Jarvik Ads Get KO'd

February 27, 2008

Pharmaceutical Executive

Volume 0, Issue 0

Under pressure from Congress and public scrutiny, Pfizer voluntarily pulled its controversial television campaign for Lipitor featuring Dr. Jarvik.

Pfizer decided on Monday to cut its losses and voluntarily withdrew its television campaign for Lipitor featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, the inventor of the mechanical heart.

Thus ends weeks of public nitpicking about whether Jarvik should have been the spokesperson for the cholesterol-lowering medication, even though he is not a practicing medical physician. The campaign got even more criticism when it came to light that the doctor used a stunt double in a scene that shows him rowing a boat.

"The way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions from our primary goal of encouraging patient and physician dialogue on the leading cause of death in the world—cardiovascular disease," Pfizer's President of Worldwide Pharmaceutical Operations Ian Read stated in a release. "We regret this. Going forward, we commit to ensuring there is greater clarity in our advertising regarding the presentation of spokespeople."

The television ad also got the attention of Congress, which sent a letter to Pfizer expressing trepidation about the ad. "We are concerned that consumers may misinterpret the health claims of a prescription drug promoted in a direct-to consumer advertisement utilizing a celebrity physician," stated the letter from the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce. "We are also concerned that Dr. Jarvik's qualifications may be misinterpreted in this advertisement campaign given that he may not be a practicing physician with a valid license in any state."

Too Bad for Jarvik
Some in pharma, however, feel that Pfizer might have jumped the gun by firing a spokesperson that has done a lot of good for the drug. Just this week, IAG Research announced that the television spot was the fourth-most-recalled new pharma ad of 2007.

"The irony of it is that Pfizer executed and implemented techniques that every other advertiser uses in the marketplace today—it's basic principles of building unique copy in the effort of building brand awareness for Lipitor," said Fariba Zamaniyan, senior vice president of healthcare at IAG Research. "They did so through the use of Dr. Jarvik. And the multiple creatives that had very consistent creative synergy that built this campaign."

Pfizer made it clear that the advertisement was used strictly to raise awareness of the dangers of cardiovascular disease in the United States and that no laws were broken. At this point, no one has accused the drug company of false advertising.

"I always thought it was a good, effective campaign. In the last commercial I saw, he was presented as Dr. Jarvik, a guy who was involved in the invention of the artificial heart," said author Mel Sokotch, a veteran marketer for Foote Cone & Belding and Grey Advertising. "It never says that he is a practicing doctor or that he recommends the medicine to others. To me, it's a basic celebrity testimonial, no more or less."

"Jarvik was one of the truly great spokespeople for a product," said Mark Stevens, president of marketing firm MSCO. "He was picked for his face. He wasn't picked for his music, and he wasn't picked for how attractive he is. He was picked for his knowledge of a particular organ of which he knows more than anyone else on the planet."