Advertising stunt double lands Pfizer in the congressional crosshairs

I’m not a big fan of celebrity endorsements, mostly because they seldom work. But having the the inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart endorse Pfizer’s cholesterol drug Lipitor does. After all, if it’s good enough for the the guy that invented the artificial heart, it should be good enough for me, right?

The New York Times reports that about two years ago, Pfizer contracted with Dr. Robert Jarvik in a two-year endorsement deal worth over $1.3 million. Since then Jarvik has been in numerous Lipitor television ads, banner ads and is on every page of the Lipitor website. So far, so good.

But here’s the controversy. In one of the early ads, Jarvik is depicted rowing on a pristine lake. In fact, it appears it wasn’t Jarvik, but Lake Washington Rowing Club member Dennis Williams. Williams recounted his experience in the club’s April 2006 article entitled, Lights…Camera…Attention…Row! (or My Brief Career as a Drug Pusher) (PDF, 4.2 MB from the NYTimes.com).

Drug advertising authority Dr. David J. Triggle, from the State University of New York at Buffalo opined:

In the case of a physician of significant reputation and renown, and Jarvik is well known for his artificial heart, I think it’s sending a rather dishonest message — that, he himself taking Lipitor is healthy enough to row up and down whatever stream he was rowing. Since he used a body double, that’s dishonesty.

Pfizer’s defense:

Pfizer stands behind its consumer advertising for Lipitor and our work with Dr. Jarvik to deliver important information on managing heart health. Our primary concern in all of our advertising is that the tone and content are appropriate for the intended audiences, and that it will ultimately result in encouraging valuable patient/physician dialogue that can lead to appropriate treatment.

Telling the truth is a cornerstone of message responsibility, and depicting Jarvik as an runner, rower and outdoor enthusiast apparently isn’t truthful. Texas Heart Institute collaborator Dr. O. H. Frazier put it this way: “He’s about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen. He can’t row.”

What do you think? An issue worth pursuing or should congress put its energy elsewhere?

UPDATE: Pfizer has decided to pull these ads. Read about it here.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Ironically, Robert Jarvik’s wife is Marilyn Vos Savant, who had the world record for highest IQ.

  • Kerry D. Lonsdale says:

    BMW commercials disclose: “Professional driver. Do not attempt.” Weight Watchers discloses: “Results not typical.” Pfizer could have easily remedied the situation, and been more responsible, if the company disclosed: “Professional rower. Do not attempt.”

    I think the issue worth pursuing is what needs to be disclosed during the course of an advertisement and to what extent it needs to be disclosed. It would make things a lot easier if our audience was intelligent enough to realize that many images depicted are solely for the purpose of demonstrating the full functionality of a product and that all potential buyers may not have the skill–or in the case of Pfizer, be healthy enough– to take a product’s functions to the max. But, of course, that’s not always the case. As for me, I may want that BMW, but you sure won’t find me driving like “Speed Racer” around those tight mountain curves even though I know the car could handle it.

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