Do drugs that treat erectile “dysfunction” serve a legitimate medical purpose? As a man settling into my 6th decade of life, I’m still agnostic on this question. But obviously, there can be no doubt how the television ads for these products would wish us to answer it.
In 2012, I began to notice a television commercial for Viagra that brilliantly countered the product resistance within the marketing target: men, like myself in their later years. In so doing, these commercials revealed some important truths about what we as men value and how we want to think of ourselves.
The commercial can be found on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1ZqQ55T25c, but perhaps you remember it.
A man in his late 50s with a certain rough-hewn virility is sailing alone. A sinuously driving blues lick plays in the background. As the late afternoon sun sparkles on the waves, something comes loose from the back-end of the boat’s boom, allowing the mainsail to lose its taut fullness and begin to luff. The man notices the problem, removes the belt from a life preserver, and begins to rig some kind of temporary control of his mainsail.
As the guy works, a narrator talks to us: “You’ve reached the age where you you’ve learned a thing or two. This is the age of knowing what needs to be done. So why would you let something like erectile dysfunction get in your way?”
Now, the sail is taut again, and his boat, healing slightly, has regained its momentum and is slicing steadily through the waves. The mountains that ring the bay loom up big and dark as the sun slides toward them. Cut to the man walking down a pier in the failing light, his boat safely tied. Soon, he stands before a house, smiling faintly, expectantly. One light glows from behind a curtain in an upstairs room. Product name appears above the house.
What I admire about this ad as a piece of propaganda is its profound insight into why men might resist the notion of erectile “dysfunction” treatments. For some men – and I count myself in this group –the idea of taking a pill to restore their sex drive feels like … well, a kind of cheating. For us, a declining libido is just another aspect of the aging process, one that we do not relish but feel obliged to accept.
What’s equally impressive about the ad is its shrewdness in countering this resistance with a deeply appealing message. The message is this: taking Viagra or any other erectile “dysfunction” drug is no more cheating than is jerry-rigging a mainsheet on a sailboat. When we use Viagra, we are simply using our masculine ingenuity and resourcefulness to solve a problem. And we men in our 60s are still good at that!
As appealing as its imagery is, the ad hasn’t changed my suspicion that erectile “dysfunction” is a manufactured problem (Oh, what a stroke of brilliance it was to coin that term, and then to get the medical field to adopt it!). But, of course, the advertising industry doesn’t need to change my beliefs – behavior is what counts. And despite my principles, it’s even possible that sometime in the not too distant future, I could find myself in the drug store with a prescription to rig myself a chemical erection. Who knows what types of dementia may have ravaged my mind by then? An even more brilliant and fiendish commercial could yet convince me and my doctor that it is better to do “what needs to be done” than to accept what needs to be accepted.
Clark Bouwman is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared in Minimus, The Takoma Voice, and The Washington City Paper. He and his wife Cristina recently relocated to the San Francisco bay area from Chevy Chase, Maryland to be near their extended family. He is working on a blog of essays, which he plans to launch in the fall of 2019.
Cover image: Painting by Hassan Vahedi.