5 Times Drug Companies Promised Too Much (Or Explained Too Little)


General Mills is in hot water with the Food and Drug Administration over the cereal giant's claims that Cheerios have been "clinically proven to lower cholesterol." To the FDA's thinking, if you make the sort of claim that implies a product can be used for the prevention, mitigation, or treatment of a disease, you're marketing a drug, not a breakfast treat. General Mills now has to change its packaging and promotions to make it clearer that the beloved cereal isn't actually a treatment for high cholesterol.

This story may sound odd, but the FDA comes down on ads all the time. Here are a few more examples of commercials or marketing that have irritated the federal government's various watchdogs:

1. Viva Side Effects!

Although I'm not yet in the target demographic, I can only assume that Viagra's great. However, even though it has undoubtedly helped millions of men who suffer from erectile dysfunction, the drug can have some rather nasty side effects, including headache, nausea, and a condition called cyanopsia where everything the user sees appears to be tinted blue. Last year, though, Pfizer ran a series of "Viva Viagra" spots on the Web that didn't list any of the drug's potential side effects. The ad, which retooled Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" into a song about the drug, was already an affront to the King, but it also ran afoul of the FDA, which requires that any ad detailing a drug's benefits also include its negative side effects. The FDA sent Pfizer a stern warning, and the drugmaker killed the ads.

2. He's Back. No, Wait. He's Gone.

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Pretty obvious that this is an ad about sex, right? Pfizer didn't think so, hence the company didn't include any side effect info. Big mistake. The FDA disagreed and knocked the ads off the air.

3. Water Cures All.

Starting in 1919, less than a year after he graduated from medical school, Dr. W.F. Koch started curing cancer. Or so he said.

For just $25, Koch would sell a patient an ampoule of glyoxylide, a miracle drug Koch claimed was so potent that it could cure nearly any illness even if diluted to one part per trillion.

Hacking from tuberculosis? No problem, glyoxylide would fix that right up. Allergies? Take a shot, and they'd be gone. The FDA realized these claims were in all likelihood preposterous, and in the 1940s the organization started testing glyoxylide to see what was actually being sold as the magical drug. It turned out that Koch had been peddling two milliliters of distilled water for 25 bucks a pop. The FDA brought two suits against Koch, and although it couldn't secure a conviction in either one, the quack fled to Brazil in 1950.

4. Don't Chuck Your Floss Just Yet.

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Not quite. The ads horrified dentists and dental hygienists around the country, and there were several scientific errors in the conclusion. The study cited by the ad, which was funded by Listerine's parent company, Pfizer, used a sample that only included people with relatively healthy teeth and gums, not a representative slice of the population. Furthermore, while Listerine is effective at retarding gum disease and plaque, it's no substitute for flossing's ability to reduce tooth decay. In 2005 a federal judge ruled that the ad was not just misleading, but actually posed a public health risk for spreading such erroneous information.

This wasn't the first time Listerine had misled the public. At various points in the product's 95 years on the over-the-counter market, it's claimed to be a dandruff cure and a cure for colds and sore throats. The latter claim ended up costing the brand some cash; a 1976 Federal Trade Commission ruling stated that Listerine actually couldn't prevent or lessen the severity of colds and sore throats. The FTC ordered Warner-Lambert, the brand's then-owner, to undertake a $10.2 million advertising campaign to set the record straight on Listerine's nonexistent curative properties. [Image courtesy of Good Experience.]

5. Does This Snake Oil Taste a Little Peppery?

In modern usage, "snake oil" is a term derisively slapped on any medicine that promises more than it can deliver. At the beginning of the 20th century, though, snake oil was a panacea that could not only relieve muscle and joint pain but also cure frostbite, sore throats, and sprains. Clark Stanley, a former cowboy, was one of America's most famous snake oil peddlers.

He'd set up shop in high-visibility locales like the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and publicly kill the snakes he would then turn into medicine.

Business was good for Stanley until the government seized a shipment of his product in 1917 to see if it could really soothe all the ailments it claimed. Big surprise: it couldn't. In fact, it wasn't even totally clear that the oil contained any snake; it was mostly mineral oil, camphor, red pepper, and turpentine with just 1% fatty oil that investigators suspected was beef fat.