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The Heart of the Matter

27 April, 2008
The cholesterol-lowering agent Lipitor, produced by the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company, is the biggest selling drug in the world. Over the past few years, Pfizer has been using an ad campaign featuring artificial heart developer Dr. Robert Jarvik. The series of television and internet-based ads show Jarvik discussing his interest in heart health and why consumers should consider taking Lipitor. During the ads, Jarvik is shown enjoying an active ‘outdoorsy’ lifestyle. The following essay examines the effectiveness of the Jarvik/Lipitor ads and– using methods suggested by Larson (2007)—analyzes the campaign for both its credibility and ethical value.

The Heart of the Matter:

Pfizer, Jarvik and Credibility
For the past few years Dr. Robert Jarvik, “inventor of the artificial heart” (Saul, 2008), has been seen in a series of ads promoting the Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company’s cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor. The ads have been enormously successful—Lipitor is the best-selling drug in the world (Saul, 2008). The following analysis examines the effectiveness of the Jarvik/Lipitor ads and– using the methods described by Larson (2007)—evaluates the campaign for both its credibility and ethical value.
At first glance, Jarvik and Pfizer seem to offer solid evidence as to why anyone in need of a cholesterol-lowering agent should choose Lipitor. The drug itself is the worlds most popular—therefore; any claim to its effectiveness must have some merit. In the ad, Jarvik (2008) states, “…when diet and exercise aren’t enough, adding Lipitor significantly lowers cholesterol”—which sounds reasonable and sensible. Then there is Jarvik. Obviously, no longer the ‘Young Turk’ doctor, but an experienced heart specialist; an older but active individual (the audience knows this because the ad depicts him sculling alone across a vast lake and jogging along side his adult son).
Jarvik takes—and endorses—Lipitor, and as a heart specialist must know what he is talking about.

The Pfizer campaign’s use of Jarvik as a spokesman works on several emotional levels. Jarvik became known during the 1980’s as the inventor of the Jarvik 7, the artificial heart that was famously placed in both dentist Barney Clark—and later William Schroeder—the latter who memorably woke up after the procedure asking for a beer (Bazell, 2007).  As a doctor, Jarvik naturally elicits trust. Further, in one of the ads, Jarvik talks rather movingly about how his interest in the human heart was sparked by the death of his father –of heart disease–at age 62.
The ad is primarily aimed at those around Jarvik’s age—sixty-something (perhaps even a bit younger)—baby boomers and others who, according to NBC News Chief Science and Health correspondent, Dr, Robert Bazell, “…are old enough to require heart medication and remember the name Jarvik, but aren’t quite sure what he accomplished” (2007). It is a group who has a recognized longing for–or as Packard states–a “need for immortality” (1964).  The Jarvik/Pfizer audience is comprised of health conscious 40-60 year-olds—either recently diagnosed with high cholesterol or currently taking another medication for it.
The somewhat sophisticated, active lifestyle of Jarvik is appealing to baby boomers and former ‘yuppies’ and is something with which they can identify.  It is particularly alluring to those in the middle to upper-middle class brackets who would be both willing and able to pay the comparatively higher cost of Lipitor.  Other medications of the same class, statins—such as Zocor—cost just a few cents a day, while Lipitor costs at least three dollars a day (Bazell, 2007). According to Bazell (2007), all statins work the same way and are just as equally effective.

Further, as aforementioned, Jarvik seems credible; however, recently the ad campaign has come under a firestorm of criticism—concerning Jarvik, specifically. The issues are Jarvik’s questionable medical/professional qualifications—and his active lifestyle as portrayed in the ads (Rich, 2008).       Firstly, Jarvik’s grades did not allow him entry into any American medical school (Bazell, 2007). He did go to the University of Bologna (Italy)—but did not finish (Bazell, 2007).
Jarvik is not a cardiologist. He holds a degree (in medical engineering from New York University) but that does not allow him to actually practice medicine (Saul, 2008). He did develop an artificial heart (but not the first one)—the aforementioned Jarvik 7—but the survival time of patients Clark and Schroeder was much shorter than anticipated ( 112 days, 620 days, respectively) and was filled with misery (Bazell, 2007).  According to Bazell, the Jarvik 7 was essentially a failure (2007).
Then there are the images within the ads–showing Jarvik jogging and pulling himself along in his one-man boat. The problem here is the fact that the person shown sculling is not Jarvik. Saul states that the lone figure traveling across the lake is a stunt double (2008). Jarvik does not scull. He does not jog. Jarvik’s longtime collaborator, Dr. O.H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute claims, “He’s about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen. He can’t row” (Saul, 2008).
In an attempt to utilize Jarvik’s pseudo-celebrity status, as well as his dubious connection to cardiology—Pfizer is basically misusing testimony (Larson, 2007). In several obvious and important ways, Jarvik is not only not quite the medical expert or professional he appears to be—but he is also not the active, sporty individual depicted in the commercials.  Further, one of the ads features an old photo of Jarvik in cap and gown—receiving some type of diploma— which the audience assumes, is his physician’s degree—but Jarvik is not a practicing physician. The use of this photo exemplifies Larson’s (2007) definition of “artifactual communication” (pp. 229-230).
All of the aforesaid dubious means of persuasion on the part of the Pfizer campaign and Jarvik have violated a section of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ 1990 version of its code of ethics, which according to Larson (2007) states: “ False or misleading statements or exaggerations, visual or verbal” (p.40) are to be avoided by association-members (italics mine). After investigating the ‘story’ behind the ad—and discovering the truth about Jarvik’s career and persona—the trustworthiness level of Jarvik and by association, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals plummets considerably.
Finally, it appears that the folks at Pfizer were desperate to turn a profit with their cholesterol-lowering drug, Lipitor. By marketing it using peripheral-celebrity Dr. Robert Jarvik, Pfizer hoped to capitalize on whatever hearth-health association potential consumers would make with his name. Jarvik’s appeal is his age, apparent heart expertise as well as his active lifestyle.

On closer examination, however, it is these same features that lead to ethical implications. Jarvik is no cardiologist. He is not—nor has he ever been—a practicing physician. His area of education/knowledge is in medical engineering. The artificial heart device he developed was basically a failure. The health conscious baby-boomer alternately shown donning a wet suit and tying his jogging shoes does not exist. Jarvik’s image is an artifact of persuasion presented falsely (Larson, 2007).
Overall, it’s truly a shame that Jarvik and Pfizer felt they had to resort to duplicity in order to hawk Lipitor. Jarvik is obviously an intelligent person—with a pleasing enough presence. Maybe his father did die at 62 of heart disease. Maybe that event did motivate a young Jarvik to become interested in the human heart. Maybe Pfizer should have just let Jarvik tell his real life story—without all of the creative duplicity of an implied ‘cardiological’ expertise and sporty lifestyle. If they had, maybe Lipitor would have still sold well among the wealthier baby-boomer set—and maybe Jarvik and Pfizer wouldn’t be where they are today—undergoing an congressional investigation for ethical violations.

Bazell, R. (2007). Despite past failures, Dr. Robert Jarvik succeeds in hawking statin drug Lipitor.
MSNBC.com Retrieved 04/01/2008 from http://www.msnbc.msn/com/id/16039753/
Larson, C.U. (2007). Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility (11th ed.). Belmont: Thomson-
Packard, V. (1964). The Hidden Persuaders. New York: Pocket Books.
Rich, R. (2008). Rowing nowhere: celebrity endorsements. Copywrite.ink. Retrieved 04/03/2008
from http://copywriteink.blogspot.com/2008/02/rowing-nowhere-celebrity-endorsements.html.
Saul, S. (2008). Congress probes doctor’s role in drug ad. The New York Times online. Retrieved
02/10/2008 from http://video.on.nytimes.com.


About ageer370

I'm in my final semester as a grad student of media studies, I'm also 'Mom' to my 15-year-old autistic son. My interests are film history--its analysis and criticism; the art of rhetoric as well as cultural history from about the Edwardian period to the present.


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