Jarvik Ads Draw Fire

February 13, 2008
Pharmaceutical Executive
Volume 0, Issue 0

Pfizer's consumer ads for Lipitor are causing a stir on the blogs and in Congress. Did the company cross the line by using a famous (but unlicensed) doctor to market a drug, or is this a case of a mistaken identity?

Dr. Robert Jarvik, the legendary creator of the mechanical heart, is having a rough month. First it was revealed that the guy is not a cardiologist—even though he dons a white coat to pitch Pfizer's megablockbuster cholesterol drug. And then he was outed as a non-rower—even though he appears to be manning the oars in the ad.

Sure, Pfizer's ad strongly implies that the tall, thin, white-haired, distinguished-doctor-looking Jarvik is more of an expert than his credentials (an MD from Utah U., but no internship) might prove, but did the drug company do anything wrong by using the celebrity doctor as its face of Lipitor?

Some says no.

According to Phil Sawyer, senior vice president of Gfk NOP Starch, an advertising research firm, Pfizer actually did everything right (well except for using the stunt rower).

"What Pfizer did was a very, very smart thing," Sawyer told Pharm Exec on Tuesday. "It's a perfect accumulation of factors that make the perfect spokesperson. It helps if the spokesperson is a celebrity, an expert, and if they offer a testimonial. All those things are in favor of having Dr. Jarvik as spokesperson." The question remains, does it matter that he isn't a cardiologist?

"I think the question that has to be asked is: Did people pay more attention to him assuming that he was a cardiologist?" Sawyer continued. "And did the advertiser use him as a spokesperson assuming that people would make that false assumption?"

Rich Benci, president of RealAge, thinks so.

"I, as a consumer, thought he was a practicing physician until this came up," Benci told Pharm Exec. "But they never say that, so the ad certainly doesn't cross the line. This is well within the normal advertising and promotion scenarios—even within the pharmaceutical guidelines."

Benci noted that the only spot in the ad that might have nudged the line was at the end when he states, "As a doctor and a father?" and then talks about Lipitor. "That's the only thing that might be a little misleading," Benci said. "They should consider changing that line to ?As a son and a father?' since his father suffered from heart disease."

According to Nancy Turett, president and global director at Edelman, Health, public trust should come from credibility. Each year, Edelman releases a trust study that gauges how much trust consumers and influencers have in industries such as pharma. Last year, 66 percent of those surveyed said they trusted pharma.

"Not speaking about this particular ad, but in general, someone doesn't need to be a practicing cardiologist to talk about something like this," Turett said. "You can be an extremely knowledgeable professional and have a legitimate credible place in advocating for something that you understand very well. In general, when an ad provides fair and balanced information, then it's legitimate. If a well known, respected individual enhances the likelihood that someone is going to pay attention, all the better."

Jarvik may be a little hot under the collar in the glare of all the bad press, but don't cry for him. The good doc is reported to have earned a cool $1.35 million from Pfizer for his troubles.