The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Viagra's new TV ad has got the blues: The Chicago blues

October 7, 2010 |  4:50 pm

Howlin_wolf My 12-year-old son and I are the kind of stone cold baseball fans who manage to watch way, way too much baseball this time a year, first with the pennant races in gear, now with the playoffs underway. And no matter what station we've watched games on in the past few weeks, we've always seen the same TV commercial, over and over, touting the benefits of Viagra. Clearly the makers of Viagra have decided that male baseball fans, excepting certain 12-year-olds, are the perfect middle-aged demographic for the product.

The ad itself is very low-key, almost like a haiku. (You can watch it here.) A cool, graying guy in jeans and a T-shirt (think Steve McQueen at 50) stops at a gas station in the middle of the desert when his car overheats. He hops out, buys some bottled water, takes a swig himself, puts the rest in the radiator and he's on his way home, where's there a light in the upstairs window, presumably signaling the presence of a female partner eager for his arrival. The visuals are simple but effective, hardly in need of the voice-over hammering home the ad's message: "This is the age of knowing how to get things done." I mean, guys, you had us with the bottled water gurgling into the radiator.

But what makes the ad so memorable is the music. My son, who's a big blues fan, heard it right away. All the through the ad, groaning and growling and playing his harmonica, is Howlin' Wolf, doing his 1956 blues hit, "Smokestack Lightning." Obviously today's commercials use a lot of unusual music to sell products, but this has to be a first, to build a Viagra ad around a half-century old blues song that has been re-recorded a thousand times but was never a hit itself, except in the juke joints of Chicago and the deep South. The men who first heard Wolf singing the song would have to be in their 70s and 80s today. That's a pretty ancient demographic, even by Viagra standards. (Wolf himself died in 1976.)

So how did Howlin' Wolf, a gruff, imposing man who at 6-6 and 300 pounds was built like a defensive tackle, end up being used to tout Viagra to middle-aged couch potatoes watching baseball games? I finally managed to make contact with Jean Scofield and Marianne Besch at McGarryBowen, the ad agency that did the commercial. Scofield, who's a music producer at the agency, says they explored all sorts of different music, but kept coming back to the blues.

"For us, the blues just sounded truthful," she told me. "It resonates with people in a really authentic way. And that led us to Howlin' Wolf, who was one of the great pioneers of the blues. So he was a great figure for us to draw from. As soon as we listened to 'Smokestack Lightning,' with his unmistakable vocals and harmonica performance, we thought it was the perfect way to accompany the story we were telling."

Besch, who's an executive creative director at McGarryBowen, said Wolf's music radiated another key ingredient in the Viagra campaign--masculinity. "Wolf's song has a really confident vibe to it," she said. "It felt so masculine--it really communicated the gritty tone and style of who this guy really is." 

All that AdSpeak aside about confidence and masculinity, I gotta think that if Wolf were alive today, he'd get a huge kick of hearing one of his songs being used to plug Viagra, once someone explained to him exactly what the product was for. I saw Wolf a couple of times when I was a teenager and even in the twilight of his career he oozed sex appeal, always drawing oohs and aahs from South Side Chicago women watching him work his magic in the local blues clubs. In fact, if you listen to the lyrics of some of Wolf's hits, like "Back Door Man," "The Red Rooster" and "Wang Dang Doodle," you could say that Wolf understood the essence of Viagra, long before it was even invented.

Here's Wolf in his prime, all dolled up in a suit and tie, performing "Smokestack Lightning":

 

 

Photo: Howlin' Wolf with his harmonica in performance. Credit: Blue Sea Productions

 

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