March 13, 2007

Defender: Invented By A Programmer!

Or: can 40,000 consumers and Kevin Costner1 be wrong?

I have an idea for a new product. It’s going to be great. It’ll be called “The Defender.”

It’ll have flashy packaging. It’ll say “Invented by a Programmer” on the packaging. It will strongly imply that it prevents the spread of colds. It will be high priced for what you get, but still affordable for most.

Inside will be a bar of regular soap. Not even antibacterial soap - just regular soap. The instructions will read:

To reduce your chance of catching a cold, wash your hands vigorously using this soap and some warm water for at least 30 seconds. Repeat every time you are about to put anything in your mouth or before you touch your face. To reduce your chances of spreading a cold, wash your hands after touching your face or blowing your nose.

Because washing your hands before you touch your face or put anything into your mouth is the best method for preventing the spread of a cold. And it’s not the antibacterial ingredients in the soap that are doing the work.

This post is, of course, inspired by “Airborne” - a product you can now find at any drug store. One which leads the consumer to believe that it will prevent the spread of colds (take it before you get on a plane… it was invented by a teacher!)

Noted skeptic Michael Shermer writes about Airborne in his Scientific American column in which he references this great blog post on the subject.

You should really read those two links, but the boil-down is that Airborne doesn’t have evidence to support its claims, so it is forced to do a fancy song and dance. Yet the brand remains strong, and the company rakes in the cash from credulous people who want to avoid getting sick. But I suspect my idea of an actual effective treatment for colds would be harder to market, because people are at least smart enough to realize that they can get the same benefit from any soap. Successful marketing has to convince them that our product works sufficiently better that it is worth buying over the other available products.

Is marketing, in this case, the same as lying? How wide is the line between telling someone something false, and just leading them to believe something false? I don’t think it’s a very wide line at all. In theory, it’s a wide line. If I say to you “I know for a fact Airborne cure colds” I am lying; I can’t back up the statement. But what if I put cute drawings of germs on the package, and tell you to take it “at the first sign of cold symptoms”, and say it’s soothing, and get a bunch of endorsements? What if i know that most people will assume, from all this, that it is a cold remedy? In my estimation, this is a rhetorically safe form of lying. however, it’s lying, but with different rationalization. I am rationalizing that “if you look closely enough, you’ll see that I don’t claim it cures colds.” So it’s not my fault if you come to that conclusion.

However, if I say ‘it cures colds” I could also rationalize by saying “if you did your own study, you’d see that it doesn’t cure colds.” And therefore it’s not my fault. Poof! The lie disappears! Not really.

We have to draw a line somewhere for legal reasons, and apparently Airborne does not cross that legal line. But it certainly crosses an ethical line, in my estimation. Making money selling snake oil is unethical. But the practical reality is that you do have to be the one who draws that line. You must be actively wary in your consumption of advertising. Start from the assumption that they’re wrong; the burden of proof is on them.


As you can see from this image, Airborne is no longer one product, it’s a freaking phenomenon with a whole lot of different variations. Including a version to help you inculcate your kids.

1 Apparently, Kevin Costner endorses the stuff. “Look, Airborne is great. I wouldn’t go on a movie set without it; it’s on my plane and in my house.”

Posted by James at March 13, 2007 8:28 AM
Create Social Bookmark Links

Look at the success of Head On! - everyone assumes it's for headaches. But nowhere in their ad or on the packaging does it say it's an analgesic. New ads say "Your commercials are annoying, but your product is great!" Great at what? They can't say, because it's not proven. (Active On, however, DOES say "analgesic" and has pain-relief claims in their ads, IIRC.)

Never underestimate the gullibility of the consumer...

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at March 13, 2007 9:51 AM

I read the blog. What's interesting to me is many of the comments. They range from "It works for me, YMMV" to "Your science isn't that great -- it just figured out how the bumblebee flies, so lay off my fake cure." They seemed to feel defensive about Airborne -- why is this guy picking on it? Poor defenseless Airborne! I suppose the post made them feel stupid for using it, although it certainly doesn't criticize the consumers.

But what is this attitude? "Your science doesn't know everything." Why don't people see it as a tool for knowing? Is it that they don't want to know? Or is it that they don't like the answers they get?

"Your science says Airborne doesn't work, but your science can't cure the common cold. Nya!"

I was also highly amused by the letter that the author received back from the Airborne company -- consumers aren't scientifically minded, so we don't make our fake study available to them.

*sigh* It makes me mad.

Posted by: Maggie at March 13, 2007 11:17 AM

I like the expression "your science." Let's see if someone can build a spaceship that works, using some other type of science.

Posted by: Julie at March 13, 2007 11:55 AM

They don't want "your science" to negate their placebo effect. Truth doesn't matter as much as results.

Posted by: Mike at March 13, 2007 12:20 PM

Ah, yes, "your science."

What will depress you even more is the knowledge that the following book has been on the NYT paperback advice best seller list for 7 weeks:

NATURAL CURES “THEY” DO NOT WANT YOU TO KNOW ABOUT, by Kevin Trudeau. (Alliance, $7.99.) Remedies that do not include drugs or surgery.

Maybe these "cures" could help the woman I was told of who shrank back from the Blackberry she was about to have installed by IT. "I can feel the RF waves!" she said. When the IT dude turned it off, she said, "That's much better."

Now where did I put my tinfoil hat...

Posted by: Patti M. at March 13, 2007 12:44 PM

Aha! I thought that 7 weeks sounded wrong. It must've fallen off the list due to some other self-help title.

It's been on the list since July 2005.

James, maybe you don't need to invent a product, you need to write a book!

Posted by: Patti M. at March 13, 2007 12:58 PM

dude, did you know its made by teachers!?!?

(shoot me now)

Posted by: ryan at March 14, 2007 10:05 AM

Patti: I suppose one's reaction might depend upon just where they were trying to install the BlackBerry, n'est-ce pas?

Posted by: Barry Leiba at March 14, 2007 3:49 PM

(Is the time it takes to post a comment meant to thwart bots?)

I'm reminded of an ad for some tax-prep service (not HRB, but some other), which used to go something like this:

Person 1: "This tax-prep service got me a bigger refund!"
Person 2: "This tax-prep service got me a bigger refund!"
Person 3: "This tax-prep service got me a bigger refund!"
[...repeat for 28.5 seconds...]
Person 17: "This tax-prep service got me a bigger refund!"
[Caption at bottom of screen for 1.5 seconds in 3-point font: "This tax-prep service does not imply that you'll get bigger refunds if you use it. Your refund depends upon your individual circumstances. We will now put a lot of text here to make this 3-point-font paragraph very dense and even harder to read than it already is. Right.]
Voice-over: "Get bigger refunds with this tax-prep service!"

Alas, yes.
Gawd no.

Posted by: Barry Leiba at March 14, 2007 3:57 PM

Tax prep services - right, that's another biggie. Especially this time of year. That probably really annoys small tax preparers who see such unethical ads eat away at their business.

Re: comments, I'm on a slow server, I think.

Posted by: James at March 14, 2007 4:06 PM

Oh, and yes there is some rapid post delay built in there to discourage bots.

Posted by: James at March 14, 2007 4:06 PM

Barry, there are so many funny things I would like to say in response to your Blackberry installation comment, but they would drive unnecessary and troubling traffic to James's blog, so suffice it to say that your post made me laugh.

Posted by: Patti M. at March 15, 2007 8:33 AM

I was shocked to see a package of Airborne on my boss's desk. She is an intelligent woman with years of experience in the biotech industry, so I was compelled to send her the link to the Scientific American article and the snippet where the company says people are too stupid to understand clinical trials.

I hope I've just saved her some money.

Thanks, James, for posting this.

Posted by: Patti M. at March 16, 2007 10:52 AM

Copyright © 1999-2007 James P. Burke. All Rights Reserved