ICOS debuts first Cialis TV ad on Sunday

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By Eric Fetters

Herald Writer

BOTHELL — The war is on.

The anticipated TV advertising battle between Cialis, the erectile dysfunction drug developed by ICOS Corp., and rivals Viagra and Levitra kick off Sunday and will go high profile during the Super Bowl.

The first 15-second Cialis commercial will air several times during the National Football League’s two conference championship games, according to Eli Lilly & Co., ICOS’ partner for the drug.

Khoso Baluch, who leads the Cialis business unit for Lilly-Icos, called the first ad “a peek” at the overall consumer marketing campaign for the prescription drug. Sales representatives already have been visiting doctors to educate them about Cialis.

“Our real focus was to get the physicians familiar with our product and its benefits before moving to the next stage. Now we are ready for that stage,” Baluch said.

He said the short “brand awareness” ads will air regularly after Sunday’s football games. Longer, more informative commercials will air later, though he didn’t specify a date.

“When we think we’ve reached a certain point, that will trigger our full commercials,” Baluch said.

When investors learned Friday of the planned start for the commercials, shares of Bothell-based ICOS increased noticeably for the first time since the drug was approved Nov. 21. The stock closed at $40.73, up $1.43. Lilly’s stock closed at $70.06, up 55 cents.

The ad that will air Sunday shows a couple relaxing in side-by-side bathtubs that have been placed outside on a ocean-view bluff. Mellow jazz music enhances the glowing sunset scene.

A voice-over says: “Cialis is here. Are you ready? Introducing Cialis.”

The voice-over also encourages men to ask their doctors about Cialis, and the ad displays a Web address for more information. In all, the announcer mentions the drug’s name five times in the short commercial. What the drug does is not specified.

“What we’re trying to get across to the ED (erectile dysfunction) sufferer and his partner is that they can feel relaxed” when taking the drug, Baluch said.

The implied message is that with Cialis’ effectiveness for up to 36 hours per dose, couples don’t have to rush an intimate moment.

That’s different than the more macho image put forth in commercials for Viagra and Levitra. Ads for Levitra, which is made by Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, focus on a man throwing a football through a tire swing. Viagra has used celebrities ranging from Bob Dole to ex-NFL coach Mike Ditka.

“This certainly has a laid-back, jazz-type of feel, rather than the younger, football feel with Levitra,” said Paul Latta, analyst with Seattle’s McAdams Wright Ragen Inc., after viewing the Cialis ad.

The commercials mark the official start of what could be a highly visible battle among the competing drugs.

Both Pfizer Inc., which makes Viagra, and Levitra’s makers have spent heavily during the past several months on TV and print advertising. Analysts have estimated that Lilly and ICOS will spend $100 million in the first year of their blitz.

The trade publication Ad Age reported Friday that Lilly and ICOS will buy a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, costing the companies more than $2 million each. A 30-second Levitra commercial will be shown during the game, and Pfizer intends to buy a spot for Viagra as well, according to Ad Age.

As ICOS’ only drug to receive approval from the FDA, Cialis’ success is vital to the future of the growing biotech firm. Industry analysts have said it could do well against Viagra, which recorded $1.7 billion in sales during 2002.

While some eager investors had hoped to see Cialis ads hit the airwaves earlier, the wait may have been smart, said Andrew Heyward, senior vice president at Seattle’s Ragen MacKenzie, a division of Wells Fargo Investments. The holiday season is not a good time to launch a new drug ad campaign, he said, but it presented an opportunity to educate doctors before the consumer demand hits.

“I think the time between the approval date and the ad campaign was probably well-spent,” Heyward said.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or [email protected] .