THE BLOG
11/10/2014 07:45 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

The NFL, MLB and Viagra: So Much for Family-Friendly Focus

Garry Wade via Getty Images

The incessant airing of Viagra's nauseating British-blonde-on-a-bed commercial during both this October's football games and throughout the baseball playoffs illustrates how tone-deaf the National Football League and Major League Baseball remain when it comes to truly embracing family viewers. The NFL and MLB pound the "Family Values" drum as loudly as any politician, but also imitate our esteemed leaders in their remarkably acrobatic ability to speak out of both sides of their mouth. The message is clear: "American families: we love your money and we'll tailor merchandise for your family -- but we don't really care what you think."

Pfizer's first spokeswoman addresses the camera in sultry, "come hither" tones. She uses the word "erection" multiple times, oozing with empathy and sexual promise. The worst in an increasingly explicit advertising arc, Viagra has come a long way down since Senator Robert Dole courageously broke the shame barrier in 1998. That original message was offering medical treatment for impotence as a result of prostate cancer surgery -- in case it's become hazy amidst the many erection-as-lifestyle campaigns over the years.

However, with their huge profit window narrowing in three years when Viagra becomes available in generic form, Pfizer is apparently desperate to milk every last dollar out of this cash-cow drug. And sales of a mere $1.88 billion in 2013 evidently threaten the gazillion-dollar corporate giant's solvency. Their new marketers, BBDO, actually thought that they were targeting women. This flop of a commercial is the result of extensive thought by rooms full of extremely highly paid modern Mad Men. They did it on purpose. Quoted in a recent article for Advertising Age, Pfizer's VP of Marketing, Victor Clavelli, sounded positively proud of this misguided attempt at inducing women to push Viagra on their male partners, "No one has taken directly the perspective of a partner and used that as a way to motivate men."

Fact check on the sports aisle: Most women do not find this ad enticing. They (and many of their male partners) find it insulting, condescending and in extremely poor taste. And that's without children in the room. When confronted by those who believe the commercial to be objectionable, particularly in pre-bedtime hours, Pfizer responds, "The number-one thing that drives our choice about where to advertise is that erectile dysfunction is an adult conversation. We're very careful to ensure the audiences are overwhelmingly adults."

Really? According to Neilson data and ESPN polls, over 5.3 million children ages 2-17 (nearly 2.8 million kids ages 2-11) watch an average NFL game. More than 65 percent of children ages 7-11 watch football.

Over one million kids ages 2-17 watched Game Seven of the World Series. Seventeen percent of regular season MLB games are seen by people aged 17-34. Over the last few decades, the age at which Americans have their first child has risen to 25 and most couples have their children between ages 25 and 35. Therefore, many of those 17 percent had little Johnny's and Suzy's at their side while enjoying America's pastime.

Football and baseball audiences made up of well over six million children may qualify to Pfizer executives as "overwhelmingly adult," but they are not the ones explaining erectile dysfunction to their eight-year-old between innings. Dr. Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist whose research is funded by Pfizer, remarked via social media (quoted on forbes.com),"My 11-year-old daughter just asked what the Viagra ad was about. Not sure how to respond especially now that she knows I work for Pfizer."

Professional football spends a lot of time and money promoting itself without exception as a wholesome youth-oriented game and good old-fashioned family entertainment. They groom future fans by supporting football in schools and communities, building elaborate "NFL Experiences" and having children co-starring in their promotions. There even exists a Sports Illustrated Kids' Football Playbook and an NFL Family Cookbook.

The NFL has added a specific merchandising arm dedicated to "homegating" with the family - -complete with a plethora of mugs, glasses and clothing options. According to Forbes (quoted here by espn.com), advertisers are also slowly getting the picture that women make the vast majority of family purchasing decisions. "When we talk about women being the decision-makers, I think a lot of people don't realize that's cars, stocks, electronics -- things people might not associate women making the decisions about." The patronizing sexism in that statement alone goes a long way towards explaining an advertising culture that thought Blondie-in-the-slinky-dress was a good idea.

Baseball has also discovered the Golden Goose of family merchandising. Major League Baseball's in-house MLB Shop sales were $100 million in 2013, growing at 7 percent annually. This does not include income from licensing to other merchandise manufacturers.

The major television networks currently pay $5 billion per year to broadcast NFL games. CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN are afraid to anger the National Football League and continue to meekly absorb huge rate increases and whatever conditions dictated by the 800,000-pound gridiron gorilla. In 2012, Major League Baseball agreed to a $12.4 million eight-year broadcast contract with FOX and TBS. Advertising for the World Series ran $520,000 for a 30-second spot. Last year's Super Bowl--$4 million. Pfizer spent $176 million on Viagra advertising last year, primarily on broadcast sporting events.

Is it really necessary to explain to the Viagra folks that the adult part of the sporting audience is still watching after the kids go to bed? Pfizer would successfully reach their target audience if the ads aired only after 10 p.m., as suggested by the stalled Families for ED Advertising Decency Act. However, one suspects that asking "big Pharma" to voluntarily regulate their in-your-face advertising style is akin to expecting the President and Congressional leaders to go all warm and fuzzy in the public interest.

Ironically, football and baseball truly can be wonderful family entertainment. Multiple generations and people from all backgrounds gather to watch the games in person or on television and to enjoy each other's company. These gatherings allow families to communicate not only about the game, but also about other issues in their lives. However, those issues rarely naturally and organically include erectile dysfunction.

With contracts this big and total government-sanctioned monopolies on their products, couldn't Major League Baseball and the National Football League dictate when ED commercials air during their games? Of course they could. Put it in the contract along with forcing the networks to pay all of their own production costs. FOX and friends would find no shortage of advertisers happy to pony up the bucks in order to shove their products in front of family-hour viewers. The NFL and MLB don't insist on this in television agreements because it doesn't occur to them. It doesn't occur to them because, as their actions continue to show, they don't care. As long as we the audience doesn't force them to care by speaking up and boycotting merchandise, we'll have to face the music and explain sexual medical conditions to our preschoolers.

Eight years ago, President Obama commented, "I wasn't too happy with ads for erectile-dysfunction drugs popping up every 15 minutes whenever I watched a football game with my daughters in the room." It's time for the multi-billion dollar football and baseball industries to stop deciding for the audience when their children receive sex education.