by David Amsden

Mike Ditka is staring me down, trying to intimidate me with his icy, unblinking blue eyes. The fleshy finger of his left hand is extended and aimed, pistol-like, directly at my face. The guy looks ruthless. Cruel. Downright menacing. Which is a little bizarre, actually, considering that Mike Ditka -- one of the NFL's most notorious badasses, a Pro Bowl tight end, a Super Bowl-winning head coach, a man whose very stare lets you know that he is The Man -- is putting on this red-blooded act because he's concerned about my penis.

All this, and I'm just sitting on the couch.

Here I am, watching TV, my programming interrupted by one of those ubiquitous commercials for Levitra, the erectile dysfunction (ED) drug for which Mike Ditka has recently become spokesman, lending his famously "smashmouth" persona to promote a product about as manly as Monistat 7. And there he is, Mr. Man, taunting me to "take the Levitra challenge," chiding, "How tough can it be?" In other words: Mike Ditka is calling me a wuss because his penis doesn't work and, well, he wants to know how mine's doing.

And I'm so used to this that it takes a moment to register as strange.

Viagra may have just celebrated its sixth birthday, but it wasn't until recently, starting this past football season, when Levitra, and then Cialis, made their national debuts that malfunctioning penises became truly embedded in the American ethos. If you've sat on your couch watching TV for longer than 10 minutes lately you know what I'm talking about.

It's audaciously brilliant marketing. The suits at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant responsible for Levitra, are in a sense trying (with some success) to make impotency synonymous with virility: the perfect gimmick for a country whose sexual identity is so schizophrenic that we demand T & amp;A from all TV programming yet get in a tizzy over a microsecond-long peek at Janet Jackson's actual goods. The initial ads for Levitra were some of the most peculiar in memory: A guy who has the Marlboro Man's rugged handsomeness and indeterminate age (maybe he's 35, maybe 65) finds an old football in the shed, dusts it off, and tries to toss it through a tire swing. But... he hits the rim! Poor guy. Cue Levitra's logo (a virile orange flame); cut quickly back to the man: Lo and behold, the ball is going through the hole like there's no tomorrow!

The ad was so effective that it seemed like the folks behind Cialis, the ED drug that lasts a whopping 36 hours, had no idea how to top it when they entered the fray in Levitra's wake.

I mean, consider the Cialis ad (flashing right now on my TV screen, only two minutes after Levitra's!). A husband and wife -- notice the ring -- sit peacefully in separate old-fashioned bathtubs, perched atop a pristine country hill, touching hands, blissfully taking in the view. The viewer is asked, by an omniscient voice: "Are you ready?" Basically, Eli Lilly is attempting to market hot sex the same way Hallmark markets eternal love: gauzily, delicately, completely nonsensically. The two tubs are like a modernized version of the separate beds in which the '50s sitcom couple sleeps. And what's with the tubs, anyway?

And yet the fey little Cialis ad becomes almost as super-masculine as Levitra's, thanks to the fact that during nearly every commercial break on nearly every major channel you can watch the two duking it out for some sort of ED Awareness Award. (Just imagine that trophy.)

The executives at Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Eli Lilly have (unwittingly) pulled off a vaguely feminist agenda: a national unearthing of male vulnerability, and not just among super-sensitive urban types; they've exposed the (literal) soft spots of those stoic dudes in the middle of the country as well. The toughest, most challenging men to reach when it comes to such persnickety issues are now ready to ask for help en masse. They're admitting that, truth be told, they're not the bedroom stallions they've been purporting to be.

Which is kind of endearing, actually.

It's also important. The very fact that these ads are so omnipresent highlights a barely hidden subtext of their overall goal: These drugs are being marketed not only to those men who need them, but to those who merely want a little extra help in the erectile department, too.

Of course, the companies won't confess that they're selling lifestyle drugs, but the whole trick is that they won't ever need to. Zoloft, after all, entered the market as a drug for the clinically depressed, the sort of pill swallowed by your fragile friend who only listened to the Smiths and talked constantly about suicide -- the kind of person (kidding aside) who really needed help. But then last year the drug was quietly approved by the FDA for treating "social anxiety disorder," something that in earlier eras was diagnosed as "shyness" or "sadness," and cured with a prescription of "you'll get over it."

The term "erectile dysfunction," meanwhile, is already malleable enough to apply to any penis that acts the slightest bit finicky (e.g., all penises). Zoloft is having enormous success for a simple reason: We humans are a pretty sad lot. Levitra, Cialis and Viagra are now exposing something else: We humans have pretty tepid sex lives, too.

Men are a notoriously dense species, but one whose oafish exterior is offset by a jittery undercurrent of wants and needs just as fragile as you find in any female. So maybe what these ads and drugs are surreptitiously pointing out is just how few men really have a grasp on how to express this side of themselves and, with it, their true bedroom wishes.

I'm really not making such a leap here: We are a country where the unabashed force driving all mass media is the concept of sex, whereas anything hinting at actual sex is demonized.

Sex, as anyone who has done it knows, is a funny and awkward endeavor, and that's part of what makes it such glorious fun: you feel vulnerable, sliced down the middle, all your pros and cons out on the table, saying, "Take it or leave it" (but please, please take it). What the current onslaught of ED drugs overlooks is that the cause of the "problem" may be more important than the supposed solution, and that embracing, rather than shunning, our vulnerabilities may be as effective as popping pills.

But let's be real: That's an awfully sissy way to look at things, especially when Mike Ditka appears on my TV, yet again, telling me to stop being such a pansy, and to go out there and get a damn erection.

David Amsden, a contributing writer at New York magazine, is the author of the novel Important Things That Don't Matter, which will be published in paperback this month. He lives in Brooklyn.

Publication date: 04/15/04

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