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Doing it the hard way – rebranding erectile dysfunction (2010 Awards)

Award: Gold – The APG Creative Planning Awards, 2008
Client: Impotence Australia, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Bayer Schering (The ED Working Group)
Product/Service: Erectile Dysfunction awareness
David Chriswick, Al Crawford

Doing it the hard way – rebranding a stigmatised health condition


Erectile Dysfunction is the inability to achieve or maintain penile erection sufficient to complete satisfactory intercourse. When a man can’t get it up basically. We’ve all heard the jokes and can spit out an exhaustive list of puns. Well that was the big issue here.

This case study is about how planning effectively rebranded a highly stigmatised medical condition in the face of some huge challenges. It’s no mean feat to get suffering men to talk about their broken man-parts to anyone, especially when the market environment is cluttered with mixed messages and imagery that compounds the problem. That’s what we needed to do, and did. While heavy spending competition in the form of private men’s health clinics were promising quick fix, anonymous solutions, we had to direct sufferers into the community GPs.

This paper talks about how planning uncovered some invaluable key insights into the male psyche which helped reframe the way sufferers, and others, viewed the problem. As a result, the campaign got thousands of men into their GPs, not only for the little magic pills that get their boners back, but to fix perhaps a serious underlying health problem.  Not to mention their love lives.

Fancy a challenge?

Good. Then try getting men to visit their local GPs to talk openly about Erectile Dysfunction and thereby get best practice advice and treatment. Better still, try doing so whilst your new competition is offering a more anonymous option, at the same time as running advertising campaigns that reinforce all the stereotypes that keep this condition in the closet.

This paper is about meeting and beating exactly that challenge.  It’s a paper which shows how bold planning and a brave client helped develop a campaign that fundamentally changes the way that we view Erectile Dysfunction; that destigmatises the condition and, indeed, turns it into something that can be openly discussed by sufferers and non-sufferers alike.

Intrigued?  Well, read on.

Essential background and terminology

Erectile Dysfunction (ED) is basically not being able to get it up, and/or keep it up sufficiently for a bit of ‘sexy time’, as Borat would say.

PDE5 inhibitors are the most commonly recommended treatment.  You’ll know them by their brand names – Viagra, Levitra and Cialis.

In early 2007, the three major manufacturers of the PDE5’s teamed up with Impotence Australia to encourage patients to head to their GP for best practice advice on the condition and a subsequent prescription, if necessary.

A hard task

In and of itself, this is a bit of challenge.  We know that only 1 in 4 men who have the condition are doing anything about it.  The rest are suffering in silence.


Men generally don’t like talking about their malfunctioning members.  The quality of erection is seen as something that’s a fundamental reflection of your masculinity. Less of a boner, less of a man.

Worse still, if they are to talk to somebody about it, their GP isn’t top of their list. In men’s minds, this is the very opposite of the kind of encounter that they want.  Rather than being one-off and anonymous, they feel like they’re visiting someone that they will see regularly for other ailments and who is being visited by their ‘community’ – friends, family, neighbours. In many men’s eyes, they might as well put an ad in the local paper.

To cap things off, many suffering men felt that a GP would overburden them with awkward questioning and advice, rather than simply letting them slip quickly out the door with a packet of wonder pills;  basically adding insult to impotence.

Ironically, however, that’s exactly WHY we wanted them to visit the GP in the first place – to get holistic advice, rather than simply grab the drugs and leg it.

Made even harder by a new competitive set

As if the task wasn’t difficult enough. We found ourselves up against a relatively new, but formidable new competitor. Not another pharmaceutical company, but the dozens of private men’s health clinics that offer nasal delivery technology to treat ED. For one thing, they had the jump on us with their route to market – an unknown, independent doctor, rather than the community GP.  Also, they were seen as quick-fix specialists – people that would get you in and out and concentrate solely on solving the problem on the spot.

Perhaps even more damaging was the way that some of them were communicating.  It’s highly unlikely that you’ve missed the advertising. It’s the guys playing a piano duet with their erections, giant billboards asking you if you want better sex, and radio commercials reminding you of the embarrassment of failure in the sack. Arresting and commercially effective for those companies, they may be, but disastrous for us.

Why?  Because we wanted all men, not just a small minority, to come forward; and we wanted them to do so in the presence of a registered GP, not a private clinic. The campaigns that we were up against militated against that, reinforcing the perception that ED sapped your male potency and, as a result, that a visit to an anonymous prescriber was the appropriate option.

Our ambition

In the face of this, we knew we had to set ourselves a grand ambition. So that’s just what we did:

To normalise ED!  Take a highly stigmatized condition, hidden by sufferers, and bring it out into the open.

Only by doing that could we open the door to more men choosing to do something about the condition and, vitally, to see their GP for best practice advice and treatment.

Surmounting the problem

Three major insights transformed our approach:

1. It’s a symptom, not a problem

We realised that we needed to fundamentally change the way ED was perceived to enable dialogue with the GP. Traditional campaigns showed the condition as an emasculating problem, but the more we dug into the issue with the clients, the more we realised that the answer lay in showing ED as a symptom of a set of causes that were linked to health and lifestyle.

Dredging through the medical research revealed that over 75% of ED cases are caused by an underlying physical health problem such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Stress, anxiety or depression can also contribute. Linking these everyday ailments to the condition could reframe it, by making it far more acceptable and workaday.

Rather than being a barometer of your masculinity, we had turned it into a barometer of your overall health.  In this, we also had a strategy that enhanced the role of the GP in the addressing the problem.

2. Focus on a very different relationship

Good, but we felt we needed to go further.  Our next big leap came from focusing on a very different relationship to that which is normally dramatised in ED campaigns.  Traditionally, they’d focused on demonstrating the restorative power that a cure would have on your relationship with your partner; that you would become a brilliant lover again.

Undoubtedly, this is the desired end benefit of ED treatment.  However, the trouble with focusing on this area is that, once again, it tended to heap pressure on the sufferer; that they needed a cure less for themselves, but more for the benefit of their relationship.  It made it feel like the problem was an outer directed one; that the cure was as much for someone else as themselves and that, worse still, they were constantly being judged for having the condition.  Perversely, the benefit being offered in advertising, we felt, actually increased the stigma of having the condition.

We wanted to shift the focus. The solution came from the one-on-one depths that we conducted where men would discuss their willies, not so much as a malfunctioning body part, but more in the context of a relationship. They talked about it almost as a friend or companion: their first first toy as a baby, a rampaging ally as a young man, and, hopefully, an old faithful in later life.  They’d even commonly refer to them as ‘he’, rather than ‘it’.

It struck us that we were onto something hugely powerful here: to dramatise this close, emotional relationship between man and cock.  After all, if ED became more about doing something for you and your trouser companion, rather than doing something for your frustrated partner, it would make it seem a more inner-directed issue.  A better relationship with your partner would be a wonderful by-product, not a pressurised be-all-and-end-all.

3. Don’t just demedicalise, adopt the vernacular

Our final leap lay in how we expressed ourselves. The language surrounding this condition doesn’t come naturally to your average Joe. Erectile Dysfunction sounds cold, medical and heinously problematic.

Traditionally, advertisers have tried to sweeten the pill a bit by softening the language and using aspirational figures, like Pele.

But this struck us as a halfway house. Yes, it made the issue seem less medical and less heinous. Yes, it showed a degree of empathy and acceptability, in that a sporting god could talk about the issue. However, it still felt like the medical establishment trying to soften their image, rather than something that truly located it in a guy’s world.

The solution, interestingly, came from some less structured research down the pub with some mates. Discussions about sex, erections and the penis rarely use that kind of language.  Instead, an entire lexicon of imaginative terms and phrases for our appendages and what we do with them exists. For example, schlong, todger, the man downstairs and old fella are just some of the more publishable references.

We realised that if we could capture this vernacular in our communications, without resorting to puerility, we would be onto something. Rather than simply demedicalising the condition, we would be talking the very language our consumer uses down the pub. It would feel like a campaign that was truly of their world,

The brief in brief

With those 3 insights in the bag, the brief wrote itself:


Turn an embarrassing and sensitive problem into a normal and accepted condition.


Tell men that ED is a gauge of general health, NOT THEIR MASCULINITY.

Key steers:

  • Focus on the relationship between the man and his part, not the man and his partner.
  • Don’t just ‘demedicalise’ the issue, use the language of the pub.
  • Give a clear call to action to visit the GP, or put a call into Impotence Australia.

The briefing

We then briefed three strapping young creative teams in their sexual prime.  Not the easiest or most empathetic audience. So we tried to put them in our sufferers’ shoes. Over a few beers at the end of a stressful Monday, we briefed them and then asked them to chat about their relationship with, and pet names for, their ‘thrillers’.

Several inventive, eye-popping suggestions later, they got to work.

The Idea: Look after your little fella and he’ll look after you

As expected, ideas were plentiful, but one caught our eye in particular.  It featured a typical middle aged male and a ‘mini me’ version of him to represent his penis.  During the course of the commercial, we see how the daily grind takes its toll on their relationship, until the Little Fella finally gives up the ghost.

It was bang on brief – capturing the relationship we wanted perfectly, harnessing the vernacular and clearly communicating the array of health and lifestyle issues that come into play with ED.

TV advertising led the campaign and a microsite destination ( supported with online search and banner promotion.

The hard and soft results

These exceeded all expectations with a 400% increase in calls compared to same period in 2006. Better still; the cost per call worked out to be only $162, a 35% decrease from the Pele campaign run by Pfizer about 5 years ago.

Both the medical and advertising industries have applauded our efforts. Comments from sexual health specialists, GP’s and consumers alike have demonstrated that the campaign is working exactly as intended.

“It certainly makes it all feel like a normal condition, rather than something that’s wrong with testosterone levels or an actual broken penis” Male consumer, 53. Parramatta research group

“This entertaining advertising campaign showed empathy and understanding of the suffering male like no other of its kind in the past. Its message and tone was spot on in addressing this sensitive men’s health subject” Male GP, Northbridge

“You’d remember this and you’d talk about it with your mates. It’s entertaining and actually tells you something you didn’t know before about that problem.” Male consumer, North Sydney research group

And, already in 2008, the TVC has won ‘Best of Show’ at the IPA Best of Health awards in London and it even battled it out as finalist in the film category at Cannes Lions 2008.


We said at the top that this was a difficult challenge: to get men to visit GP’s for best practice advice on erectile dysfunction. Not only that, but we had to achieve this in the face of new and very different competitors whose route to market and advertising militated against our success.

This paper has shown how strategic planning not only normalised the condition, but set GP’s up as the best port of call for a solution, by making three powerful leaps. As a result, we’ve created a campaign that has fundamentally changed the way erectile dysfunction is perceived and which is already convincing more men to come forward to find a solution.

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  • Bob

    This is disgusting. We all know that drug companies sell Viagra and other drugs by creating an awareness of the problem which then increases the incidence. Impotence is 80% psychological, this is well known.

    Well done, I wonder if the group who created this campaign has now become afflicted with the condition from creating daily awareness in their own minds.

    A truly evil campaign, take this from a marketing/psychologist who walked away from a similar campaign after the research was done.