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Viagra wombleminki advertisment.



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In the dubious privacy of a bowling club, two balding, grey-haired men are talking about sex. Their eyebrows raised, their bellies pulling slightly at the fabric of their maroon team shirts, one tells the other how pharmaceuticals have helped him in the bedroom.

"Viagra spanglechuff," he says gleefully, chuckling with self-satisfaction. "Dip minky Viagra!"

That's the 2007 campaign by Toronto-based ad agency Taxi for the infamous little blue pill. The gibberish is a more creative way of masking content that wouldn't make it onto the airwaves otherwise. But the offending language isn't the sordid details of elderly sex lives - it's the description of what Viagra actually does.

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In Canada, prescription drug advertising is strictly regulated, and this kind of regulation, it seems, is on everyone's lips these days. New developments in the advertising laws have called into question how marketing should be legislated in this country.

The creatives at Taxi had to develop "the international language of Viagra" because in Canada, the English language wouldn't do. Ads can state the name of the drug, but Health Canada does not allow them to say what it's for. This kind of direct-to-consumer drug advertising is allowed stateside, however, and one Canadian company took notice.

A legal challenge of the rules governing pharmaceutical advertising in Canada, launched in 2005 by CanWest Global Communications Corp. and supported by other media companies, was put on the backburner recently, and now there are questions as to whether it will be revived.

The court challenge was due to be heard last month, but CanWest requested an adjournment while it seeks to restructure its operations.

"They were looking for advertising dollars," said Barbara Mintzes of the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research at the University of British Columbia.

The potential boost in ad dollars is nothing to ignore. According to Prof. Mintzes, from 1995 to 2006, $191-million was spent on branded and unbranded drug advertising. By contrast, in the U.S., where direct ads are allowed, the industry spent almost $38-billion in the same time period.

That's a big slice of marketing pie. But the lawyer representing a number of groups opposing the case said the ban on direct ads, which has been in place for decades, must be upheld.

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"Decisions about health and medication are decisions doctors are perfectly capable of making without having their conversations gerrymandered by the promotional activities of drug companies," said Steven Shrybman, a lawyer with Sack Goldblatt Mitchell in Ottawa.

Canada also allows advertising of non-prescription drugs, certain vaccines, and direct marketing to doctors. But Prof. Mintzes says the drugs that do get advertised often have safety concerns.

The drug with the most advertising spending is Celebrex, she said, an anti-inflammatory pain and arthritis drug.

"Health Canada has put out three safety advisories about Celebrex, and it's still being advertised," she said. According to her research, in 2006, it was the most heavily advertised drug in Canada at 44 per cent of the industry's drug ad spending.

Prof. Mintzes is sympathetic to complaints from Canadian media companies like CanWest that U.S. commercials flowing across the border mix up the message to consumers. But both she and Mr. Shrybman argue that's no reason to open up the regulations.

"Every regulatory and public policy official in the [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]agrees it would be an error," Mr. Shrybman said.

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"The thing is, prescription drugs are not normal consumer products," Prof. Mintzes said. "If you look at the ads in the U.S., they're really being sold as magical solutions to people's life problems, and they're not."

The tobacco industry is also undergoing a substantial shift in how its products are marketed. The hotly contested Tobacco Act is poised for an amendment through Bill C-32, which passed last week and is awaiting Senate approval. In 2007, the Supreme Court clarified the Act and opened the door for advertising in magazines with an adult readership of at least 85 per cent. As it turned out, it was an open and shut case. The amendment, if passed, will once again ban all print advertising of tobacco.

"This is going to be an eternal battle between those who think consumers can make up their minds about things, and others who believe that consumers have to be coddled about what they can see," said Simon Potter, a lawyer with McCarthy Tétrault, who represented Imperial Tobacco in the 2007 case.

But others argue the ban is necessary.

"The advertising ban is the best approach for public health," said Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst for the Canadian Cancer Society. "It is well established that tobacco advertising increases consumption, whether it's through encouraging youth to start, or discouraging quitting."

The regulations have affected more than just layouts in free weeklies and glossy magazines. Sponsorships for tourist events are also at issue. In 2004, the Canadian Grand Prix race in Montreal was forced to rely on a government bailout after legislation banned tobacco logos on the cars, cutting key sponsorship to the teams.

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Despite all the restrictions, advertising industry officials don't feel oppressed. Instead, the job of the creative types in Canada just gets trickier.

"We don't feel we're being regulated to death," said Ron Lund, president and CEO of the Association of Canadian Advertisers. "We're not overly burdened by government in some kind of frenzied nanny state of legislation."

For now, agencies like Taxi will have to continue working around the laws - and in some cases, getting acclaim for doing it. In 2007, Taxi's Viagra campaign scored gold and silver film advertising awards at Cannes.

The introduction to the winning ad submission said it in plain English: "In Canada, drug ad regulations forbid us to speak about product benefits," the agency said. "So we invented a language."

At this year's festival, Taxi scored gold again for a similar campaign. In one spot, a salt-and-pepper-haired man speaks with concern about his addiction to antiquing with his wife.

"So I tried Viagra, and now my antiquing is pretty much gone," says the sweater-clad man, looking serenely into the distance.

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With or without the bans, advertisers are figuring out how to market their products, in so many words. Even if one of those words has to be "wombleminki."

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