Friday, February 08, 2008

Jarvik Can't Prescribe and Can't Row a Boat, But Can He Sell?

"He can't row," said Dr. O. H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute of Dr. Jarvik, Pfizer's Lipitor celebrity spokesperson. And Dr. Frazier should know -- he's a "longtime collaborator" of Jarvik's, according to a NY Times article.

The fact that Jarvik is not actually rowing in those old Lipitor commercials was pointed out by me back in August, 2006, when I was practically the only Pharma Blogger in the US. Here's what I wrote in the post "Confusing Creativity with Mission" back then:
... a body double rowing expert does the rowing in those Lipitor TV ads, not Dr. Jarvik (see "Lights ... Camera ... Attention ... Row!"). In the photo in that article -- taken by Jarvik's rowing stand-in during filming of the commercial -- Dr. Jarvik obviously is not far from shore in a rigged-up canoe.

I'm not surprised that a more experienced rower was used for the action shots -- but it seems a little disingenuous. I admired the skill of the rower, turning the blades of the oars just right for minimum drag between strokes. Because I thought Dr. Jarvik was the actual rower, I admired him all the more, which in turn made me more prone to trust his statements about Lipitor ("When diet and exercise aren't enough, adding Lipitor significantly lowers bad cholesterol. It's your heart. Ask if Lipitor is right for you."). Of course, the fact that he knew a thing or two about the human heart also impressed me!

On the other hand, in another Lipitor TV ad, that guy in the natty suit and purple tie is pure Jarvik! No body double.
Back in those days, reporters and Congressmen didn't even know what a blog was, let alone actually read one, and my post remained under the radar. Of course, not being able to row in and of itself isn't worthy of a Congressional investigation.

We now know that Jarvik can't prescribe Lipitor either (see "Jarvik -- Lipitor spokesperson -- 'outed' as an unlicensed physician!"), but he defends himself in a statement posted to his Jarvik Heart corporate Web site (see "Statement by Dr. Jarvik Regarding his Role as Lipitor Spokesman"):
"I have the training, experience, and medical knowledge to understand the conclusions of the extensive clinical trials that have been conducted to study the safety and effectiveness of Lipitor."
Along with a gazillion other "doctors"! What makes Jarvik so special then? It's the oft-quoted "fact" that Jarvik is the inventor of the "first" artificial heart. According to Robin Koval, president of Kaplan Thaler, the agency Pfizer hired to create the Jarvik ads, "We think Dr. Jarvik is an amazing spokesperson, [as the inventor of the artificial heart] he's beyond a celebrity spokesperson." But is he the inventor of the artificial heart?

Did Jarvik Invent the First Artificial Heart?
On his Web site, Jarvik not only defends himself as a qualified Lipitor spokesperson, but he also defends himself against claims by ventriloquist Paul Winchell (1922-2005) that he [Winchell] invented the first artificial heart. This claim was cited in a comment to my blog post in 2006 (see "Lipitor's Jarvik: Fop or Flop?").

"Certainly, he [Winchell] did not invent the first artificial heart," says Jarvik. "The Winchell device was not the prototype for the first permanent total artificial heart -- the Jarvik-7 heart," he says. "The mechanisms described in his [Winchell's] patent are crude and impractical," Jarvik says.

What Jarvik does not say -- but what he allows many news reporters to say -- is that he [Jarvik] invented the first artificial heart. The ABC News story cited above, for example, describes Jarvik as "the creator of the first artificial heart." But Jarvik admits he did not invent the first artificial heart by citing prior inventions to Winchell's and his own invention: "Internal artificial hearts were developed and implanted into experimental animals by Akutsu and Kolff at the Cleveland Clinic, beginning in 1957," says Jarvik, "although their early work was published and not patented, which was customary for inventors from academia."

But Can He Sell?
When the Jarvik Lipitor ads first came out, I asked if Jarvik was "Fop or Flop?" (here). I knew from the way he dressed, talked and walked that he was a "fop" and I thought viewers would not respond to a "cardiologist" who looked, dressed and acted like Jarvik. Of course, back then I didn't realize that Jarvik was not a cardiologist in the first place!

According to the NY Times article, "His recent invention, the Jarvik 2000 FlowMaker, [which I assume was "invented" seven years ago in 2000] is a pump the size of a C flashlight battery that is implanted directly into an intact human heart. It has been used experimentally on nearly six dozen patients at the Texas Heart Institute. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized those experiments, although Dr. Jarvik has yet to receive F.D.A. approval to sell the Jarvik 2000 for widespread use."

So he's having a hard time launching his newest invention for sale.

But can he sell Lipitor?

It's difficult to know if Jarvik helped Pfizer sell more Lipitor in the past. Jarvik was "guaranteed" $1.35 million for appearing in the advertisements ("considered a lot by most people," said Jarvik).

I have to assume Pfizer thought it was worth it, although $1.35 million is a pittance compared to the hundreds of millions Pfizer spends on Lipitor DTC advertising and the $12.7 billion in Lipitor sales last year.

But can he sell Lipitor NOW?

Is the Jarvik era of DTC over? Jarvik was the first "real" doctor to appear in DTC ads. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea and it is unlikely that any other real doctor will now have the cojones to follow in Jarvik's (foppy) footsteps -- no pharma marketer would even suggest such a scenario these days!

Given all the negative publicity surrounding Jarvik as a Lipitor spokesperson, it may be time for Pfizer to retire the good doctor (72% of respondents to a Pharmalot poll agree that Pfizer should fire Jarvik).

In my personal opinion, it's time for Pfizer to dump the Jarvik commercials and move on. But, given the "circle the wagons" mentality of pharmaceutical companies, I don't expect this to happen any time soon.

On the other hand, Jarvik may consider it wise to negotiate his way out of the Pfizer/Lipitor contract as it may now be a liability for him in his effort to get more investors and launch his latest invention.


  1. Good job digging out the facts of the Lipitor campaign. I never could understand why anyone would buy Lipitor from someone who made an artificial heart that never lasted longer than a year.

    Doug Bremner

  2. Anonymous9:25 PM

    I think Pfizer should have you do Lipitor ads. Here's the angle: even with all you know about how Pfizer has marketed the product in the past, you still think it's a pretty darn good product!

    David Williams
    Health Business Blog


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