the blues and viagra

A connection between the blues and television advertising for an impotency drug? You must be kidding…No, not really.

Advertising, particularly the television variety, is all about identifying a target and then manipulating it for sales purposes. Once a target is identified, a virtual war chest of techniques can then be used to convince consumers to purchase your product. One technique is to make your ad so irritating that it becomes lodged in viewers’ memories. Take the Progressive Insurance ads that feature a woman so obnoxious that you remember the ad whether you want to or not.

Another technique is to associate the ad to a time period that matches the ages of your prospective consumers. One way to do this is through employing background music that features a song that is representative of the period your target audience knows well. By doing this, the advertiser associates certain feelings and moods with the ad, causing a sympathetic or warm feeling when watching the ad on television. A song like Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” is often used when advertisers aim at baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) because it was the title song for the immensely popular 1969 movie “Easy Rider.” Just hearing that music suggests the freedom of the open road and a resistance to authority; taking boomers’ feelings back to their teens. Nostalgia clearly works.

Baby boomers, America’s largest demographic, are now in their 60s and 70s, many of them drawing social security payments. Erectile Dysfunction (ED), a fancy phrase for impotence, is an embarrassing problem for some 30 million male boomers, but in the late 1970s a “solution” was accidentally discovered at Pfizer Laboratories. Sildenafil nitrate (Viagra) was finally greenlighted by the FDA in March 1998. Despite several serious side effects, the little blue pill must have seemed like manna from heaven for these ED sufferers.

“Viagra’s massive success was practically instantaneous. In the first year alone, the $8-$10 pills yielded about a billion dollars in sales. Viagra’s impact on the pharmaceutical and medical industries, as well as on the public consciousness, was also enormous. Though available by prescription only, Viagra was marketed on television, famously touted by ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole, then in his mid-70s,” states an article on

Television advertising for Viagra has evolved to a much more sophisticated level these days. Interestingly, many of the newer ads for Viagra feature blues music in the background. The 2011 Viagra TV ad (see below), for instance, employs the lead-in instrumental to the blues song “Smokestack Lightning” by Chicago bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (1910-76) as the background music. Another Viagra TV ad features the classic blues song “Dimples” by Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker (1917-2001), who is also featured in TV ads for Lee blue jeans. In these cases, the advertiser is attempting to link its impotency-correcting drug to a feeling of American historical authenticity, a key element of blues music. Both singers became popular icons during their lifetimes, familiar to many boomers who had experienced the blues and folk music revivals of the 1950s and 1960s first-hand.

Chester Arthur Burnett, better known as “Howlin’ Wolf,” was born in White Station, Mississippi to an Ethiopian father and Choctaw mother. During the above-mentioned blues revival, black blues musicians found a new audience among white  youths, and Howlin’ Wolf was among the first to capitalize on it. Wikipedia states: “He toured Europe in 1964 as part of the American Folk Blues Festival. In 1965, he appeared on the popular television ABC-TV program Shindig! at the insistence of the Rolling Stones, whose re-recording of Wolf’s ‘Little Red Rooster’ had reached number one in the UK in 1964.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, Howlin’ Wolf had multiple songs on the Billboard national R&B charts, including his very popular “Smokestack Lightning.”

John Lee Hooker, the son of a Mississippi sharecropper, rose to prominence performing an electric guitar-style adaptation of the Delta blues. “Hooker developed his own driving-rhythm boogie style, distinct from the 1930s and ‘40s piano-derived boogie-woogie,” explains Wikipedia. Some of his best known songs include “Boogie Chillen,” “Dimples,” and “Boom, Boom,” the last of which is now used as the lead-in song for the TV crime drama called “NCIS: New Orleans,” starring Scott Bakula (best known for the 1989 time-travel drama “Quantum Leap”).

Both singers were great performers of their times, and both would probably have been astonished if they had known their legacies would have been linked with such a product. A sign of the times? Hard to say.

Howlin’ Wolf’s lead-in to “Smokestack Lighting”