Are Advertisers Biased Against Women's Sex Drive?

TV networks, websites balk at taking ads for this female sexual arousal product.

September 21, 2010, 12:44 PM

Sept. 21, 2010— -- For men, problems in the bedroom are now part of an open conversation. Dozens of TV and radio channels offer advice on treating erectile dysfunction and talk about "erections lasting longer than four hours." But advertisers seem squeamish over airing an ad for a female sexual arousal equivalent.

The market for erectile dysfunction drugs is estimated to rake in more than $3 billion a year in the United States. The makers of the "big three" -- Viagra, Cialis and Levitra -- spent over $300 million in advertising alone in 2008, according to Levitra and Cialis have even scored Super Bowl ad space.

Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that makes Viagra, boasted on its website that nine of the little blue pills are dispensed every second -- nearly 300 million tablets a year.

"Ads for Viagra and the drugs like it are on during dinnertime, during primetime television, and nobody blinks an eye," said Lauren Berman, sex therapist and author of "The Book of Love." "We just accept that it's okay to talk about men needed and wanting sexual pleasure and sexual function."

So why is it when it comes to what women want, advertisers clam up? According to the American Medical Association, 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction verses the 31 percent of men that do. Given this, it would seem that there would been an even larger market for products helping women.

"Not by a long shot," said Rachel Braun Scherl.

Braun Scherl is the co-founder and president of Semprae Laboratories located in Saddle Brook, N.J. The company makes Zestra, a female arousal product designed to work with a women's body for those struggling in the bedroom.

"It's a patented blend of botanical oils and extracts that is topically applied and what it basically does is it increases sensitivity to touch, so a woman feels deep, pleasurable sensations," Braun explained. "She feels them more strongly. She feels them sooner, deeper. She feels it more intensely."

Other oil-based female and male arousal products have made it into the advertising world. Ky Intense commercials showcase shooting geysers and blaring horns. Yet, Zestra commercials are nowhere to be found.

Advertisers Balk at Female Sexual Arousal Ads

Female sexual dysfunction is much more complicated than in males, making it more difficult to remedy. For most men, a simple increase in blood flow to the genitals is all that is needed. Viagra, for example, manipulates enzymes in the artery walls of the penis to create greater blood flow.

But for women, there can be multiple problem areas associated with pain, discomfort, desire, arousal and satisfaction. Berman explained how women tap into arousal much more emotionally than men do.

"Women are much more complex than men. We experience our sexuality in a different context," Berman said. "Men are much better at putting the blinders on. Once they get the blood flowing to their genitals, they can forget about everything else on their mind in most cases."

Sold over-the-counter, Zestra has all the makings to become a household name as much as Viagra.

Semprae manufacturers tested almost 300 women in two placebo-controlled clinical trials, and the results from the first trial, which were published in the Sept. 2003 issue of the Journal of Sex and Marital States, showed it was 70 percent effective. In 2006, Business Week reported the product was the leading seller in women's intimacy products.

Yet, advertisers scream "taboo" when it comes to showing it or talking about it on TV, radio or the internet. Braun Scherl said her company has approached more than 100 network and TV stations, only to be rejected by 95 percent of them.

"What they tell us is that they don't 'do' this category," she said. "I think there's some concern that they'll get pushback from consumers, that there will be some sort of uproar."

Jaensch added that they have even tried working with advertisers to completely alter Zestra's commercials to make them less sensitive.

"What we thought they wanted us to do is take out any word related to 'sex,' so we actually went back and took out any word, 'sex,' 'sexual,' 'sexuality' and 'arousal,'" she said. "We took the same ad back without that language and they still told us they were not comfortable airing the ad."

Zestra Creates a Media Buzz Without Their Ads

And it's not just the TV industry that is putting on the brakes. Popular medical website WebMD agreed to host Zestra's ad, then changed their minds.

In a statement to "Nightline," WebMD said: ""WebMD maintains a set of advertising polices that it applies to products advertised on its sites."

"In December 2009, we informed Zestra's agency that we would accept Zestra advertising on our sites, but the advertising copy supplied by the agency would need to be modified to comply with our advertising policies."

"WebMD never received a response from Zestra or its agency since we sent that communication."

Social media giant Facebook also scrubbed Zestra's ads. Braun Scherl sent "Nightline" an email that outlined the alert Facebook had sent to their account, saying their ads had been "disapproved" and flagged for "containing or promoting adult content."

"We posted a Facebook ad that said 'Try Zestra Arousal Oils for Free,' Braun Scherl explained. "Within a couple of weeks, we got a notification from Facebook that they were taking our ad down because they didn't cover things in this category and they had very specific guidelines."

This hasn't stopped Zestra from gaining media coverage in a different way. Several talk shows targeting female audiences, including "The View," "Rachel Ray," and "The Tyra Banks Show," have had discussions on-air about the product.

"It seems so crazy to me that we can have an advertisement about a four-hour erection ... and we can't talk about women's sexual arousal," Berman said. "It is, to me, a sign of how close to the dark ages we still are."

Brian Steinberg, TV critic for Advertising Age, agreed that there's a double standard when it comes to commercials about sexual dysfunction and says "it's a bit medieval."

Steinberg said he was surprised to see so much resistance to selling ad space to Zestra, especially in a weak economy. He admitted that broadcasters tend to handle small companies differently than bigger ones, and ultimately try to steer clear of offending consumers.

"I think the topic matter is not as main stream as people might think," he said. "People in New York and L.A. are probably very comfortable with this, someone in Iowa probably is not, and networks have to appeal to everybody."

Erectile dysfunction drugs didn't get the advertising power they have now without their own battles. There was viewer backlash in 2003 when Viagra and Cialis aired their first Super Bowl ads, but that was also the same year Janet Jackson had her infamous wardrobe malfunction.

Still, Viagra and other drugs like it were able to bounce back, and Viagra even scored a celebrity spokesperson in former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Is Female Sexual Dysfunction Still Too Taboo?

"The networks and society need to wake up to the fact that if we don't accept and celebrate and allow women's sexual health, that everybody's sex life is going to suffer," Berman said.

Braun Scherl said when she first got into the business, it never occurred to her that marketing her product would be her biggest problem.

"We thought the hard part was going to be talking to our kids about what we do for a living," she said. "This wasn't on either of our radar screens, that we would have a product that would work and was safe, but we would have to keep it a secret."