With a raging pandemic, a flurry of ads promised dubious cures in the form of lozenges, tonics, impurities, hematopoietic agents, and an antiseptic shield to be used while kissing.
That was in 1918, during the influenza outbreak that killed an estimated 50 million people, including 675,000 in the United States.
More than a century later, not much has changed. Ads promoting unproven wonder drugs – including intravenous drops, ozone therapy, and immunity-boosting music – target people trying to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.
“History repeats itself,” said Roi Mandel, the research director of the ancestral website MyHeritage, which discovered and compared recently published pandemic ads across generations. “So many things are exactly the same 102 years later, even after science has made so much progress.”
This year a company with a California address sold products containing kratom, an herbal extract that has caused concern among regulators and health professionals, with the promise of “keeping the coronavirus at bay”. The Food and Drug Administration sent the company a warning in May.
The allegations are echoed in 1918 when an advertisement for Dr. Pierces Pleasant Pellets promised that the pills – made from “May apple, aloe leaves, jalap” – would offer protection “against the deadly attack of Spanish influenza”.
Other flu-fighting products of the time were Cin-u-Form lozenges, Calotab laxatives, Hudson’s iron and Nux tonic, anti-Kamnia tablets, pepto-manganese hematopoietic agents, and treatments with hypophosphite syrup, cod liver oil -Extract, malt, iron, wine and wild cherry tree bark. “
An ad for another drug, Neuffer’s Lung Tonic, heightened fear of the flu by stating that the pandemic death toll was “more than double our total war casualties”. Peruna, a widely used medicine that later became synonymous with quacks, competed with the claim that “nothing is better” to “fight off Spanish influenza”.
“People haven’t changed too much,” said Jason P. Chambers, associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois. “We want to believe that we’re smarter, that we can spot the lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its credibility has become more sophisticated over time.”
Everyday objects were billed as health aids. Horlick’s advertised its malted milk product as a “diet during and after influenza” that was “recommended by doctors everywhere”. NB Long & Son urged customers to “fight the flu with good food”, such as raisins. The Mottman Mercantile Company said that “one of the best precautions to keep the flu out is stocking up on good warm underwear.”
There were devices as well, including a screen attached to a sterling silver handle like a miniature tennis racket and used as a shield between the lovers’ lips. An ad for the product told prospects that they could “kiss your girlfriend and you don’t have to worry about germs.” There was also the Branston Violet Ray Ozone Generator, which was sold with the promise that it would “keep your nasal passages, throat, and lungs in a perfectly antiseptic state.”
Advertising regulations were still in their infancy in 1918. The Federal Trade Commission, which oversees unfair or misleading marketing, had been open for less than three years. Companies could still claim they were backed by science with minimal evidence, more than a decade after journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams showed that popular drugs were often made primarily with alcohol and sometimes deadly toxins.
At the same time, advertising gained in importance and accounted for more than 66 percent of newspaper sales in 1920, compared to 44 percent in 1880. During the same period, advertising revenue rose from $ 30 million to $ 850 million, according to the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing.
Since then, advertising has grown into a global business worth hundreds of billions of dollars. However, regulators are struggling to keep up with misleading advertisers, who are often smaller businesses making quick sales before suddenly disappearing, said Manoj Hastak, a marketing professor at American University and longtime advisor to the FTC
“I’m not sure there is a clear feeling that this will get better when the next pandemic comes,” he said. “Companies are just selling the same old lies in new packaging, and the incidents are only growing. Regulations are getting better, but the process is still pretty slow and budgets are pretty thin. It’s a little whac-a-mole problem. “
In recent years, an increase in digital advertising has meant that more platforms have more space for ads and they can be turned off in seconds. However, as print publications, radio, and other traditional media tightened their advertising protocols, online advertisers relied on automated auctions rather than human gatekeepers for placement.
Readers who find the examples of quacks from 1918 ridiculously curious should know that many of the examples from 2020 are no less absurd. These include music medicine marketing, a CD that plays “specially formulated frequencies to strengthen your immune system and weaken the virus,” and the Eco Air Doctor, a clip-on device that emits chlorine dioxide gas. The makers of both products were among the dozen of companies warned by the FTC to stop making unsubstantiated claims that they could help treat or cure the coronavirus.
As Americans begin receiving coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, authorities fear that misleading advertising could make it difficult to launch or fuel skepticism about the treatments. Facebook said it would block ads promoting Covid-19 vaccine sales or accelerated access. Twitter and YouTube have banned content with unsubstantiated claims about the vaccines.
However, algorithms to serve ads based on existing interests will continue to deliver problematic content for people who tend to believe it, said Michael Stich, executive director of CourtAvenue, a digital growth agency.
“There is no public broadcasting system on the Internet,” he said. “I fear that because of the way we take in information, the circles we spend our time in have no common ground for what is ‘true’.”