In his Health Consciousness articles, Rob examines some of the health-related products and marketing strategies facing today’s consumers. In this article, he takes a closer look at the phenomenon of rub-on medications, in particular a topical stick purported to cure headaches. This article originally appeared August 24, 2007, in issue 1531.
You’ve seen the commercials, starting with the now-classic ?HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead!? obnoxiousness. A more recent incarnation??I hate your commercials, but your product is amazing!??is a similarly crass, low-budget mess in which some schlub rants about the lameness of the very commercial you’re subjected to (?Wow, I can’t stand this commercial either,? you tell yourself), while simultaneously raving about a magical stick of wax. (?Wow, maybe this product really is amazing,? you think, convinced by the everyday-Joe quality of the quasi-actors vouching for the product’s efficacy.)
Hopefully you haven’t bought into this scheme, but many people likely have by now, since the commercial is very visible and the product lines pharmacy aisles in Canada and the United States. You’ve seen the commercial, and now you see the tubes of apparent medi-miracles on your trusted pharmacist’s shelf?so how could it not be legitimate?
To start with, Florida-based Miralus Healthcare’s HeadOn is essentially a tube of overpriced lip balm, and the so-called medical ingredients are contained in quantities of just a few ppm (parts per million). The product is based on ?homeopathic? principles, which gives the manufacturer some sort of excuse for selling you a stick of wax. HeadOn’s stated active ingredients include white bryony and potassium bichromate, with different formulations containing minuscule amounts of these or other ?homeopathic? ingredients.
The ads use blunt force and repetition to drill the product into your head. This gimmick is needed since there is no medical evidence backing up Miralus’ claims. The cooling sensation it can provide on the forehead, due to menthol, seems to inspire positive reactions from some?but the actual headache or migraine relief some may feel is only a placebo effect at best. One writer describes using it, maintaining that, ?When stricken with a headache, shortly afterward, I found the product entirely useless.?
The vice president of sales and marketing for Miralus has stated that HeadOn works by ?stimulating your body to overcome a headache or migraine? instead of masking symptoms ?like conventional headache medicines.? Truly the words of a marketing wizard with nothing solid to stand on. If stimulating your body was enough to overcome a migraine, vigorous exercise or cocaine would be surefire migraine remedies. However, this isn’t known to be the case.
Amazingly, an ABC News report asking Miralis how HeadOn worked got a response saying that ?the proof is in Head On’s sales.? In less than one year, more than six million tubes were sold.
So it works because people buy it?talk about circular reasoning! Surely its sales are not because of the incredible market penetration, intense hype, and clever marketing campaign.
Nonetheless, the marketers are geniuses in at least one respect: Seth Stevensen of Slate theorizes that ?These ads give viewers headaches, thus spurring demand.?
One pharmacist believes that OTC (over-the-counter) manufacturers ?can sell whatever they want, and imply its intended use, without using things like science or reason to back up their claims. What’s even worse, we sell [HeadOn at our pharmacy], which implies that the licensed professionals behind the counter tacitly approve of their use. Make no mistake, I will always lead the consumer away from these types of products at my counter. Unfortunately, they don’t always ring their items up at the pharmacy counter.?
Pharmaceutically speaking, rubbing something on one’s forehead would not ease pain in the brain. It seems to make intuitive sense?pain in the forehead, therefore medicine on the forehead!?but what about protective barriers, such as the skull? Unless HeadOn absorbs from the forehead skin into the blood, it wouldn’t enter the brain. If it did absorb into the bloodstream, it could be rubbed anywhere, not just the forehead. The marketer is preying on those unable to make a proper distinction between a genuine medical product and a stick of wax.
Pharmaceutical companies, as criticized and hated as they are by some segments of society, actually have dual goals of making money and helping society. The makers and marketers of HeadOn and its related wax-sticks have created this product solely as a money-making enterprise?in my view, there is no benefit to anyone but Miralis and the stores and pharmacies selling it. Society loses, as the least-informed spend their income on a sham.
On HeadOn’s website, Miralis maintains that HeadOn ?is one of the safest medications available on the market today.?
Indeed. Logically speaking, a drug that is 6 or 12 parts per million of its active ingredient won’t cause any damage. Conversely, it won’t provide any benefit, either. The ingredient content is negligible, leaving purchasers with a menthol-infused wax.
Miralus also makes ActivOn (an ache and pain reliever) and FirstOn (an anti-itch ointment), among others. Expect more variations of the wax roll-on in the next few years, as long as OTC regulations remain lax. The marketing platform revolves around fooling the consumer based on promises and premises bordering on falsity (do you really think the marketers believe in homeopathy?), and getting the product into drug and grocery stores to manufacture credibility. The only limit to the influx of profit is, how many variations can be dreamed up? How creative are the marketers involved?
On that note, here are a few new product line suggestions for the marketers and producers of this fine stable of ?medications? . . .
InsulOn: the roll-on wax-stick treatment for diabetes, the formerly incurable condition! Rub wherever and whenever you inject insulin, and InsulOn will heal your pancreatic failings?homeopathically, ?through the nerves??in 4 to 6 years! ?I hate your commercials and this crap clearly isn’t the long-lost cure for diabetes, but I love your product!?
DeadOn: apply to the hands before hunting, to steady nerves in order to maximize gun-toting accuracy. The makers of DeadOn guarantee that, with use of the product, your hunting skills will be no worse than ?Dead-Eye Dick? Cheney’s. For added benefit, apply directly to the rifle!
HardOn: no explanation needed. Will be sold as a cheap roll-on alternative to Viagra/Cialis/Levitra, but instead of actually working, will be marketed based on its homeopathic one part-per-million content of one of many alleged aphrodisiacs. Maybe chocolate? Or tiger penis?
HairOn: baldness is a bazillion-dollar industry with countless devotees dedicated to finding a solution, so people will buy no matter what the proven effectiveness. Active ingredient? Who cares; just throw in something that sounds like it might, in the words of Miralis’ Marketing VP, ?stimulate your body to overcome? lack of hair! Apply directly to the bald spot!
Clearly, a major issue here is pharmacies stocking this hocus-pocus gimmickry on their shelves. Selling it in pharmacies lends it an air of credibility, with the pharmacist giving it their apparent endorsement. The debate about selling cigarettes in pharmacies should also be applied to selling deceptively marketed, useless items like HeadOn. Is it ethical for a pharmacy to sell? Pharmacies across Canada have mostly stopped selling tobacco, either by regulation (in many provinces) or conscious individual pharmacy decisions. Knowingly selling useless products to unsuspecting customers in a pharmacy is more unethical than a pharmacy selling tobacco products?because any pharmacist worth his or her weight in Vicodin will know that HeadOn isn’t worth the wax It’s presented in, while a potential purchaser may not.
Everybody knows about the risks and dangers of tobacco?but not everyone is knowledgeable about the efficacy, science, or truth behind these OTC ?health? products. Seeing them in a health-care establishment, after seeing the ads, will fool people into thinking these products are legitimate. It’s time for pharmacies to stop participating in the bamboozlement of customers trusting these health providers to put their health and well-being first. If governments don’t do anything about this deceptive marketing, health professionals enjoying the public’s trust should take the first step and say no to any health product they know to be useless.