Within just a couple of decades, one of the biggest issues in the history of men’s health changed from a perceived failure of character that people simply refused to talk about into a medical condition that can be treated effectively with a medicine available over the counter.

It is difficult to quantify just how important sildenafil, particularly in its modern, widely available form, truly was for men’s health, both from a medical and pharmacological perspective, but also from a mental health and sociological place as well.

So great was the latter challenge, in fact, that it would take the work of the world’s greatest ever football player, and one of the greatest sports personalities in history, work he was so proud of that he once cited it in a list of accomplishments after his goal scoring record was beaten by Christiano Ronaldo.

The late Edson Arantes do Nascimento, much better known as Pelé (1940-2022), was one of the first people to endorse sildenafil, then known almost exclusively as Viagra, and in doing so changed men’s health throughout the world forever.

It may be less heralded than his contributions to the beautiful game (including popularising the term “o jogo bonito”) but his endorsement of Viagra and the conversations it started about erectile dysfunction were critical to improving the lives of millions upon millions of men.

Pelé’s Second Great Legacy

Entire books, films and documentaries have been written to try and capture Pelé’s accomplishments on the football pitch, but the sheer scale of his achievements is practically impossible to calculate, and his legacy is seen in every part of the game.

Throughout his nearly 20-year career, he scored a goal every single game, became an ambassador for the sport and was a major contributor to bringing Football to the United States through the North American Soccer League.

However, Pelé the footballer is one part of the story of Pelé, but to talk about his work with sildenafil, it is important to talk about Pelé the brand.

Whilst his penchant for taking sponsorships is such that a 1997 episode of The Simpsons lampooned it, the very same year was when pharmaceutical company Pfizer was looking for respected role models to break stigmas surrounding ED.

Thankfully, the world is increasingly distant from the tainted legacy of “impotence”, the idea that a medical condition was endemic of a fundamental character flaw, but this was the result of a major public drive to smash this stigma.

The first person to endorse Viagra publicly was Bob Dole, former presidential nominee and a man with a personal connection to ED due to the effects of prostate cancer surgery in 1991. 

His heartfelt, dignified words on the personal effects of his battle with cancer were the first step to legitimising ED as a condition, but a global audience needed a global superstar.

Enter Pelé. Given his status as the greatest player ever of the world’s global sport, he was an ideal spokesman for Viagra, although throughout his life he claimed that he had never used it.

This led to a relatively long-running and successful advertising campaign, with the international slogan “Talk to your doctor. I would.”

As with most early ED medication advertising, there was little mentioned about what sildenafil actually did, and unlike Bob Dole’s honest account of his personal struggles, Pelé’s focus was on smashing the culture of silence that surrounds men’s health.

He would eventually become an exclusive Brand Ambassador for Pfizer, with the stated aim of using his popularity and prestige to help improve men’s lives.

At the time, the advertising campaign was remarkably controversial, particularly given Pelé’s reputation for commercialism. He later claimed in an interview that he was warned by some of his friends that he needed to find the real campaign behind the rampant speculation surrounding sildenafil at the time.

Once he did, however, he was happy to be a part of it, although the financial details of the deal were never disclosed.

Despite the criticism, Pelé proved to be an influential and beneficial face in the battle to improve men’s health, particularly given that his campaigns revolved around taboos and a culture of silence surrounding health issues.

Pelé noted that whilst the campaign started in Japan and the advert aired in many different countries with varying cultures, the silence surrounding ED was at the time universal.

By being open and vocal, it quickly helped change the narrative surrounding ED and other men’s health concerns, helping them be taken seriously and creating a lasting legacy as powerful and influential as the two decades he spent on the pitch.