In this episode, the guys talk about the multi-billion dollar supplement industry and the influence of a Nobel prize winner on spreading one of the largest pseudo-science campaigns in marketing history. Nico talks about his pre-flight travel routine, and Chad talks about the persistence of memes and the value of transparency.

A common myth is that vitamin C will prevent you from getting sick – a wives’ tale that can be beneficial for dietary supplement companies. What “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” and assertions that chicken noodle soup can cure a cold have in common is that they’re old. What isn’t old is the idea that vitamin C will keep you from getting sick. In fact, the idea came about as recently as the 1960’s. Some benefits of vitamin C, as claimed by dietary supplement companies like Emergen-C, include boosting your immune system, increasing energy, and providing extra protection against infections.

Not only will vitamin C completely wipe the common cold from the face of the earth but it can also be used to cure snakebites, AIDS, and detached retinas. To you that may sound like pseudoscience…but to Linus Pauling, it’s not only fact but the product of his own extensive scientific research.

Linus Pauling, an American chemist, biochemist, chemical engineer, peace activist, author, and educator, is credited with popularizing vitamin C as a health supplement. 

Pauling is one of four individuals to have won more than one Nobel Prize. Aside from his Nobel Prizes, Pauling is remembered as one of the founders of the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Today, Pauling is remembered most for the work he did in his later years including the promotion of nuclear disarmament, as well as orthomolecular medicine, megavitamin therapy,and dietary supplements. Given Pauling’s history and his 1200 published works spanning 850 topics, the diverse array of his later studies isn’t that odd. What is odd is that the esteemed, record breaking, two-time Nobel Prize winner isn’t most commonly remembered for his awarded accomplishments. He’s remembered for being an acolyte of vitamin C.

Pauling believed – and publicly insisted – that vitamin C could be a cure-all for numerous ailments and because of his work, he’s not one of the only ones who seem to think so. According to a Gallup poll from 2013, half of Americans regularly take vitamins or other mineral supplements – despite the fact that new medical studies assert that vitamins do not provide health benefits. In 2012, Euromonitor International reported the vitamin and supplement industry topped $23 billion in consumer spending.

In 1978, Alacer Corp., based out of Southern California, released their newest and fizziest sensation; Emergen-C. Simply Vitamin C plus minerals with B Vitamins, the dietary supplement drink mix quickly gained popularity among people seeking a new and refreshing way to support a healthier immune system.  More than popularity, Emergen-C vitamin drink mix rapidly established an impressive and dedicated following. As vitamin supplements gained more and more traction over the years more and more dietary supplement companies began to emerge.

One such company, Airborne, was founded in the early 1990s by school teacher Victoria Knight-McDowell. She began brewing herbal and vitamin cocktails in the early 1990s and selling them in tablet form to local drug stores until Trader Joe’s bought 300 cases in 1997. Something companies like Emergen-c and Airborne have in common, aside from promoting vitamin supplements and their uncanny, continued success, is their marketing. The effectiveness of having a tasty variety of flavors does wonders for marketing and also, according to William Curry, internist and professor of internal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, makes it all too easy to overdose on the stuff. It might be hard to imagine “overdosing” on vitamins and what that could entail.  After all, according to Healthline, Emergen-C’s product is designed to boost your immune system, increase energy, and provide extra protection against infections. Airborne is designed for similar purposes but also allows you to search their products by health interest, including heart health, digestion, immunity, brain health, and bone and joint support. Apparently, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Airborne’s marketing promised to “boost your immune system to help your body combat germs” and instructed users to “take it at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded, potentially germ-infested environments.”  In February 2006, ABC News revealed on Good Morning America that Airborne’s lone clinical trial wasn’t actually conducted with any doctors or scientists.  That March, a plaintiff notified Airborne of his intent to file suit. The company quickly stopped mentioning their one-off study and started toning down their cold-curing claims in favor of vague “immunity-boosting” language. But Airborne’s new marketing wasn’t enough to help them slip back under the radar.  In 2007  the Federal Trade Commission and a group of state attorneys general began investigating the various “cold busting” claims that Airborne has made since its launch in 1999. In 2008, the on-going court case from 2006 ended with a settlement of $23.3 million over the false advertising.  On a similar note, Emergen-C’s 2013 class action suit includes allegations that Emergen-C was “seeking to cash in on consumers’ desire to avoid cold and flu, Alacer markets Emergen-C as a “health drink” that contains 1,000mg of Vitamin C, nearly seventeen times the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C by the Food and Drug Administration.”

With all of this information available to the public and if consumers can usually get all the vitamin C they need from food, why then do they still buy extra vitamin C supplements? Why do companies like Emergen-C and Airborne risk multi-million dollar lawsuits to market a product that may or may not do what they (can no longer legally claim it does but that they) know their consumers believe it does? We know that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, but how much worse can a bad thing be when there’s little to no evidence that it was ever a good, let alone decent, thing to begin with?

The reason the idea that vitamin C will do much of anything for our colds is a stubbornly persistent myth is that it is perpetuated by supplement companies themselves.

What Can We Learn?

  • Marketing, especially in the realm of health, has to be transparent. It’s not enough to just include the information you want to; sometimes not telling the whole truth is just as good as lying. While you might not get into any legal trouble for it, taking advantage of consumers’ assumptions about your product isn’t exactly moral marketing.
  • You shouldn’t worry that being transparent will scare people away.  After publicized legal trouble like with Emergen-C and Airborne, any supplement company that doesn’t have their product’s ingredients and functions clearly stated is likely to seem suspicious more than anything else. At the very least, transparency helps convey respect for the consumer. If you have a reason to worry that transparency for your product will scare people away then maybe you need to focus on.

We talk about

[03:45] Vitamin C craze
[07:05] Linus Pauling 
[12:00] The History of Vitamin C as a dietary supplement and (pseudo)science behind it
[18:40] Emergen-C and Airbone 
[20:40] Most important aspects of dietary supplement marketing
[22:30] Recommended daily Vitamin C dosage
[26:35] Lawsuits
[34:55] Lessons for marketers

Episode Script Writer: Grace Wall
Research Analyst: Gertruda Gilyte

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments