That little blue pill, Viagra, is such a part of American life today that most men take it for granted. Access to the cure for erectile dysfunction, that is. However, it almost didn’t turn out that way, except for a determined Jamaican-born American at Pfizer who pushed through the bureaucratic and cultural walls to make it an overwhelming success.
The drug’s emergence on the medicinal market was an accident, albeit one with pleasant consequences. Initially tested as a treatment for chest pain, researchers discovered there was an unexpected side effect. You know how the story goes.
Rooney Nelson started his pharmecutical career at the stuanchly conservative Pfizer in the early 1990s, straight from receiving an MBA at Florida A&M. “It was not a hip kind of place,” he says with a laugh, Esquire reported in an expansive article on Viagra’s development.
“It was not considered dignified medicine,” said David Brinkley, the head of Pfizer’s new product-planning group.
Rooney eventually became part of the Pfizer dynamic duo which also included Sal “Dr. Sal” Giorgianni, an Italian medical expert from Queens. “I’m this kind of tall, black, not-that-friendly guy that’s all about business,” Rooney self-described.
The two began the marketing process by targeting urologists with marketing trips and conferences, spending hundreds of thousands. “Urologists, they had never really been to places like that; they had never eaten like that; they had never drank like that,” Nelson says. “So you had a really primed group that was receptive to hearing your message,” Esquire explained.
“There was concern that there might be religious objection,” said Brinkley, who’d had feelers out all the way up to the Vatican for a response. “Why would you even do this?” one clergyman asked in dismay. “If that type of product ever comes on the market, I will organize protests against it.”
The two-man marketing team was also getting flak from inside Pfizer as well, as senior management was concerned the company would become the laughing stock of the world.
After many hard months, they broke through and the drug received FDA approval as well as sky-high commercial success.
When he sat at a restaurant table and overheard some men talking about the drug and how it helped their problem, Rooney realized he had accomplished his goal of helping real people. “My God,” he said. “We’ve accomplished one of our goals, which is to talk about this as a real medical problem, not as a sexually dirty kind of thing, and take away some of the stigma associated with older persons having intimacy.”
The rest is history.