updated 1/9/2006 2:37:25 PM ET 2006-01-09T19:37:25

The National Football League and the marketers of erectile dysfunction drug Levitra have opted to bench their three-year old sponsorship deal when it expires in March.

Brain McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said the league chose to end the relationship because “the ads shifted from men’s health to a performance, lifestyle issue.” The change in advertising strategy made the NFL uncomfortable, McCarthy said.

Some of Levitra’s ads had been criticized for their racy content, along with other ads for erectile dysfunction, adding to the backlash against direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. Advertising guidelines adopted by the drug companies last year say DTC ads should be targeted to avoid audiences that are not appropriate for the message, a move widely viewed as an attempt to limit children’s exposure to erectile dysfunction commercials.

McCarthy said the NFL wouldn’t seek another sponsor from the erectile dysfunction category, although the companies could still advertise the drugs during games.

The mutual decision to end the relationship with the NFL comes a month after Levitra’s marketers in the United States, Schering-Plough Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, launched a new educational campaign to raise awareness of erectile dysfunction that doesn’t mention the drug by name. Instead of the sexually suggestive themes of earlier branded campaigns, these ads are a dry, medical discussion of how high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can lead to erectile dysfunction.

Schering-Plough spokesman Matthew Scampoli declined to address McCarthy’s comments about Levitra’s ad, and wouldn’t say if the product will be advertised during the Super Bowl as it had been previously.

The entire erectile dysfunction drug category has been under pressure because the market is not expanding as analysts and marketers believed it would after Levitra and Cialis, joined Pfizer Inc. market leader Viagra on the market in 2003. Cialis is marketed by Eli Lilly & Co. and Icos Corp.

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