UPDATED: My bathtub or yours? How a panned Cialis ad became promotional gold

Television ads have shown them lounging on a beach, gazing at the view from a mountaintop and watching the view from above a scenic lake. All sans clothing and facing away from the camera. We're talking about Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Cialis bathtub couples, of course.

The first TV spot for the erectile dysfunction drug appeared during the Super Bowl in 2003, and the couple in the surf on a beach, holding hands across their respective bathtubs, quickly became a recognized symbol for the brand. Over the years, the Cialis bathtub couples evolved and went to new locations, were featured in different iterations and with varying levels of prominence, but were never completely left out. Today, the couple in tubs appears as a graphical image at the end of Cialis' TV spots.

Yet the bathtub couples were not universally well-received at launch, and they've been oft-spoofed since--the latest being a Tom Brady and Patriots "Deflategate" parody. Lilly and its longtime ad agency Grey, however, held their ground during the early years, refusing to drop the bathtubs because they believed the imagery was right for its target customers.

"The tubs are symbolic and ring true with the insights we've found from men with ED and their experiences with their partners," said Deb Hussain, senior director of marketing for Cialis. "It represents time and freedom. Freedom to choose when, so they can relax and not worry about it."

The idea of relaxing and not rushing is Cialis' core differentiator in the ED category, with its time release formula working over 36 hours. Its competitors all have effectiveness windows of several hours. Cialis was also approved to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia in 2011, and added that indication to advertising in 2012.

But where did that mastermind bathtub idea come from? Years of research and planning? Actually, it was a last-minute addition by the original director, Jonathan Darby, who would go on to direct Cialis ads for 5 more years. On a creative whim, he added the bathtub storyboard while on set for the first ad. It struck a chord with the brand managers and with audiences, generating lively discussions online and elsewhere. And the association stuck. As did the voice of actor James Naughton, who has done every Cialis TV ad voiceover since launch.

"Not everyone will like everything, but it created a discussion that is still alive today. We still get calls from consumers with ideas about the bathtubs," said Amy Meadows, consumer marketing brand director at Lilly. Ideas such as what music to play or where to put the bathtubs, she said, although the most frequently mentioned idea is to just use one bathtub.

As the campaign winds down--Cialis loses patent exclusivity in the U.S. in 2017--there may be a few more bathtubs left. Meadows said Lilly has no intention of "pulling the plug on the bathtubs" before the campaign ends.

Lilly also hopes to eventually offer an OTC version of Cialis, in a joint venture with Sanofi ($SNY). When asked if the bathtub imagery would continue if the OTC version is approved, Meadows said that is still to be determined.

Through 2014, Cialis' cumulative sales topped $15 billion, and 2014 was its biggest sales year to date, with $2.3 billion in revenue. Ad spend has matched the blockbuster-status sales; Cialis was the most advertised prescription brand in 2014, with $249 million spent, according to Nielsen data. Top competitor Viagra is also a big spender, and ranked No. 4 last year spending-wise, with $211 million doled out.

For Lilly, ignoring the jokes and question marks about couples in adjoining bathtubs paid off big with iconic marketing success. It would be interesting to know how many conversations in physicians' offices have included "the one with the people in the bathtubs."

Know of any other examples of DTC ads that were initially criticized but ended up as brand boosters? Send us your ideas--and commentary--for a future article.

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Editor's note: This story was edited to reflect Lilly's intention to seek an approval for OTC Cialis. The company hasn't yet filed for that approval at the FDA.

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