Jarvik: A Modern DTC Tragedy OpEd by John Mack

Jarvik Masks“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!”
— Walter Scott

As everyone knows by now, Pfizer caved in to withering criticism from Congress and the Pharma BlogospereTM and pulled the Jarvik Lipitor ads.

When Dr. Robert Jarvik inked his $1.35 million Lipitor spokesperson deal with Pfizer, I am sure he was not prepared for the damage to his reputation that would result.

Given all the negative publicity surrounding Jarvik and the ads, it was time for Pfizer to retire the good doctor (72% of respondents to a Pharmalot poll agree that Pfizer should fire Jarvik).

But perhaps Jarvik himself begged Pfizer to cut him loose from his $1.35 million contract. With every piece of bad news, Jarvik’s reputation was melting away. He may have felt he needed to get off the airways and fast!

From the very beginning I thought Jarvik was a “fop” (see “Lipitor’s Jarvik: Fop or Flop?“). I criticized the color scheme chosen for his clothes,

which was Nexium purple rather than Lipitor blue. That may have been a branding faux pas or perhaps something the good doctor demanded. At first, I thought this was the wrong image to project of a cardiologist. But maybe a “softer” doctor image, someone with caring eyes and a soft voice, appealed more to a certain audience. Perhaps focus groups showed that Jarvik rated very high among women. That would be important because women may be under-medicated for control of their cholesterol levels compared to men.

Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that Jarvik was NOT a cardiologist.

Then, I learned about the “long-simmering dispute over assigning credit for the artificial heart.” One commenter to my October 2006 “fop” post said “I am offended by Dr. Robert Jarvik’s claim to be the inventor of the artificial heart. It appears he’s stretching the facts, perhaps due to what you alleged might be vanity.” I learned that Paul Winchell, the renowned ventriloquist, invented a version of the artificial heart BEFORE Jarvik did. In fact, there was innuendo that Winchell was hoodwinked into signing over his patent to the University of Utah where Jarvik was employed.

Recently, even Jarvik’s former colleagues have come out publicly to question whether his contribution to medical science was all that great.

A February 26, 2008 New York Times article reported that three former colleagues of Dr. Jarvik’s at the University of Utah complained to Pfizer that the Lipitor ads erroneously identified Dr. Jarvik as “inventor of the artificial heart.” That distinction, they said, should go to Dr. Jarvik’s mentor, Dr. Willem J. Kolff, and his associate, Dr. Tetsuzo Akutsu. Pfizer subsequently changed its ads to identify Dr. Jarvik as the inventor of the “Jarvik artificial heart.”

The NY Times also reported that “Another former Utah colleague of Dr. Jarvik’s, Dr. Clifford S. Kwan-Gett, stated that the Jarvik series of hearts were simply different versions of prototypes that Dr. Kwan-Gett had made more than a year earlier.”

Worse was yet to come. We learned that Jarvik did not have a license to practice medicine! (See “Jarvik-Lipitor spokesperson-‘outed’ as an unlicensed physician!”). Even veteran DTC expert Bob Ehrlich, publisher of DTC Perspectives, beieved that Jarvik was a practicing cardiologist. Although Ehrlich did not think the ruse was a big deal, the House Energy and Commerce Committee obviously did–it raised questions about Dr. Jarvik’s credentials to recommend Lipitor.

Then came the Good Morning America interview that sealed Jarvik’s fate (see “Jarvik Falters in His Own Defense“). When he was asked why the Lipitor ads did not mention generics, he took a long embarrassed pause and said “I don’t know. We have talked about generics in the ads…” “You have?” exclaimed an incredulous Diane Sawyer. “Well maybe there’s an ad that hasn’t come out yet that you haven’t seen. (smirk). So, we do address those issues.”

I put the blame squarely on Pfizer for allowing their renowned spokesperson to be interviewed on national TV obviously without the proper coaching.

After that debacle, it was clear that Pfizer could not allow Jarvik to testify before Congress, which was-and maybe still is-itching to have him as a witness. He simply had to go and Pfizer came out with a mea culpa (see press release).

“The way in which we presented Dr. Jarvik in these ads has, unfortunately, led to misimpressions and distractions…” said Ian Read, Pfizer’s president of worldwide pharmaceutical operations.”We regret this,” he added.

Not only did the ads mislead viewers to believe that Jarvik was a practicing cardiologist, they also falsely depicted Jarvik as an expert rower! “He can’t row,” said Dr. O. H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute of Dr. Jarvik. And Dr. Frazier should know-he’s a “longtime collaborator” of Jarvik’s! As reported in the NY Times, the Energy and Commerce Committee also “asked 10 advertising agencies that worked on the Dr. Jarvik campaign to submit documents about the use of body doubles.”

In his defense, Jarvik said: “I spent most of my summer vacation time during high school on the water, sailing, rowing, fishing, and scuba diving. At the time the ad was filmed, I was certainly fit enough to row for the shoot.” (See WSJ Health Blog).

Finally, we learned that Jarvik didn’t start taking Lipitor until after he was hired by Pfizer. It’s one thing to make snarky remarks about Jarvik’s mannerisms, but let’s not forget that the fire behind all this smoke is how Pfizer and the Kaplan Thaler Group, its ad agency, mismanaged the whole Jarvik-Lipitor campaign and the press.

All I can say is that it may be a long time before any other celebrity will work with these dodos! Unless, of course, Pfizer raises the ante and offers $2 million to the next rope-a-dope celeb!

Issue: Vol. 7, No. 2: February 2008

Word Count: n/a

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