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Sunday, April 21, 2002


A superstar rises to the advertising occasion

I guess it's supposed to set up a connection between athleticism and potency, but I was still slightly taken aback last week while watching a broadcast on NHK of a major league baseball game. Behind home plate there was an advertisement for Viagra.

I don't have figures, but I would bet that the space behind home plate is the priciest advertising location in the whole stadium, since the camera spends more time focused on that spot than on any other. Some stadiums put a contraption there that changes the sign periodically so that more advertisers can use it. (It also means that NHK unwittingly shills for Viagra.)

What was even more interesting was that the Viagra sign included the Major League Baseball logo, which would seem to indicate that the big leagues not only approve of pharmaceutical advertisements, but that they endorse this particular one. Aside from the obvious conflict of an organized, professional sport getting behind prescription drugs, how, exactly, would Major League Baseball carry out such an endorsement? Will players start offering personal testimonials for the wonders of the little blue pills, as they do for Wheaties?

If this sounds like pointless speculation, consider the fact that there already is a Viagra campaign in place that uses the endorsement of a famous athlete. For the past several weeks, Pfizer, the company that makes Viagra, has been placing prime-time TV spots featuring Brazilian soccer superstar Pele, the company's new global spokesman. Pele retired 20 years ago, which means that agewise, at least, he seems appropriate for the demographic normally associated with the drug.

Moreover, Pele was a famous swordsman in his day, and has admitted to the paternity of at least two children born out of wedlock.

None of this is mentioned in the ad, which shows the great man walking into a huge stadium filled to the brim with cheering masses. He acknowledges the ovation and then turns to the camera and says something about how one's "love life" is extremely important. Pele's voice is dubbed into Japanese, though the term "love life" is in English.

The ad copy isn't what interests me. What I want to know is: What, exactly, are these people cheering? The first thing that came to mind was that old GHQ joke about the time Gen. Douglas MacArthur was thinking of running for U.S. president and his Japanese supporters tried to encourage him with a sign that read, "We pray for MacArthur's erection."

Speaking of stepping up to plate for pharmaceuticals, on April 3 and 10, NHK's popular Wednesday night information program, "Tameshite Gatten," aired a special two-part show on the menopause.

"Tameshite Gatten" explains health and consumer issues in ways that are not only easy to understand, but are also entertaining. Even cancer, a topic the series has tackled several times, is treated with much less gravity than it normally is. On the menopause show, the effects of aging were illustrated by a model dressed up as a set of ovaries releasing less and less estrogen over time. The thalamus, which controls hormone secretions, was represented by an overtaxed air-traffic controller.

The title of Part 1 was, "Things no one ever told you." Considering how sensitive and misunderstood the menopause is, and how its effects can reach beyond the person undergoing the "change of life," it was aimed as much at the husbands and children of middle-aged women as it was at the women themselves. As the show pointed out, the menopause is essentially a list of physiological and psychological ailments, any or all of which will affect different women in totally different ways.

Part 2 was about treatment, something else that no one ever talks about, including many doctors who, because they are men, rarely approach the menopause as a condition deserving unified treatment.

One 64-year-old woman related a miserable tale of how she consulted five different doctors for five different menopause symptoms over a period of 10 excruciating years before meeting a woman gynecologist who started her on unified hormone therapy. She's been fine ever since.

Hormone therapy has been common in Europe and America for decades, but fewer than 2 percent of Japanese women suffering from acute menopausal symptoms take advantage of it. As with the low-dose contraceptive pill, Japanese women shun it because they feel it's "unnatural" (many associate it with transsexualism) or comes loaded with side effects. These beliefs are, to say the least, oversimplistic.

Which isn't to imply that hormone therapy is 100 percent safe, or that it has the same efficacy for all women. What's important is that women who suffer from menopausal symptoms discuss available treatments with their doctors and then weigh the benefits and risks for themselves.

This idea that the patient-physician relationship is a two-way street remains mostly unexplored in Japan. If middle-aged men can be encouraged to ask their doctors for Viagra in order to improve their "love lives," then middle-aged women should certainly be encouraged to ask about hormone therapies to improve their lives -- period.

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