Visual Culture

Why These Erectile Dysfunction Ads Are Failing Their Target Audience

Alina Cohen
Aug 28, 2018 4:25PM

It’s the season for sweaty, smelly New York City subway rides, and a controversial marketing campaign isn’t making commutes any more pleasant. Hims, a men’s wellness brand, has launched a series of suggestive advertisements for its erectile dysfunction (ED) treatment, Sildenafil, which feature potted cacti—both wilting and erect—against pastel backgrounds. The cacti are, of course, supposed to symbolize penises.  

I had a visceral reaction—halfway between an eye roll and a grimace—the first time I saw these banners lining the station walls and subway car interiors. It’s not just their content that’s so cringey, but their tired aesthetic. Gin Lane, the creative agency behind Hims’s brand strategy and art direction, is also responsible for the similarly spare pastel campaigns of adult millennial staples Warby Parker (eyeglasses), Everlane (clothing), Sweetgreen (salads), and Harry’s (razors). The ads produced by Gin Lane look as if they were cribbed from a Los Angeles-based influencer’s Instagram account, or a scene from the recent dark comedy film Ingrid Goes West.

Before continuing, I should mention that I, myself, have fallen prey to Gin Lane’s slick aesthetic: I own Warby Parker glasses, order Everlane clothing, and eat Sweetgreen salads. But by presenting Sildenafil as a trendy lifestyle brand, the agency normalizes a quick fix—targeted at a generation accustomed to instant gratification—for a more significant, complicated problem than where to get your seasonal salad.

The pharmaceutical industry, as sex therapist Lisa Hochberger told me over the phone, invented the idea of erectile dysfunction as a major widespread issue in need of medical treatment when it created Viagra. She prefers to think about the issue as “erectile unpredictability,” which is more tied to the psyche. I asked her what she thought of the Hims ad copy: “Treat erectile dysfunction. You deserve to have an erection when you want one, not just when your penis says it’s allowed.”

“Your penis isn’t telling you what’s allowed,” Hochberger said. “Your mind is. Anytime you’re using a drug to fix a problem that could be mental, without having therapy, isn’t going to fix the problem long-term.”

Though many cases of ED do have physical causes, the percentage of cases that are influenced by psychological factors is still debated. Culturally ingrained sex negativity, insecurities, guilt, and shame could also be factors. In other words, consider seeing a therapist, along with consulting your doctor, if you want a real long-term solution.

I also spoke to graphic designers for their professional opinions on Hims’s messaging. “From a male perspective, it’s kind of ridiculous,” New York-based Mirko Ilić, who recently published Head to Toe: The Nude in Graphic Design (with fellow designer and educator Steven Heller), told me by phone. “If you’re male, it’s painful to look. It’s shock value. What has that to do with erectile dysfunction?” Despite his design background, Ilić said it took him a while to even understand the advertisements.

A prickly cactus is indeed a strange choice. Sure, the desert plant has become popular among millennials who don’t want to spend a lot of time watering and maintaining…anything. But as a symbol, it still conveys pain, not pleasure.

The campaign puts additional pressure on men, Ilić noted. If they weren’t already worrying about their sexual performance, they will as soon as they see one of the advertisements. However, he conceded, the Hims ads are successfully spreading conversation. They’ve garnered chatter in major publications (GQ, the New York Times), at parties, and on social media. One female Instagram user recently posted a picture of her own, very literally wilting cactus, and captioned the image: “I think it needs @hims [unhappy face emoji].”

Yet provoking discussion doesn’t always equate to higher sales, in Ilić’s opinion. “If I autograph a really large penis and put it in the subway,” said Ilić, “advertising for new detergent or Wall Street Journal, or whatever, people will talk about that photography, but not necessarily about what that photography is promoting or selling.” Heller offers a different opinion: “The fact that they attract attention—positive or negative—says they are doing their job,” he said.

Thinx advertisement, included in Head to Toe: The Nude in Graphic Design. Published by Rizzoli New York.  Courtesy of Rizzoli New York.

Regardless of their effectiveness, the Hims campaign did receive more support from the city than advertisements for Thinx, a company that produces menstrual products like absorbent underwear. This past July, Broadly reported that Outfront Media, which approves subway campaigns, initially deemed advertisements that used halved citrus fruits as stand-ins for vaginas, and used the word “period,” to be inappropriate. (God forbid children ask their parents what a period is.)

With all the care taken to ensure children are shielded from inappropriate advertising, what’s especially odd about Hims advertising is how infantilizing it is. A December 2017 Instagram post featured toy cars and a packaged ED pill, with the caption “we help ya go vroom [car emoji].” A more recent post, from May 26th, showed a hand counting off to five next to a book called Mathematics Equations: Sexual Distractions, with a penis-shaped publisher logo that vaguely resembles the Penguin trademark. “Numbers can be hard, but getting hard shouldn’t be,” read the accompanying text. Both posts suggest that the people buying these products aren’t men, but kids. They count on their fingers. They play with bright miniature vehicles.

This conception of masculinity—the man-child who likes bright, shiny, easy things—won’t work for much longer. Gin Lane will continue selling elements of a certain lifestyle (apparel, food, accessories) via glossy, antiseptic messaging. Yet gender norms and expectations, which are really what the Hims ads sell, are themselves undergoing a more substantive shift—and that’ll require a more complex campaign that won’t be nearly as tidy.  

Alina Cohen
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019