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A Century After Phony Flu Ads, Companies Hype Dubious Covid Cures – The New York Times

A Century After Phony Flu Ads, Companies Hype Dubious Covid Cures

Musical medicine? Corona-fighting herbs? “Human beings haven’t changed all that much,” a marketing professor says of the similarities between ads from 1918 and recent months.

Credit…Hannah Yoon for The New York Times

With a pandemic raging, a spate of ads promised dubious remedies in the form of lozenges, tonics, unguents, blood-builders and an antiseptic shield to be used while kissing.

That was in 1918, during the influenza outbreak that eventually claimed an estimated 50 million lives, including 675,000 in the United States.

More than a century later, not much has changed. Ads promoting unproven miracle cures — including intravenous drips, ozone therapy and immunity-boosting music — have targeted people trying to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.

“History is repeating itself,” said Roi Mandel, the head of research at the ancestry website MyHeritage, which recently unearthed and compared pandemic ads published generations apart. “So many things are exactly the same, even 102 years later, even after science has made such huge progress.”

This year, a company with a California address peddled products containing kratom, an herbal extract that has drawn concern from regulators and health experts, with the promise that it might “keep the coronavirus at bay.” The Food and Drug Administration sent the company a warning in May.

The claims are an echo from 1918, when an ad for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets promised that the pills — made from “May-apple, leaves of aloe, jalap” — offered protection “against the deadly attack of the Spanish Influenza.”


Credit…via MyHeritage

Other flu-fighting products from back then included Cin-u-form lozenges, Calotab laxatives, Hudson’s Iron and Nux Tonic, Anti-kamnia tablets, Pepto-Mangan blood builders and treatments made with “syrup of hypophosphites, cod liver oil extractives, malt, iron, wine and wild cherry bark.”

An ad for another remedy, Neuffer’s Lung Tonic, amplified the fear of the flu by noting that the pandemic’s death toll was “more than double our total war casualties.” Peruna, a widely popular medicine that later became synonymous with quackery, promoted itself by claiming that “nothing is any better” to help “ward off Spanish influenza.”

“Human beings haven’t changed all that much,” said Jason P. Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois. “We’d like to believe we’re smarter, that we’d be able to spot the lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its veneer of believability has only become more sophisticated over time.”

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

Everyday items were billed as health aids. Horlick’s promoted its malted milk product as “the diet during and after influenza” that was “endorsed by physicians everywhere.” N.B. Long & Son urged customers to “fight the flu with good eats,” such as seeded raisins. Mottman Mercantile Company said that “one of the best preventatives to keep away the ‘Flu’ is to provide yourself with good warm underwear.”

Credit…Library of Congress

There were contraptions as well, including a screen fastened to a sterling silver handle like a miniature tennis racket, which served as a shield between lovers’ lips. An ad for the product told potential customers that they could “kiss your lady friend and you needn’t worry about germs.” There was also the Branston Violet Ray Ozone Generator, which was sold on the promise that it “keep your nasal passages, throat and lungs in a perfectly antiseptic condition.”

Advertising regulations were in their infancy in 1918. The Federal Trade Commission, which polices unfair or deceptive marketing, had been open for less than three years. Companies could still claim, with minimal evidence, that they were backed by science, more than a decade after the journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams showed that popular medicines were often made primarily with alcohol and sometimes with deadly toxins.

At the same time, advertising was gaining traction, making up more than 66 percent of newspaper revenue in 1920, up from 44 percent in 1880. Over roughly the same period, advertising revenue surged to $850 million from $30 million, according to data cited in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing.

Since then, advertising has become a global business worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But regulators have struggled to keep up with deceptive advertisers, which are often smaller companies that make quick sales before suddenly disappearing, said Manoj Hastak, a marketing professor at American University and a longtime adviser to the F.T.C.

“I’m not sure there’s a clear sense that this will get any better when the next pandemic comes along,” he said. “Companies are just selling the same old falsehoods in new packaging, and the incidents are only increasing. The regulations are getting better, but the process is still quite slow and budgets are quite thin. It’s a bit of a Whac-a-Mole problem.”


Credit…via MyHeritage

In recent years, a surge of digital advertising has led to more space for ads on more platforms, and the ability to switch them out within seconds. But as print publications, broadcast television and other traditional media outlets tightened their advertising protocols, online advertisers began relying on automated auctions rather than human gatekeepers for placement.

Readers who find the examples of quack ads from 1918 laughably quaint should know that many examples from 2020 are no less absurd. They include marketing for Musical Medicine, a compact disc that plays “specifically formulated frequencies to assist in boosting your immune system and weakening the virus,” and the Eco Air Doctor, a clip-on device that emits chlorine dioxide gas. The makers of both products were among the dozens of companies that received warnings from the F.T.C. telling them to stop making unsubstantiated claims that they can help treat or cure the coronavirus.

As Americans begin receiving coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, authorities are worried that misleading advertisements might complicate the rollout or fuel skepticism about the treatments. Facebook said it would block ads that promoted the sale of Covid-19 vaccines or expedited access. Twitter and YouTube have banned content featuring unproven claims about the vaccines.

But algorithms meant to serve ads based on existing interests will continue to deliver problematic content to people who are inclined to believe it, said Michael Stich, the chief executive of CourtAvenue, a digital growth agency.

“There’s a lack of a public broadcast system within the internet,” he said. “My fear is that, because of how we take in information now, the circles where we choose to spend our time don’t have a common baseline of what is ‘true.’”