Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced that it would be looking into the use of celebrities in drug advertisements, and in particular into the appearance of Doctor Jarvik in Pfizer’s ads for Lipitor. We posted “Should you trust Dr. Jarvik on Lipitor?” discussing this investigation. It was revealed back then that Dr. Jarvik has never had a license to practice medicine, is not a cardiologist and thus has never written a prescription.

The New York Times ran an article today, ““Drug Ads Raise Questions for Heart Pioneer” describing the dust-up, and providing some additional damning details that don’t exactly improve the credibility of Dr. Jarvik or Pfizer.

Here’s some of the juicier excerpts:

The ads depict Dr. Jarvik rowing on a lake. But…

And, for that matter, what qualifies him to pose as a rowing enthusiast? As it turns out, Dr. Jarvik, 61, does not actually practice the sport. The ad agency hired a stunt double for the sculling scenes.

“He’s about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen,” said a longtime collaborator, Dr. O. H. Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute. “He can’t row.”

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), who is leading the investigation, said:

“It seems that Pfizer’s No. 1 priority is to sell lots of Lipitor, by whatever means necessary, including misleading the American people,” Mr. Dingell said.

Lipitor, the world’s single best-selling drug, is Pfizer’s biggest product, generating sales of $12.7 billion last year. But as it has come under competition from cheaper generic alternatives, Pfizer has used the Jarvik campaign, introduced in early 2006, to help protect its Lipitor franchise.

Pfizer spent $258 million from January 2006 to September 2007 advertising Lipitor, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Much of that went for the Jarvik campaign.

Spending $258 million to get $12.7 billion is a pretty good return on investment. Of course, that number doesn’t include the other promotional spending to drive up Lipitor prescriptions, such as the cost of pharmaceutical “salespeople” and free “samples.” Assume for the sake of argument that Pfizer spent as much on those types of promotion as they did on ads, for a total of a strictly-hypothetical $516 million. That’d be a return of 2,460%. Not bad at all. (Of course, not all of the spending on Lipitor in 2007 can be attributed to the marketing, but the returns are still pretty handsome.)

Moving on…

Despite the efforts by industry and government to curb drug advertising, spending on consumer drug ads increased more than 300 percent from 1997 to 2007, when it reached about $4.8 billion.

There are various estimates for how much in additional sales you get for each dollar you spend in consumer drug ads. They range from $1.50 to $4.20. Pretty good returns no matter how you slice it.

And back to the row about the rowing…

A newsletter published by the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle describes how one of its rowers was a stunt double in the ad for Dr. Jarvik. The sculler, a professional photographer and rowing enthusiast named Dennis Williams, was picked partly for his size and partly because, like Dr. Jarvik, he has a receding hairline, according to the newsletter, which said a crew filmed the commercial for three days at Lake Crescent, near Port Angeles, Wash.

In the ad, Mr. Williams was shown as a solitary sculler navigating an unspoiled lake. Through deft editing, he appeared to be Dr. Jarvik. But, in fact, the frames that actually included Dr. Jarvik were shot in a rowing apparatus on a platform, according to the newsletter.

So Jarvik’s not a licensed MD, not a rower. Does he really even take Lipitor? Is that really his receding hairline, or it’s a hair-double’s? (Of course if you were going to have a “hair-double,” you’d go for the full head of flowing locks, right?)

In conclusion, we have the world’s best-selling drug owing a likely-good-sized-chunk of its success to the appearance of a man whose credibility, at this point, is highly questionable. I’d suggest that, rather than shying away from featuring “doctors” in drug ads who aren’t really doctors, perhaps drug companies should embrace it. In the style of “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”

Certainly, there are many actors and other non-medical celebrities who play doctors who probably have more credibility with many viewers than real doctors. I offer here a few suggestions:

Zach Braff as Dr. Dorian

Zach Braff, who plays Dr. John Dorian on the hit comedy “Scrubs.”

Katherine Heigl

Katherine Heigl, who plays Dr. Izzy on Grey’s Anatomy. (But she also starred earlier in her career in “Side Effects,” an independent film poking fun at drug company salespeople, so perhaps not… Incidentally, I appear in Money Talks: Profits before Patient Safety, a documentary about the drug industry that Kathleen Slattery-Moshkau, the director of Side Effects did as a nonfiction counterpart to her comedy feature. So if we’re playing “Six Degrees of Katherine Heigl” that means there’s just two degrees between me and Dr. Izzy. We’re practically cousins. Katherine, how come you never call?)

Doctor Teeth

Dr. Teeth, bandleader of the “Electric Mayhem,” a regular staple on the Muppets in the late 70s. With the kids who grew up with the Muppet Show rapidly approaching and entering their 40s, he might be perfect.

Julius Erving

Dr. J, aka Julius Erving, legendary basketball player

Dr. Nick Riviera

Dr. Nick, intrepid medical provider to the denizens of The Simpsons, known for his distinct “Hi Everybody!” greeting, demonstrating his solid bedside manner and approachability.

Dr. John

Dr. John, famed New Orleans musician.

I could go on like this all day. Other suggestions of famous doctors, medical or otherwise, that Big Pharma should recruit for drug ads? Post a comment with them…