Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jarvik: A Modern DTC Tragedy

"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!"
-- Walter Scott

As everyone knows by now, Pfizer caved in to withering criticism from Congress and the Pharma BlogospereTM and pulled the Jarvik Lipitor ads.

When Dr. Robert Jarvik inked his $1.35 million Lipitor spokesperson deal with Pfizer, I am sure he was not prepared for the damage to his reputation that would result.

Given all the negative publicity surrounding Jarvik and the ads, it was time for Pfizer to retire the good doctor (72% of respondents to a Pharmalot poll agree that Pfizer should fire Jarvik).

But perhaps Jarvik himself begged Pfizer to cut him loose from his $1.35 million contract. With every piece of bad news, Jarvik's reputation was melting away. He may have felt he needed to get off the airways and fast!

From the very beginning I thought Jarvik was a “fop” (see “Lipitor's Jarvik: Fop or Flop?”). I criticized the color scheme chosen for his clothes, which was Nexium purple rather than Lipitor blue. That may have been a branding faux pas or perhaps something the prissy doctor demanded. My point of view as a pharmaceutical marketing critic was this was the wrong image to project of a cardiologist. “Inventor of an artificial heart or not, what guy wants to be examined by a doctor who looks like this!,” I said. “Maybe it's an OK look for an OB/Gyn, but not a cardiologist--which, next to a brain surgeon, is the most manly medical specialty.”

Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that Jarvik was NOT a cardiologist.

Anyway, many of my blog readers agreed with my assessment of Jarvik’s sexual orientation. The infamous Anonymous had this to say: “It wasn't the dress that convinced me Jarvik was Gay. It was his style of voice. Let's face it, the guy is weak and flaming. (Might be something wrong with that). I'm surprised he has the guts to come out on public TV and expose himself. Gutsy perhaps.”

Gutsy, yes. Smart; not so much.

Then, I learned about the “long-simmering dispute over assigning credit for the artificial heart.” One commenter to my October 2006 “fop” post said “I am offended by Dr. Robert Jarvik's claim to be the inventor of the artificial heart. It appears he's stretching the facts, perhaps due to what you alleged might be vanity.” I learned that Paul Winchell, the renowned ventriloquist, invented a version of the artificial heart BEFORE Jarvik did. In fact, there was innuendo that Winchell was hoodwinked into signing over his patent to the University of Utah where Jarvik was employed.

Recently, even Jarvik’s former colleagues have come out publicly to question whether his contribution to medical science was all that great. A February 26, 2008 New York Times article reported that three former colleagues of Dr. Jarvik’s at the University of Utah complained to Pfizer that the Lipitor ads erroneously identified Dr. Jarvik as “inventor of the artificial heart.” That distinction, they said, should go to Dr. Jarvik’s mentor, Dr. Willem J. Kolff, and his associate, Dr. Tetsuzo Akutsu. Pfizer subsequently changed its ads to identify Dr. Jarvik as the inventor of the “Jarvik artificial heart.”

The NY Times also reported that "Another former Utah colleague of Dr. Jarvik's, Dr. Clifford S. Kwan-Gett, stated that the Jarvik series of hearts were simply different versions of prototypes that Dr. Kwan-Gett had made more than a year earlier."

Worse was yet to come. Not only was Jarvik "outed" as gay, but we learned that he did not have a license to practice medicine! (See "Jarvik -- Lipitor spokesperson – 'outed' as an unlicensed physician!"). Even veteran DTC experts like Bob Ehrlich, publisher of DTC Perspectives, believed that Jarvik was a practicing cardiologist. Although Bob did not think that was a big deal, House Energy and Commerce Committee obviously did--it raised questions about Dr. Jarvik’s credentials to recommend Lipitor.

Then came the Good Morning America interview that sealed Jarvik’s fate (see "Jarvik Falters in His Own Defense"). When he was asked why the Lipitor ads did not mention generics, he took a long embarrassed pause and said "I don't know. We have talked about generics in the ads...” “You have?” exclaimed an incredulous Diane Sawyer. "Well maybe there's an ad that hasn't come out yet that you haven't seen. (smirk). So, we do address those issues."

I put the blame squarely on Pfizer for allowing their renowned spokesperson to be interviewed on national TV obviously without the proper coaching.

After that debacle, it was clear that Pfizer could not allow Jarvik to testify before Congress, which was--and maybe still is--itching to have him as a witness. He simply had to go and Pfizer came out with a mea culpa (see press release).
"The way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions..." said Ian Read, Pfizer’s president of worldwide pharmaceutical operations. "We regret this," he added.
Not only did the ads mislead viewers to believe that Jarvik was a practicing cardiologist, they also falsely depicted Jarvik as an expert rower! "He can't row," said Dr. O. H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute of Dr. Jarvik. And Dr. Frazier should know—he's a "longtime collaborator" of Jarvik's! As reported in the NY Times, the Energy and Commerce Committee also “asked 10 advertising agencies that worked on the Dr. Jarvik campaign to submit documents about the use of body doubles.”

In his defense, Jarvik said: “I spent most of my summer vacation time during high school on the water, sailing, rowing, fishing, and scuba diving. At the time the ad was filmed, I was certainly fit enough to row for the shoot.” (See WSJ Health Blog). And I spent my high school summer vacations gassing cars at the local Gulf station, so I must qualify as a Nascar driver!
[Full disclosure: I was never really a gas jockey. If that statement led to “misimpressions and distractions,” I deeply regret it.]
Finally, we learned that Jarvik didn't start taking Lipitor until after he was hired by Pfizer.

It’s one thing to make snarky remarks about Jarvik’s gay mannerisms, but let’s not forget that the fire behind all this smoke is how Pfizer and the Kaplan Thaler Group, its ad agency, mismanaged the whole Jarvik-Lipitor campaign and the press.

I suspect that Kaplan Thaler Group’s creativity and hubris is partly responsible for destroying Jarvik’s credibility. Ultimately, however, it was Pfizer that allowed Jarvik to fend for himself in defense of his credibility on national TV! Who knows? Maybe Pfizer advised Jarvik not to appear on the Good Morning Show and when he ignored the advice Pfizer simply disowned any responsibility.

Whatever! All I can say is that it may be a long time before any other celebrity will work with these dodos! Unless, of course, Pfizer raises the ante and offers $2 million to the next rope-a-dope celeb!


  1. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Hey Mack,
    Why would you pen such a ridiculous statement?
    “Inventor of an artificial heart or not, what guy wants to be examined by a doctor who looks like this!,” I said.“Maybe it's an OK look for an OB/Gyn, but not a cardiologist--which, next to a brain surgeon, is the most manly medical specialty.”

    YOU lose credibility with ME.

  2. I dunno, it's just my POV.

    But if you're talking about CREDIBILITY, why not debate some of the real points I make -- like the mistakes made by Pfizer and its ad agency?

  3. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Jarvik's sexual orientation seems irrelevant.

    Your other points are well taken.

  4. Anonymous5:04 PM

    After reading the news about Pfizer pulling Jarvik's ad, I was looking forward to reading your take. However, I have to say that I'm disappointed that you felt the need to bring up questions about Jarvik's sexuality. How is that at all relevant? The only thing that reveals is your own homophobia; it has nothing at all to do with the real issue at hand. Tsk tsk.

  5. It may be that Jarvik's "gay" mannerisms are relevant as to why he was chosen by Pfizer and their ad agency. Maybe a "softer" doctor image, with caring eyes and soft voice appealed more to a certain audience -- perhaps focus groups showed that Jarvik rated very high among women. That would be important because women may be under-medicated for control of their cholesterol levels compared to men.

    Maybe Jarvik isn't gay and maybe he is, but a critical look at how he "comes across" as they say is VERY relevant.

    I'm glad you made me think of it!

  6. Is doing a 3 part article on what a scum bag this guy is. Check it out at
    Robert Jarvik, Pimp with a Pump

  7. Anonymous9:58 AM

    Re your comment...there is so much of substance to take issue with regarding the Jarvik issue, as you do in your post: the semi-deceptive claims as the artificial heart inventor, the fact that he's not a clinician/prescriber, the fact that he's not a rower, etc. But the fact that he has a "softer" image, which you attribute to homosexuality, is not at all what the issue is here. Sure, the ad agency probably liked the fact that he didn't come off as some brusque a-hole. Personality matters when picking a spokesperson, duh...but sexual orientation doesn't, and, again, that is NOT what the issue is here.

    This quote is so incredibly offensive, I can't believe you posted it: “It wasn't the dress that convinced me Jarvik was Gay. It was his style of voice. Let's face it, the guy is weak and flaming. (Might be something wrong with that). I'm surprised he has the guts to come out on public TV and expose himself. Gutsy perhaps.”

    "Weak and flaming"??? Playing on the Seinfeld quote "not that there's anything wrong with that" and basically saying that there is something wrong with that? How disgusting. And you calling him "prissy" also crosses the line.

    You want to talk about deception...I felt deceived reading your post. Here I was, expecting some insight into the heart of the matter, and instead I wound up reading the hateful words of a guy who clearly has some kind of homophobia issues. The gay comments totally came out of left field for me. What's worse is that there are all these commenters who are calling you out on it, and you're still defending your hateful position.

    I'll never read your blog again.

  8. I'm also disappointed by your homophobic comments. Your other observations are interesting. Why would you offend your audience this way?

  9. If I have offended you, I am truly sorry.

    With the feedback I have received here, I decided to publish a modified version of this post as an OpEd piece for the February 2008 issue of Pharma Marketing News (see

    I still believe that the image Pfizer presented via Jarvik was one of a soft, benevolent physician as opposed to Crestor's manly Mandy Patinkin (who played Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on CBS's Chicago Hope TV show).

    These kinds of observations are important when you are analyzing a brand's image. Jarvik became the Lipitor brand image and the way that image affected me -- whether I am a homophobe or not -- is extremely important. After all, I may be representative of many many men of my age. If Jarvik could leave such a negative impression upon me, then I imagine many other men like me felt the same (as evidence that this is so, you should look at some of the comments to the original "fop" post).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...