 2014 at 7:53 a.m.
    A) I was reminded of George S. Trow while reading this, Barbara B) Has Virgin had any crashes? The video playing after the plane is hit by a Russian missile or seized by a bunch of wacko Islamists would be interesting C) What is the treatment for a 4-hour erection? D) "Old Spice means quality/Said the Cap'n to the Bos'n/ Reach for the bottle/With the ship that sails the ocean." Did George Parker write that poet laureate worthy verse? I am surprised that P&G went to the trouble of reviving an old brand to apply it to new products. And succeed apparently. I would have thought New Spice would be more a name they would embrace.
  12. Ruth Thomas from Second helping , July 31, 2014 at 8:28 a.m.
    Back when all you needed to show you care was Harvey's Brisol Cream (it's imported) ...it was the good old days when all men had natural erections and just giving the lovely lady a cloyingly sweet cocktail to make her more willing was all a fellah needed..no amount of Sherry will put me in the mood to throw a bottle of Old Spice to Grampa with a 4 hour stiffy, it doesn't matter if he puts a claw footed tub on a cliff, dancing in my kitchen or on a ship at sea...
  13. David Carlick from Carlick , July 31, 2014 at 9:35 a.m.
    The ads are aimed at women, not men.
  14. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund , July 31, 2014 at 9:35 a.m.
    I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me... She showed me her room, isn't it good, norwegian wood?
  15. Dave Brody from Purch , July 31, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.
    Magnificent, Barbara! But the real tip-toeing here is not so much around consummating the deal with the doll. It's about the deal with the devil: While medical science can give a 75 year-old guy a 30 year-old penis, it doesn't come with a 30-year old cardiovascular system. Somewhere, buried deep in the Big Pharma vault, are the stats on how many cowboys have died in the saddle (with their boots off). The bathtub on the right could be a coffin...
  16. George Parker from Parker Consultants , July 31, 2014 at 9:44 a.m.
    @Tom... Not guilty of the Old Spice line, it existed by the time I was on the account. Same was true with Mr. Whipple when I joined B&B. Obviously, I am not an "originator" but merely an "executioner." @Ruth... Classic delicious comment. I also worked on Harvey's... God, I seem to have worked on everything. Fortunately, I've forgotten most of it. I'll send for you when I've dragged this bloody tub up the cliff. Cheers/George
  17. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners , July 31, 2014 at 9:45 a.m.
    Hilarious Barbara. Have you noticed that unlike the "ideal" plucked chicken men in most advertising, the men in the erectile dysfunction ads are hirsute to the max with stubble that looks like it would require a chainsaw. I also like the ad for the underarm application of testosterone and the warnings to keep it away from women and children. Always thought Viagra missed the perfect sponsorship opportunity in the NFL. "Official sponsor of the extra point. It's up. It's good..." You get the idea.
  18. Paula Higgins from Nationwide Insurance , July 31, 2014 at 9:50 a.m.
    What about the "smiling Bob" spots from the ill-fated Enzyte?
  19. dorothy higgins from umww , July 31, 2014 at 10:17 a.m.
    I love the juxtaposition of these adds with those for vaginal lubricants. The ads for "women-issues" are clinical and depressing and the ads for four-hour erections make me wince/giggle. I almost miss the Geritol ads of my misbegotten youth.
  20. William Hogue from The Hogue Group , July 31, 2014 at 1:22 p.m.
    And here is a dirty little secret told to me by several young men in their twenties: While neither they nor any of their contemporaries are erectiley challenged, they gobble up Viagra et al just for the (you fill in the word) of it. Imagine the creative for THIS target.
  21. Steve Ellwanger from Press Counsel Group , July 31, 2014 at 2:11 p.m.
    Fun indeed that a potential side effect (four-hour erection) becomes a main selling point for the product. But side effect warnings in ads have become nearly comical: "Don't use this product if you walk on two legs, breathe through your nose, have more than nine toes, shower in an upright position..."
  22. John Grose from AFLLC-Interactive , July 31, 2014 at 3:10 p.m.
    A middle aged guy was invited to bingo. Group was mostly senior women. Sitting across an isle he hear a women mention Cialis. He shook his head. The women there said to him "oh so you don't need it, such a man!". He said "I am concerned about the side effect of a 4 hour erection. Actually, it might be helpful for first 30 minutes, but what would I do for the next 3 and half hours?" After a short pause, a woman from a corner table spoke out, "come to my house"
  23. marnie delaney from doodlebug , July 31, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.
    More great perspective, Barbara, on what might be a serious subject were it not made so incredibly goofy. You have such a great way to fine-tuning words and bring an image to life. In the process you captured a dream of mine perfectly - to be a sexy lass in sexy lass clothing. Alas, my boyfriends-wearing-Old-Spice days are long past.
  24. Jo Duran from BOM , July 31, 2014 at 10:12 p.m.
    Side splitting approval. Genius writing. I say you do the next spot.
  25. Jim English from FJC , July 31, 2014 at 11:16 p.m.
    I think soon there will be a federal statute that sexual relationships between consenting individuals will be forbidden unless they first buy a product manufactured by one of the pharmaceutical giants.
  26. Martin Kleinman from Communications Strategies , August 1, 2014 at 9:33 a.m.
    "avast me hearties, raise the mizzin mast -- thar she blows!" but, yeah, what's with the dual tubs in the cialis ads? what is that supposed to represent, that they're in the tubs separately, yet holding hands? anyone out there that can explain that for me? and now, it's time to raise the old harpoon ;)
  27. Edward Shain from EMS Associates , August 1, 2014 at 10:52 a.m.
    Ehhhh! Prolly in a minority, but I see this stuff as good work, given all the restrictions they're probably laboring over. Everyone knows what viagra is, right? Everyone knows Cialis, right? Game over. I think this stuff is about frequency and saturation. The content's good enough. As they say: the product sels itself.
  28. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , August 1, 2014 at 12:15 p.m.
    I think, as with most pharma spots, it doesn't matter how bad the ads are. As you point out, Ed, if you see it and hear about enough, it eventually saturates your brain.