The world of pharmaceutical marketing may sometimes run into the occasional controversy, but these are usually minor compared with the wildly outlandish and unsubstantiated claims of the past. Here’s a look at the sometimes alarming world of the early marketing of medicinal products.
When mass advertising was made possible through daily newspapers and magazines in the latter half of the nineteenth century, marketers were free from the rules and regulations that tightly control the industry today. As you might expect, this led to many claims about the supposed benefits of products that were unproven or even downright misleading.
One such early pioneer of mass medical marketing was Benjamin Brandreth from Derbyshire. His grandfather had invented the ‘Vegetable Universal Pill’ that supposedly purified the blood, preventing the onset of fatal diseases. Brandreth took the product to America where he built up the brand through newspaper ads and leaflets.
Brandreth was a convincing copywriter who was able to draw on a range of literary and scientific sources to lend credibility to his claims. The pills proved to be hugely popular and Brandreth became a wealthy man and a household name. The medical experts of the day denounced the marketing literature as quackery, but this didn’t harm sales.
The floodgates had been opened to a new era of mass advertising for medical products as people sought effective cures for their ailments. In the US, it was easy to describe a medicine as patented even if it had not been subject to the official procedures. This led to a whole range of spurious concoctions being advertised as miracle cures.
The products were not only ineffectual, but sometimes also dangerous as they contained high levels of cocaine, opium, or morphine and were even given to children and babies. The phrase ‘snake oil salesman’ to describe someone peddling a useless or fraudulent product arises from this time.
In fact, snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which is now scientifically proven to have inflammation-fighting properties. It was first brought to America by Chinese immigrants, but an unscrupulous businessman named Clark Stanley began to sell a counterfeit substance made up of plant oils and animal fats.
By the early 20th century, the US government was finally prompted to take action to regulate the increasingly dangerous and fraudulent world of medical advertising. President Theodore Roosvelt brought the Pure Food and Drug Act into law, which introduced new and much stricter standards for the manufacture and marketing of medicines.
Over the next few decades, the regulations were refined and tightened after a series of court cases and debates about what pharmaceutical manufacturers could and could not claim for their products.
In the 1980s, there was an upswing in direct marketing to consumers but this soon led to new regulations. Drug companies were legally obliged to include information such as a list of side effects and active ingredients.
Today, pharmaceutical advertising is still strictly regulated but in an ever more sophisticated marketing environment, there is still room for creativity and innovation.
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