On October 28, 2003, representatives of Pfizer pharmaceuticals gathered at corporate headquarters in New York City to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the launch of their wonder drug Viagra. The guest list for the big event, along with the requisite press, public relations executives, NASCAR luminaries, and satisfied customers, featured erstwhile Texas Rangers first baseman and designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro.1 Not only has Palmeiro had a spectacular career, both at bat and in the field, but during the 2002 and 2003 seasons Palmeiro, currently of the Baltimore Orioles, also played the role of Viagra pitchman. The connection of Viagra—an official and, as its ads would have us know, proud sponsor of Major League Baseball since 2002—is not limited to Palmeiro's endorsement, nor did it end with his term as pitchman. Prominent outfield signage, a sweepstakes tied into the 2003 All-Star Game, and even an online fantasy baseball game entitled Clutch Performances™, reintroduced for the 2004 season, reinforce the connection between Major League Baseball and Pfizer's drug.
What is it about baseball, as opposed to any other professional sport, that prompted Pfizer's marketing wizards to link it to their performance-enhancing drug? Why associate Viagra with professional sports in the first place? And what is it about Rafael Palmeiro, certainly a high-profile player but hardly Johnny Damon or Derek Jeter, that makes him the right spokesman for this particular product? After all, Palmeiro is not the first well-known celebrity to endorse Viagra. Who can forget the image of Bob Dole offering enthusiastic testimonials for Pfizer's little blue pill in those early ads, which became so familiar to American consumers that the former U.S. Senate majority leader went on to parody them in spots for Pepsi, along with Britney Spears? So why should consumers pay attention when Palmeiro steps forward with the bold statement, "I take Viagra. Let's just say it works for me"? Looking at the way pharmaceutical companies brand and advertise prescription drugs, as well as [End Page 1] the specific challenges presented by marketing this particular preparation, I will attempt to answer some of these questions. I will also consider recent attempts by Pfizer's competitors in the marketplace, perhaps inspired by Viagra's success, to market similar performance-enhancing preparations with their own sports tie-ins.
At the outset the connection between baseball and pharmaceuticals seems tenuous at best. Yet Viagra is hardly the first drug to advertise using baseball imagery, and Palmeiro is hardly the first baseball star to endorse a pharmaceutical product. As far back as the nineteenth century advertisers sold American consumers patent medicines with the help of testimonials from a variety of celebrities, famous "European physicians," and other quacks. Celebrity endorsers of patent elixirs were, for the most part, women. But baseball players such as Ty Cobb, chief promoter of Nuxated Iron, a performance-enhancing concoction of sorts, also played on this particular field. Still, athlete endorsers of such patent preparations were few and far between.
With time, and with the eventual enactment and enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, patent medicines gave way to more efficacious remedies, ones with an official stamp of approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Still, the legitimate pharmaceutical industry did not really blossom as a commercial force until the years following World War II. Even when drug companies began to grow exponentially, and advertising for over-the-counter medications proliferated, ads for these products did not, for the most part, feature figures from the baseball world. There are undoubtedly scattered examples, but drug endorsements by baseball players were certainly not the norm.
Recently, however, things have changed. Having retired after pitching for the New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers, Nolan Ryan went on to pitch for Advil. It's not, after all, a stretch to think of the aging but durable Ryan requiring some relief from joint pain. Don Zimmer has assured consumers that his hemorrhoids, presumably a side effect of...