Dr. Robert Jarvik’s problem: It’s the agency, stupid

By February 7, 2008Current Affairs

In a recent post, we wrote about the risks in using celebrities for advertising. Our pharmaceutical poster boy was Dr. Robert Jarvik, who has spent the last couple of years starring in DTC ads for Pfizer’s Lipitor, one of the biggest drugs in the world. Well,it looks more and more like the problem wasn’t Jarvik, but Pfizer’s agency.

Dr. Jarvik found himself on the front page of the New York Times today. The article says that in addition to not being a practicing physician, which we already discussed, Jarvik also does not row. As in sculling. Which would be neither here nor there, except that in the ad, he is shown vigorously rowing a one-man shell across a pristine mountain lake. Turns out it was a body double, not Jarvik. The Wall Street Journal’s Health blog also weighed in on the story.

Does this matter? According to a post in today’s DrugWonks blog, no. As Peter Pitts sees it, physicians still are in charge of who gets prescribed what, and DTC advertising gets people into doctors’ offices to ask important questions about their health. So, given that perspective, the fact that Jarvik doesn’t row doesn’t matter.

We disagree. Remember Celebrex?

In January, 2005, the FDA ordered Celebex’s maker — guess who? Pfizer — to immediately halt several DTC ads. One of them was a television commercial featuring a woman playing the guitar, and telling the audience that now that she was taking Celebrex, "she played the long version" of the song. The FDA said that this ad made unsubstantiated claims about the drug’s effectivness.

This is reasonable. If you have a serious case of rheumatoid arthritis, you are not going to have the strength or dexterity to fret a guitar, no matter how much Celebrex you take. The commercial is depicting something the drug cannot deliver.

And you could say the same thing about Jarvik sculling. Why? Because sculling is hard. It takes about 20% more calories than  jogging, which  Jarvik also  did in the ad. It  takes tremendous strength in your back, legs and shoulders. It’s very hard on the joints,  particularly the back.  Serious rowers, such as the kind who would scull across the aforementioned pristine alpine lake, take a real physical beating. And depicting Jarvik doing this, at age 61, is just plain misleading. It’s very unlikely that someone his age, with a cardiac condition requiring Lipitor, will be able to do that.

Stockxpertcom_id689668_size1This Is Not Robert Jarvik.

And the real pity of it is that this little indiscretion was completely unnecessary. The other ads in the campaign were great. The ad in question was great, with the exception of the sculling scenes. Lipitor is a blockbuster drug for a reason — it really is a breakthrough. It’s been extensively studied, and it really works.

But for some reason, someone at Prizer’s agency felt the need to go one step too far. This isn’t the first time that advertising has, perhaps, taken some creative license. But this was done in pharma, and the rules here are different.

Our entire industry, and the relationship that make it work, are based on trust. The patient has no idea, really, what’s in that pill or injection or device. It’s not like an airline, where the customer can judge for himself whether or not the commercial depicting a quiet, happy, spotless set of passengers racing through the cloudless sky is accurate (hint: it’s not) and then become a repeat customer or not. The patient has to trust that her physician, and pharma companies, are not fudging anything. She has to, if she’s going to allow herself to be treated.

So, while we think the entire debate about whether or not it matters that Jarvik wasn’t a practicing physician is basically piffle, we think this debate is important. The ad depicted something the drug couldn’t really do, and that is not okay. And, again, even worse, it was unnecessary.