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A tricky topic goes to the Super Bowl

This year's Super Bowl menu calls for pizza, buffalo wings _ and a generous helping of erectile dysfunction medications.

In a testament to the growing power of pharmaceutical advertising _ and the new frankness in American culture _ Super Bowl XXXVIII will be filled with talk of the inner plumbing of the male anatomy. For the first time, the makers of two rival medications designed to improve male sexual performance are placing commercials in the game, and a third is mulling the possibility.

"We've got a category war on our hands," said Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director of national broadcast for Initiative, a media services firm owned by Interpublic Group of Cos. Initiative represents Levitra, an erectile dysfunction medication marketed jointly by GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Bayer AG. A commercial for Levitra, which is also an official sponsor of the National Football League, is expected to appear before rivals' ads, Spengler said.

With 30-second Super Bowl ads going for an average of $2.3-million this year, many marketers are unwilling to discuss their work for fear of spoiling any potential surprise. David Pernock, senior vice president of sales and marketing for GlaxoSmithKline, was coy about the details of his drug's commercial, but he teased: "We just may be opening up a new chapter in the marketing of Levitra here."

Earlier Levitra ads crafted by WPP Group PLC's Quantum Group have featured either former football coach Mike Ditka or a man throwing a football through a tire swing.

Squaring off against Levitra will be the category's newest entrant, Cialis, which is marketed by Eli Lilly & Co. and Icos Corp. Viacom Inc.'s CBS, which is broadcasting the Super Bowl, confirmed Wednesday that Cialis would be in the game, along with a host of big-name marketers, including Procter & Gamble Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos. More than 90 percent of the game's ad inventory has already been sold, according to CBS.

Khoso Baluch, a business unit leader for Cialis, declined to comment on what Cialis is planning for the Super Bowl. During last weekend's NFL playoff games, Cialis unveiled a new campaign featuring a 15-second ad created by Grey Global Group Inc.'s Grey Worldwide. In it, a middle-age man and woman sit in side-by-side bathtubs, holding hands as they contemplate a beautiful landscape. Baluch said future TV commercials will play on the bathtub motif.

Meanwhile, Pfizer Inc. is still considering whether to put Viagra in the game, according to a person familiar with the situation. A Pfizer spokesman says the company doesn't comment on its ad plans. An estimated 25-million American men suffer from erectile dysfunction.

Viagra, which Pfizer introduced in 1998, had U.S. prescription sales of about $1.2-billion in 2003, according to NDCHealth of Atlanta, a tracker of prescription sales. Levitra had sales of $29.4-million last year, while Cialis sold about $3.1-million. Both Levitra and Cialis were launched in the United States in the second half of 2003. Levitra has seen its share of new prescriptions in the category rocket from 8.6 percent in September 2003 to 16 percent in December, according to NDCHealth. Meanwhile, Viagra's share of new prescriptions fell to 75 percent in December from about 98 percent in August.

These pharmaceutical marketers have a challenge on their hands, particularly because of the subject they are broaching. Michael Patti, the global creative director at WPP Group's Young & Rubicam and a creative talent known for his touch on Super Bowl ads, doubted that any of the commercials will be daring enough to truly make a splash. The problem, he suspected, is that drug advertising doesn't play out well on the Super Bowl stage. "People love to be entertained," he said. "They don't like to be lectured to."

Not too long ago, allusions to mortifying sexual problems would probably have caused a backlash among viewers. These days, in a climate where few subjects are taboo, the issue of male impotency is deemed suitable for coffee-table chatter. "We're in the mood to prowl a bit, to be naughty, to burn off some of the extra energy we have built up by working so hard," says Ellen Ratchye-Foster, a trend tracker who works with Publicis Groupe SA's Fallon Worldwide. Men are also under pressure to be more stylish, fit and attractive, she says, as evidenced by such programs as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Erectile dysfunction is simply one more subject to be analyzed and fixed.

Whether the Super Bowl is a large enough venue to comfortably host two similar products isn't clear. The impact of the Levitra and Cialis commercials could be diluted because the two names still haven't achieved significant brand recognition among consumers. "They've got to have a very high degree of brand awareness going in. Otherwise, what's going to happen is people will remember the category was advertised but they will not remember the brands," said Jonathan Asher, president of New York branding consultancy Dragon Rouge.

One way to achieve Super Bowl fame is to push the envelope. The brands' willingness to be daring may determine the ultimate winner, said Jonathan Hoffman, an executive vice president and executive creative director at Publicis's Leo Burnett USA. "I know it's a delicate topic, but I think it is still rich conceptually."

The list of Super Bowl advertisers confirmed by CBS includes the American Legacy Foundation, which rails against smoking; Time Warner Inc.'s AOL; DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler; FedEx Corp.; Gillette Co.; General Motors Corp.; International Business Machines Corp.; MasterCard International; Mitsubishi Motors Corp.; Monster Worldwide's; the Office of National Drug Control Policy; Pepsi's Frito Lay; Altria Group Inc.'s Philip Morris; Reebok International Ltd.; and Visa International.

Pepsi has purchased three minutes of time, which will be spread across the first, second and third quarters of the game, said Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola North America. The spots, each crafted by Omnicom Group Inc.'s BBDO, will be devoted to the company's flagship Pepsi-Cola, as well as Sierra Mist and a promotion Pepsi has with Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes.

Who will succeed and who will fail? Until the game is done, it's hard to know, said Patti of Young & Rubicam. "It's always a crapshoot," he says. "If you hit it, you're famous overnight." Miss, he adds, and the marketer may demand a new campaign, quickly.