updated 4/15/2004 11:24:30 AM ET 2004-04-15T15:24:30

She asks in a sultry voice if you want to know a secret. And when she spills the beans, she is quite explicit. The latest ad for an erectile dysfunction treatment is taking the battle for dominance in the $2 billion market up a notch with its frank description of the medicine's purpose.

The Levitra ad, slated to begin airing Thursday, features an attractive brunette saying the drug improves erection quality and how that experience increases her partner's desire to "do this more often."

"For him Levitra works — just look at that smile," she purrs.

Erectile dysfunction advertising has changed considerably since a somber Bob Dole explained the medical condition in a 1999 ad paid for by Pfizer Inc., maker of market leader Viagra.

Levitra's initial ads, which began last fall, were criticized by some for being too racy and aggressive. But it was the ad for Cialis, the third entrant into the market, that was the first product to actually mention erectile dysfunction in a national television campaign earlier this year. Still, the Cialis ads are more subtle than those for Levitra.

Analysts said Levitra's blunt style reflects its underdog status as well as the more competitive, mature marketplace. They say Levitra has little that distinguishes it from Viagra. Cialis lasts for 36 hours, while its competitors expire after about four hours.

"Levitra needs to be more aggressive to compete," said David Moskowitz, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey. Even so, he predicted, "Levitra is going to be the loser in the battle."

Still, with such a large market at stake, no player will give up easily. The makers of all three drugs are offering free trial prescriptions. Pfizer went a step further last month and offered patients their seventh prescription free. In a program with some doctors, Cialis marketers Eli Lilly & Co. and Icos Corp. offer to pay for patients unsatisfied with its products to get a free prescription for a rival drug.

David Pernock, senior vice president of sales and marketing at GlaxoSmithKline PLC, describes the new Levitra campaign as "flirtatious and direct." He said Glaxo and marketing partner Bayer Pharmaceuticals Inc. aren't trying to push any envelopes with their ads. They just want to present Levitra as a quality product that works fast and gets good results. The ad's conversational style, with the woman speaking directly to the camera, also sets it apart from other campaigns.

Still, he acknowledged that because of the ad's language networks may choose to air it only after 9 p.m.

Whether the ad changes prescription patterns remains to be seen.

Cialis and Levitra debuted in the second half of last year. Cialis has grabbed a greater share of new prescriptions, according to Impact Rx, which tracks prescription trends.

Cialis' share of new prescriptions was consistently above 40 percent in February and March, Impact Rx said, while Viagra's was in the mid-30 percent range and Levitra's was in the mid- to low-20 percent range.

"In this point in time, we are pleased with our performance," Nancy Bryan, vice president of marketing for men's health at Bayer, said of Levitra. "We've done an impressive job in our launch. This is not a sprint."

Sun Trust Robinson Humphrey analyst Bert Hazlett expects Viagra sales to be flat this year at about $1.9 billion. He predicts Cialis sales will reach $600 million while Levitra will lag behind at $300 million.

By 2007, Hazlett forecasts Viagra's sales will have dipped slightly to $1.8 billion while Cialis' revenues will have advanced to $1.3 billion. He predicts Levitra's sales will total $600 million.

"There is no reason for anyone to take Levitra. It is almost identical to Viagra," Hazlett said.

Cialis' marketers have no plans to substantially change their campaign. The ads mention erectile dysfunction because it was the only way the companies believed they could fully explain the benefits of a 36-hour window of opportunity.

The first ad featured middle-aged couples, nuzzling to jazz music with a tag line that says, "If a relaxing moment turns into the right moment, will you be ready?" Newer ads will have a similar theme.

"We feel we've got a unique message that fits the needs of a couple," said Matt Beebe, U.S. brand team leader for Cialis at Lilly.

Pfizer spokesman Daniel Watts said the company has no plans to mention erectile dysfunction or spice up its ads when it launches a new campaign later this year.

"We have reached iconic stature. People associate erectile dysfunction with Viagra," said Watts.

Still, he conceded that the landscape was becoming more competitive, and said the giveaway program was designed to enhance loyalty and reward men who stay with Viagra.

"It is a different world out there, no question," Watts said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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