Skip to content

Viagra: A 10-year love affair

AN_022908_Viagra01b.jpg

Viagra Spam pate. (Courtesy of magicbluepill.com)

AN_022908_Viagra03b.jpg

Viagra Spam sushi. (Courtesy of magicbluepill.com.)

AN_022908_Viagra02.jpg

Viagra Spam tempura. (Courtesy of magicbluepill.com.)

Little blue pill. The nickname is synonymous with the medical breakthrough, financial cash cow and cultural phenomenon that is Viagra. Could it really be just 10 years since it burst onto the scene and into the medicine cabinets and nightstands of American men?

Today, the drug is a celebrity in its own right, with a name as famous as Regis, as infamous as Britney and an impact that’s arguably more legendary than both performers.

Viagra is the subject of billions of unwanted e-mails, a reliable punchline in Jay Leno’s monologue and a topic of study for linguists and sociologists. Any sports fan will attest that it’s nearly impossible to tune into a televised football game or round of golf without hearing commercial slogans like “Gentlemen, start your engines” and “Viva-Viagra.”

Viagra spam e-mails are so recognizable that one Web site developer concocted a way to cook a Viagra spam paté and Viagra-shaped sushi. The recipes feature no Viagra but lots of Spam--the canned meat--fashioned into a diamond shaped mold in the likeness of the famous pill.

And thanks to Viagra, the American public also knows much more about Bob Dole and Rush Limbaugh than it probably ever wanted to. The drug is front and center in movies, books, television shows and obviously the bedroom.

It’s all happened in the 10 years since the Food and Drug Administration approved Viagra on March 27, 1998.

“It’s been such a cultural touch-point for everybody who was alive when this drug was invented,” said John Hargrave, a Boston comedian for whom Viagra has provided rich material. “There was nothing like this before.”

The word Viagra is ever-present; it has occurred in 83,319 news articles from the past 10 years, a search of the database Factiva shows, with headlines ranging from “Viagra revitalizes oldest profession” to “Wife sues after Viagra turns man, 70, into a young stud.” (Competitors Cialis and Levitra, which received FDA approval years after Viagra, fielded only 8,861 and 6,348 respectively over the same time period.)

All the attention Viagra has received is credited with helping Americans talk openly about uncomfortable, and until 1998 at least, unmentionable medical topics. The drug, whose chemical name is sildenafil citrate, “has enabled society--both men and women--to be more open about erectile dysfunction,” said Dr. Natan Bar-Chama, Associate Professor of Urology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “They’re more willing to discuss it amongst their friends and seek medical help.”

Of course, that has its own downside. Meika Loe, a sociology professor and author of the book, "The Rise of Viagra," said Viagra represents a shift toward quick fixes in medicine and what she calls the “McDonald's-ization” of American society.

“By focusing on men only and their physiological bodies, we’re missing a huge portion of the recipe that goes into a healthy sexual life,” she said. “Your social environment, your relationship environment, your psychological situation, your cultural background.”

Viagra’s ubiquity has even made it popular among academics, who discuss such topics as what images its name conjures up. “The name is evocative of 'Niagara’ Falls,” Harold Schiffman, professor of linguistics and culture at the University of Pennsylvania, said via e-mail. “Cialis doesn’t do the same, though if you look at the TV commercials, there’s often water or other kinds of liquid in the picture.”

Schiffman has shown erectile dysfunction commercials during a class called “Language and Popular Culture” and remembers one instance when he showed an ad with a man trying to throw a football through a tire swing: “I had to apologize to my students for any embarrassment they might feel as we discussed these things.”

Viagra has brought billions of dollars in sales to Pfizer Inc., the maker of the drug, with worldwide sales totaling $1.76 billion last year, up six percent from $1.65 billion the year before, according to a company press release.

The maker of Cialis, Eli Lilly and Company, reported $1.14 billion dollars in sales for Cialis in 2007, up from $215 million in sales in 2006. Levitra’s producer, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, has not yet posted its results for 2007 but reported $314 million in sales for Levitra in 2006.

Drug makers aren’t the only businesses trying to profit off of Viagra. Countless online pharmacies sell the drug and dozens of personal injury lawyers solicit people who think Viagra harmed them.

Publishers have released scores of books with Viagra in the title (a search for the word Viagra produces 56 titles on the Barnes & Noble Web site alone) from “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman” to “The Diary of a Viagra Fiend,” which features a warning that the book is “intended for mature audiences.”

Jack Nicholson played an aging playboy who used Viagra in the movie “Something’s Got to Give,” Charlie Sheen’s character used it in “Scary Movie 4” and Steve Carell’s character called a male enhancement medication hotline in “The 40 Year Old Virgin.”

To anyone with an e-mail account, Viagra may also appear to be the subject of choice for spam distributors. In fact, messages titled “Viagra online” made America Online’s top 10 spam e-mail subject lines list in 2003; the same year AOL blocked 500,000,000,000 spam messages. In 2004, the Internet security company Clearswift reported “Spam selling Viagra and other pharmaceutical products continue to make up almost half of all spam.”

Hargrave, the Boston comedian, has used Viagra in a number of pranks, none of which can be described here. But after detailing them on his Web site, www.zug.com, he received so many page views that it became a top Google result for the key word Viagra, and Hargrave was able to charge online pharmacies for advertising space.

“We unwittingly created one of the most valuable pieces of online real estate,” Hargrave said. “We had advertisers lining up, throwing huge sums of money at us to be listed on our Viagra page.”

Hargrave’s site includes a Viagra cookbook, with dishes that include “Beef Swellington” and “Rise-a-Roni.” They also come with a “Condom-ents” and cocktail list.

The other male enhancement drugs just don’t get the same response, Hargrave said. “We tried doing it with Cialis and Levitra but nothing had the same staying power of Viagra,” he said. “Viagra is sort of the gold standard of all these erectile dysfunction drugs.”

E-mail: aln2115@columbia.edu