Last week I was in Montreal visiting friends at Bos Advertising, a fabulous agency I’ve had the privilege of being an advisor to for several years, and I was up late working in my hotel room with the TV on, and decided to put on a movie to distract my brain for a while. I didn’t want something too loud and obnoxious, so rather randomly I chose “Love and Other Drugs”, mainly because I liked the cute/sexy movie poster. In this movie, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a pharma company drug rep, a charming playboy who falls in love with a smart but difficult woman with Parkinson’s played by Anne Hathaway. Boy meets girl, girl is too smart for his game and totally rejects boy, boy wins over girl, boy tries to save girl from her Parkinson’s, girl rejects boy again for fear of getting too close, boy finally wins girl over for good after getting in touch with his feelings. Actually, it was kind of interesting and watchable, and didn’t make me think too hard. Perfect.
But what got my attention was that this was partially a true story set in the 80s and 90s, and the guy repped the drug Zoloft for Pfizer while his arch rival sales rep sold Prozac for Lilly. Even though the two reps could argue for days about the relative medical merits of their respective drugs, there’s no contest between the popularity of Prozac and that of Zoloft, especially in the first decade of that class of drugs. It was hilarious to watch the Gyllenhaal character do somersaults and pirouettes with influential doctors (and their secretaries) to get them to prescribe his drug, but the power of Prozac’s meme was just too much. And then, fortunes turn, and our guy is repping, guess what, Viagra, the new Pfizer champion drug. Viagra, with its promise (and advertising) of reawakening your vigour and joy, giving you that extra kick that’ll make you more vital, more manly, in all areas of your life — is a gigantically popular memetic system. And although many in the pharma industry tout the superior qualities of competitors like Cialis, whose revenues are nothing to sniff at, nothing compares in the public imagination to the mythic stature of Viagra. Even, and perhaps especially, in the intensely scientific realm of pharma, what captures the imagination trumps or transcends functional qualities. We are consumers of symbols, and the most memetic symbol always wins.
So, in both cases, the winner was: First to Market, and First on Meme. Perhaps that should be one of our mantras as marketers.