Selling Sex: Erectile Dysfunction Treatments, Consumption, and Culture

John A. Carranza // In January 2020, Governor Gary Herbert of Utah suspended an HIV prevention campaign that used state-related sexual innuendo on condom packages to promote safer sex. For example, “Don’t Go Bare” was written over a bear’s backside. The issue, at least for Governor Herbert, was the use of taxpayer money that utilized innuendo as part of the campaign. The move was disappointing among those who saw similar campaigns in other states as a positive step in reducing the stigma around condom use. One of the more pointed criticisms was that consumers are repeatedly bombarded with erectile dysfunction advertising while at the same time important messaging about prophylactics is seriously curbed.

This point is valid, but misses the influence that consumer demand and pharmaceutical companies play in advertising. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a physiological condition that has affected cis-gendered men for as long as history has been recorded. Physicians played a role in reinforcing these gendered expectations by carrying out and devising a number of solutions to ED. (It is fascinating to take note of male physicians researching a particularly male condition likely to affect them at some point in their lives.) Implants, pumps, and injections were all standard treatments before Viagra came to market as the simplest and most effective way to give men erections (Cowley and Rogers, “Rebuilding the Male Machine”).

Sildenafil, the generic form of the brand Viagra, was initially tested in England as a drug to treat hypertension. However, rather than remedying hypertension, the drug induced erections in men (Friedman, “Are You Man Enough…?”). In 1996, physicians at the American Urological Association reported on the clinical trials of four hundred men who did not have clearly defined physical causes of impotence and had taken the pill. Within an hour, those men had demonstrated marked sexual performance (Gorman, “A Pill to Treat Impotence?”). Later that year, Money magazine named Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that tested and sold Viagra, as one stock its readers should buy to “wake up richer in the morning,” (Scherreik, “Take These Three Stocks”).

Popular magazines helped to spread the word about the development of Viagra. Men’s Health likely piqued some interest among American men when it relayed Pfizer’s initial trials of the pill (Csatari, “A Pill for Impotence”).  Viagra’s trials were mentioned again when David Friedman, a journalist, was injected with Caverject (the more reliable medication at the time for achieving and maintaining erections) and reported on his experiences for Esquire (Friedman). A month later, Men’s Health gave another update about Viagra’s success in clinical trials. By 1998, Pfizer received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  for Viagra to treat erectile dysfunction in men. Approval saw sales of the pill grow exponentially. Demand for Viagra was so great that drug sales representatives were promoted into Pfizer’s newly created Urology Division with the sole purpose of selling the drug to medical practices (Reidy, xi-xii). Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman recounts the author, Jamie Reidy’s, time as a sales rep. Viagra was so easy to sell that he rarely made sales pitches and earned several bonuses.  In 2010, Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway starred in Love and Other Drugs, which was based off of the Reidy’s Hard Sell.

Today, several companies now sell their own erectile dysfunction pills. Websites such as forhims.com sells the generic sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, along with the generic forms of other ED medications such as Cialis. Erectile dysfunction pills and sex have become so entwined with consumption that it has come to define part of American culture. Grant McCracken, an anthropologist, has discussed how consumer goods have helped to define the self and the collective culture (McCracken, xi). McCracken also argues for consumer goods as agents of continuity and change (McCracken, 131-132; 135-137). The little blue pill acts as a symbol of continuity in a consumer society. It has become representative of sexual modesty by acting as the butt of popular (taboo) jokes, but also functioned as a symbol of science used to perpetuate virility. Modesty and scientific achievement have continued to define American culture. Despite their widespread availability, it has yet to be seen how much ED pills as consumer goods have acted as objects of change in the culture at large. Rather, new formulations for competing brands have emerged and with the reliance on internet technology, it is easier to get these medications without leaving the home.  It is rather cliche to say that “sex sells,” but in the case of Viagra and erectile dysfunction pills, it quite literally does while also representing aspects of culture that are uniquely American.

Works Cited

Cowley, Geoffrey and Adam Rogers. “Rebuilding the Male Machine.” Newsweek, vol. 130, no. 20, 17 November 1997, pp. 67-68.

Csatari, Jeffrey. “A Pill for Impotence.” Men’s Health, vol. 11, no. 6, July/August 1996, p. 21.

Friedman, David. “Are You Man Enough to Handle a Four-Hour Erection?” Esquire, vol. 128, no. 3, September 1997, pp. 104-110.

Gorman, Christine. “A Pill to Treat Impotence?” Time Magazine, vol. 147, no. 21, 20 May 1996, 54.

McCracken, Grant. Culture & Consumption. Indiana UP, 1988.

Reidy, Jamie. Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005.

Scherreik, Susan. “Take These Three Stocks and Wake Up Richer in the Morning.” Money, vol. 25, no. 11, November 1996, pp. 74-75.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Drew Davis says:

    Great perspective on the effects of business and medicine intersecting! Makes me wonder, what are some other diseases/disorders whose public perceptions have been so deeply shaped by this corporate interference/shaping from the pharmaceutical sphere?

    Like

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