Jarvik and Clemens head to the bench

I’ve written previously about Robert Jarvik and Roger Clemens. Both were back in the news this week – for the wrong reasons.

Pfizer, the maker of Lipitor, the world’s best-selling drug according to The New York Times, had been featuring Dr. Jarvik in its print and TV commercials. The problem. The ads were deceptive. Here’s what The Times said in an editorial Wednesday: Lipitor’s Pitchman Gets the Boot.

The trouble was, its very first TV commercial with Dr. Jarvik was downright deceptive. It suggested that he was rowing a racing shell across a mountain lake when he was not, in fact, rowing. A stunt double was at the oars. And while the commercials have Dr. Jarvik enthusing over Lipitor “as a doctor and a dad,” he is actually an inventor and researcher. He has a medical degree, but did not go through residency training and is not licensed to practice medicine or prescribe drugs.

So under pressure from the House Energy and Commerce Committee Pfizer has stopped the ads. If I were reporting – instead of blogging – here are three questions I would ask a Pfizer spokesperson.

Did you know the ads were deceptive? If so, why did you decide to use the ads? If not, did you fire the advertising agency that apparently had a large role in this debacle?

One of the reasons I’m interested in this situation is because we talk about advertising in my ethics class at Kent State. The view of most of the advertising students is this. The primary goal is to produce compelling advertising. If an ad steps over the line and becomes deceptive – well there is always the government ready to come and take action? Wouldn’t it be easier just to do the ethically right thing and not be deceptive in the first place? I guess I don’t understand advertising.

So here’s where we get to with all this. Again from the editorial in The Times.

Pfizer has been relying on the reputation of Dr. Robert Jarvik, one of the pioneers in designing artificial hearts, to bolster sales of Lipitor, its cholesterol-lowering drug. Now that a Congressional committee is investigating the credibility of those ads, the company has dropped Dr. Jarvik as its pitchman. It was a telling reminder that consumers, besieged by drug promotion ads on television and in print media, need to take what they see, hear and read with a very large grain of skepticism.


And then there’s Roger Clemens.

When confronted with a “crisis,” the common public relations advice is to gain control of the story and get your position out quickly and aggressively. That’s the position Clemens took when he was linked by the Mitchell Report to the apparently widespread use of steroids in major league baseball.

Better add this to the public relations crisis management strategy: Make sure you are telling the truth.

I don’t know whether Clemens is telling the truth or not. But based on his testimony before a House committee a few weeks ago I guess we’ll find out. The matter has now been turned over to the Department of Justice to take a look at whether Clemens lied under oath. Might need to send in a relief pitcher here. Or at least another attorney.

In the meantime, others are having plenty to say about Clemens. Here’s Murray Chass, Chipping at Clemens’s Credibility, Piece by Piece:

Call this the crumbling case of Roger Clemens.

Piece by piece, item by item, his defense, his alibis, his excuses are crumbling, and soon he will be left with only his bare, unbelievable denials. He will be Pete Rose redux.

Gee. Truth. Deception. Credibility. Trust. Sounds a lot like what we talk about in our ethics classes.


2 responses to “Jarvik and Clemens head to the bench

  1. Hey Rob…
    I love this Pfizer topic. I heard about it on morning radio this past week and have been thinking about it in passing since. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the client: they gave the initial premise to the ad agency and approved the junk commercial the agency presented. If I were the client, I’d fire the agency…and not just for all my hassle with “the man.” If you can’t create a creative, attention-getting ad within ethical boundaries, you should reconsider your profession…chances are, you’re just not that good. 🙂

    (Aside: You can’t blame Jarvik…if I got to star in a commercial, I’d portray myself doing something crazy like zip lining through the jungle. The dude just wanted people to think he was a rower…) 🙂

  2. Kait,

    Hi. I agree with you. And I was thinking the very same thing about Jarvik. If they asked him to lie about the safety, as an example, of the product you would hope he would have said no. But I’m not sure he is going to have ethical concerns if an ad agency tells him they are going to use a substitute to row across a lake. Most people just view that as, dare I say it?, advertising.


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