And Here's The Pitch

First to bat was Bob Dole. Next up was home-run hitter Rafael Palmeiro. But now, Viagra and its competitors are changing marking strategies and handing the ball to Everyman - and woman

May 05, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Rafael is still looking for the first long ball of the year ... "

The announcer's voice floats from the TV toward the men hanging around the Latin Palace. The guys, members of a softball team sponsored by the Fells Point restaurant, chatter over the TV but train their eyes on Rafael Palmeiro, their Cuban-born hero, waiting for his first home run of the season as a returning Baltimore Oriole.

Nice Friday night in mid-April. Top of the first. There's the pitch. The 39-year-old Palmeiro swings. No good.

"Fouled it off."

The guys drink Coronas and see Palmeiro as he wants to be seen, a slugger nearing two career milestones: 600 home runs and 3,000 hits. Palmeiro says it a lot: He wants to reach the Hall of Fame as an Oriole.

These days, that's his pitch.

What he isn't promoting is the label the Pfizer pharmaceutical company placed on him when it made him the celebrity face of erectile dysfunction, or "E.D.," the industry's euphemism for a problem described far more vividly in Spanish inside the Latin Palace. Palmeiro found that after signing a reported $500,000 deal as a Viagra spokesman, no amount of clinical language could stop the lame jokes and thinly veiled sports references to his bedroom performance.

Another pitch. A powerful swing. Palmeiro makes contact.

"That ball's well hit!"

The pop fly glides upward. The Latin Palace guys lean from their seats. For a split-second, hopes are high. But then the ball drops, plopping into the glove of the Blue Jays' center fielder. Palmeiro heads to the dugout.

In the Latin Palace, there's polite disappointment.

For a ballplayer, perhaps the toughest thing about selling Viagra is that every at-bat presents ample opportunity for inane double entendres about failed at-bats (see above). For the drug companies, the trouble is that some people see the prescription pill as something to mock, rather than buy. But now both are trying to change all that - the industry by making its advertising more aggressive, the Orioles first baseman by opting out entirely.

Palmeiro is no longer a spokesman for Viagra. Its pitchmen are now regular guys ... and their dates.

The use of women testifying to the success of erectile-dysfunction drugs and the pills' transformative power over romantic relationships is the latest artillery in the television-advertising wars that Palmeiro helped start. But as the ads for Viagra and two new rival drugs grow riskier and more direct, Palmeiro is stepping away from the commercials altogether.

Palmeiro's deal with Viagra ended much as it began - with some apparent discomfort.

At the start of this year, when No. 25 let his two-year contract with Pfizer expire, he hardly told anyone. His agent, Fernando Cuza, didn't call attention to erroneous references in the sports pages that still linked his client to the drug. Though Cuza says it was Palmeiro who decided not to push for a new contract, Palmeiro and Pfizer have been quiet about the split.

Palmeiro, who declined to be interviewed for this article, apparently didn't even want a Viagra story about there being no more Viagra stories.

It's a fitting end to an ad campaign that was as tentative as it was groundbreaking.

Palmeiro's camp reacted to the deal with squeamishness at first. After the deal was announced, Cuza told the Sports Business Journal that his client "does not suffer from this problem."

Palmeiro, who is married with two sons, soon put a stop to critics who claimed he had disavowed his own drug by speaking out for Viagra and E.D. But in TV ads, he was at a remove, avoiding the words "erectile dysfunction" and referring to Viagra only as "the blue diamond," a reference to its color and shape.

However, the embarrassing taunts kept following him - like the inter-league game in Pittsburgh when, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "BOING!" blared over the public-address system every time he went to bat. (The Pirates also reportedly showed a gushing fountain on the video screen and blasted "Pop Goes the Weasel" in the stadium.)

Still, even with those rough patches, marketing experts call Palmeiro's Viagra stint an advertising landmark.

As the new erectile-dysfunction drugs compete for customers - Levitra and Cialis, introduced earlier this year - the TV commercials that have ensued bear the imprint of the Palmeiro years. The men in the ads appear, like Palmeiro, younger than the senior citizens first associated with E.D. In the ads, the new pitchmen seem virile, manly and, like Raffy when he hits another one out of the park in his commercial, quite pleased with their own performance.

The Palmeiro ads were noteworthy in one other respect: When he pitched Viagra, Palmeiro, then with the Texas Rangers, became the first Latino star to hawk an E.D. drug, a pill for the most un-macho of all medical problems.

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