Airborne Suit Could Make Consumers Sick of Industry

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

It doesn't get any simpler than this, marketers: Do not mess around in the medical aisle.

Once again, we have a best-selling "drug" that's run into advertising trouble. Last week, the makers of Airborne settled a false-advertising lawsuit for $23.3 million. The wonder is that it took this long for it to happen.

In a way, Airborne was a victim of its own success -- and the willingness of the public to believe in it. Undoubtedly one of the things that boosted the brand was consumers' general distrust of expensive drugs manufactured by unknown scientists working for faceless conglomerates who profit on the sickness of others.

And here was a simple remedy created by a schoolteacher.

Not only did our hero have a great product, she had a savvy marketing plan. A brilliant mix of word-of-mouth and PR landed the product on Oprah's show and "Live With Regis and Kelly."

Sales success led to coverage by more traditional news and business-media outlets, including this magazine. Summit Partners, a Boston-based private-equity firm, took a controlling stake in Airborne in 2005. The company had projected sales of $300 million for its most recently concluded fiscal year ended March 31.

Such a heartwarming story sounded almost too good to be true.

It was. Anyone with a scant bit of medical knowledge (or common sense) should have seen the trouble. The same forces that cured polio and made progress in staving off full-blown AIDS have yet to figure out a way to combat the common cold. Yet here was a teacher who suddenly cracked the code with a mix of vitamin C and zinc.

So a suit was born. "Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed," said the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The good news here is that Airborne didn't hurt anyone.

The bad news is that it doesn't help a battered drug industry. The argument can be made that the pharmaceutical industry had nothing to do with Airborne. But when the dust settles, consumers will likely forget how Airborne became famous -- they'll forget the feel-good story (and God forbid they blame Oprah for leading them astray).

What they'll remember is the bad aftertaste. Airborne was a drug that didn't do what the ads claimed, and some company made a huge profit on it. That's the sort of story that makes consumers sick.
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