Stay Tuned/Rag and Bone Buffet

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stay tuned

Rag and Bone Buffet
26 April 1998

What, half past midnight and I don't have a column written? Do forgive the lapse. It has been an utterly hectic week. If I promise to be back in form next week, will you content yourself with a few odds and ends which I've jotted down on scraps of paper and such?

Not that I'm giving you much of a choice, mind you.

Our lead story, I suppose, is that the nice people at Pfizer have put out a drug which you probably have already heard mentioned in our popular media. It's called Viagra, and it helps male impotence problems. (Pfizer's working on a female version; aren't you thrilled?)

Everyone seems to think I should write something about Viagra, given my known distaste for "wonder drugs" which become hugely overprescribed for a variety of ills that had nothing to do with the original symptom. Viagra certainly looks poised to be the next entry in that dubious category.

Regular readers may recall that while I accept there is a legitimate prescriptive use for Prozac - to treat people with cases of clinical depression that honestly cannot be treated by changing their conditions, psychology, et cetera - my distate for the drug stems largely from the fact that I feel it is prescribed in other, less germane, situations. That it is a trendy drug.

I believe people are expecting me to find a parallel situation with Viagra, and it's true that the case is strong. It seems to have a genuine use for impotence problems which are not psychological, treatable through surgery, et cetera, but people will (and in fact already have begun to) prescribe the drug for those who have completely different sorts of impotence, real or perceived.

"Impotence" is a notoriously slippery condition to diagnose, and since most men are fairly self-conscious about it, self-diagnosis is not to be trusted. Worse yet, some men who have no impotence problems at all are most assuredly trying to get their hands on the drug to improve their "virility." [Deep sigh.]

However: Unlike Prozac, a much more complex drug which affects a huge complex of interrelated behaviors, Viagra looks from here to be very simple. It increases the flow of blood to the penis. Period. It doesn't seem to have side effects. As such, I am willing to look the other way if it becomes the court of first resort instead of the court of last resort. In short, I think it's pretty harmless.

It's also pretty expensive, but if it's worth an approximate cost of ten dollars a pill for you to get better erections, well, I'm certainly not going to try to keep a fool and his money together longer than the proverb intended.

Here's a real story about Viagra, one which says everything I'd want to say about the subject, especially at the end:

The ultimate male fantasy has come true: a penis that's hard on demand. And, best of all, you don't have to talk to your wife, girlfriend or lover - or, even worse, a shrink - about your "relationship." The only relationship that matters is the one between you and your dick.

Science has rewired that connection, but the price tag for this new power tool is hidden. Men joke about being sex machines; the reality may not be so funny. When the penis becomes a mere engineering problem, the psychic vault of attitudes and anxieties that make up the "masculine mystique" is at risk of losing something important: its mystery, with consequences for eroticism, manhood and gender relations that the wood salesmen - and buyers of Pfizer stock - haven't pondered at all.

With urologists, roughly 99 percent of whom are men, now dominating the discourse on sexual functioning, an important group is rarely heard from - women. Sure, most women appreciate a firm, hard erection. But a firm, hard erection attached to an inept, insensitive lover is hardly the answer to anyone's problem. Not surprisingly, this is an issue you don't hear addressed at urological conventions.

Even so, nothing is likely to stop the Viagra juggernaut. American men have been reeducated to see aging and the loss of youthful vigor not as a natural process, but as a disease. Sure, life is hard, doctors tell us - it's supposed to be. And we have the drugs to keep it that way.

Let's see. I saw a Tiburon ad (that's a car from Hyundai) on television. "Tiburon," as you probably already know, means "shark," and this commercial had the car driving underwater - no, not along the bottom, I mean swimming in the water - with Jaws-like music playing. Fine print flashed on screen:

Simulation. Don't drive in the ocean.

Words to live by.

An actual company in the Boston area: Death Wish Piano Movers. I think it's the truth-in-advertising angle that gets me.

Stouffer's Pizza: Because the Internet doesn't have a snackbar. Is that really good advertising, or really bad? I can't decide.

From an ad for a grocery home-delivery service: "Home delivered groceries. Stamps you don't have to lick. It's a great time to be alive." I like that one mostly because I feel that the self-adhesive stamps are the single best idea the Postal Service has come up with since the use of coin-operated vending machines - hey, folks, why'd it take you so long, eh?

Dubious empowerment of women department:

Fortune magazine has been running a series of interesting subway billboards with the cutline "Younger and Wiser." My favorite in the series has a man and a woman in a convertible, top-down view, wind in their hair, et cetera. I don't remember the exact wording, but it goes something like this: "Many of our readers become wealthy and successful. Inevitably, some of them take trophy husbands."

Is a vile practice any less vile when the gender cliche is reversed? Probably not. Nonetheless, I find the ad funny.

Also funny, but for a different reason, are these signs for Chivas De Danu, a whiskey (presumably from the people who bottle Chivas Regal) which is apparently aimed at the younger drinker who doesn't yet have a taste for the brown stuff, like Dewar's has been doing, more-or-less wittily, for a few years.

These ads, though, are apparently aimed at ... well, gee, I don't know exactly who they're aimed at. They have a sinister-looking but beautiful woman's face over a weird-looking background pattern, a hand fading in above her holding the bottle (it glows green in the ad), and one of several dominatrix captions addressed at a competitor:

"Mr. Jenkins, I am not amused."
"On your knees, Johnny Walker."
"Wild Turkey, I am the hunter."

I suppose this sells to someone, but it mostly makes me laugh. ([2007:] Or maybe it didn't sell to anyone. The product has vanished from the face of the earth. Also, I posted a snippet of a postcard hyping the product two weeks later.)

Meanwhile, I went down to FAO Schwartz to check out the toy front, and I found the new line of Lost In Space action figures (that's the movie, not the TV show; I put names of teleplays in quotes) ... well, some of them, anyway. Of a cast consisting of four males and three females, all four males - even little Will Robinson - had action figures, with completely inappropriate weapons and props, ready for battle. But where were the women? If Will can do it ....

I know that there were action figures of the women commissioned, because Heather Graham talked about choosing between heads for her action figure, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly. But I haven't seen it yet. The toy company's sexism, or FAO Schwartz's? The world may never know.

These things don't keep me awake nights. They just lie in my brain and take up space. Until I sweep them out, as I just have.


[February 2007:] I knew it was going to be a big deal, but I didn't know it was going to be that big a deal. Viagra is the drug which changed a lot of things forever, not least of them Pfizer.

40,000 prescriptions for Viagra were issued in its first two weeks (note that the drug got FDA approval for erectile dysfunction uses at the end of March, so you can see Pfizer wasted no time). Pfizer sold $200 million worth of it in that time period. At the time, predictions were that it would bring in an average of six billion dollars a year ... although that appears now to have been overblown, at least one source states that it netted Pfizer somewhere over a billion a year in the years 1999-2001.

The words which have been slopped around our global media on Viagra and its cultural ripples, et cetera, since this column was first written would fill a very large Dumpster ... and there they can stay. I have retired the topic. My misgivings on Viagra were so well-summarized in the Salon article I linked that (when I found it still available, to my great surprise) I promptly added the most pertinent bit here as a quotation.

It's interesting; when I talk about my dislike of the way anti-depressants are handled in this country, I put blame on a number of sources - excessive drug marketing, doctors prescribing it too readily, patients clamoring for it who don't really need it and have a whole lot of misguided expectations. With Viagra, I only apply one of those. The Viagra madness is ridiculous, yes, but I don't fault Pfizer for profiting by it; they are exploiting stupidity, and to an extent stupidity cries out to be exploited. If men want to be ridiculously insecure about their penises - as indeed they always have been - then they deserve to get fleeced because of it.

Pfizer's patents on the drug begin to expire in 2011. As of this writing, the Boots chain of drugstores in the UK is experimenting with selling Viagra over the counter. Viagra is, in other words, well established as common coin by this point. Fortunately, unless you are taking nitrates/nitrites or have certain heart conditions, it's apparently safe as kittens. Stupid men of the world: Knock yourself out.

and now back to our program

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