With a wave of pandemic, a flurry of advertisements promised dubious drugs in the form of lozenges, tonics, ointments, blood builders and an antiseptic shield to be used during the kiss.
That was in 1918, during the flu outbreak that ended up taking about 50 million lives, including 675,000 in the United States.
More than a century later, not much has changed. Advertisements promoting unproven miracle cures – including intravenous drip, ozone therapy and music to boost immunity – target people trying to prevent the coronavirus pandemic.
“History is repeating itself,” said Roi Mandel, head of research at the ancestral site MyHeritage, who recently unearthed and compared pandemic ads published to distant generations. “So many things are exactly the same, even 102 years later, even after science has made tremendous progress.”
This year, a California-based company sold products containing kratom, an herbal extract that sparked concern among regulators and health experts, with the promise that it could “keep the coronavirus at bay.” The Food and Drug Administration sent a notice to the company in May.
The claims are an echo of 1918, when an advertisement for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets promised that the pills – made from “apple, aloe leaves, jalap” – offered protection “against the deadly attack of the Spanish flu”.
Other flu-fighting products of that time included lozenges in the form of Cin-u, laxatives Calotab, Hudson’s Iron and Nux Tonic, anti-ammonia pills, blood products Pepto-Mangan and treatments made with “hypophosphite syrup, cod liver oil extracts, malt, iron, wine and wild cherry peel. “
An advertisement for another drug, Neuffer’s Lung Tonic, increased the fear of the flu, noting that the death toll from the pandemic was “more than double our total war victims”. Peruna, a widely popular drug that later became synonymous with quackery, promoted itself by claiming that “nothing is better” to help “ward off Spanish flu.”
“Human beings haven’t changed that much,” said Jason P. Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois. “We would like to believe that we are more intelligent, that we would be able to detect lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its likelihood appearance has only become more sophisticated over time.”
Day-to-day items were billed as health aids. Horlick’s promoted its malted milk product as “the diet during and after the flu” which was “endorsed by doctors everywhere”. NB Long & Son encouraged customers to “fight the flu with good foods”, such as raisins with seeds. The Mottman Mercantile Company said that “one of the best preventives to prevent ‘flu’ is to provide good quality warm underwear”.
There were gadgets, too, including a canvas attached to a sterling silver handle like a miniature tennis racket, which served as a shield between lovers’ lips. A product ad told potential customers that they could “kiss your friend and you don’t have to worry about germs”. There was also the Branston Violet Ray Ozone Generator, which was sold with the promise of “keeping your nasal passages, throat and lungs in perfectly antiseptic conditions”.
Advertising regulations were in their infancy in 1918. The Federal Trade Commission, which police unfair or misleading marketing, was open for less than three years. Companies could still claim, with minimal evidence, that they were supported by science, more than a decade after journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams showed that folk remedies used to be made mostly with alcohol and sometimes lethal toxins.
At the same time, advertising was gaining momentum, accounting for more than 66 percent of the newspaper’s revenue in 1920, against 44 percent in 1880. Almost in the same period, advertising revenue rose from $ 30 million to $ 850 million, according to data cited in the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing.
Since then, advertising has become a global business worth hundreds of billions of dollars. But regulators have struggled to keep up with misleading advertisers, who are often smaller companies that make quick sales before suddenly disappearing, said Manoj Hastak, American University marketing professor and longtime FTC advisor.
“I’m not sure if there is a clear feeling that this is going to improve when the next pandemic comes,” he said. “Companies are just selling the same old counterfeits in new packaging, and the incidents are increasing. Regulations are improving, but the process is still very slow and budgets are very scarce. It’s a Whac-a-Mole problem. “
In recent years, a wave of digital advertising has created more space for ads on more platforms and the ability to switch them in seconds. But as print publications, broadcast television and other traditional media reinforced their advertising protocols, online advertisers began to rely on automated auctions instead of human gatekeepers for placement.
Readers who find the examples of 1918 charlatan ads ridiculously picturesque should know that many 2020 examples are no less absurd. They include marketing for Musical Medicine, a CD that reproduces “frequencies specifically formulated to help boost your immune system and weaken the virus,” and Eco Air Doctor, a clip-on device that emits chlorine dioxide gas. Manufacturers of both products were among dozens of companies that received warnings from the FTC telling them to stop making baseless claims that they can help treat or cure the coronavirus.
As Americans begin to receive Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines, officials are concerned that misleading advertisements may complicate the launch or fuel skepticism about treatments. Facebook said it would block ads that promote the sale of Covid-19 vaccines or speed up access. Twitter and YouTube has banned content with unproven claims about vaccines.
But algorithms designed to serve ads based on existing interests will continue to deliver problematic content to people who tend to believe it, said Michael Stich, chief executive of CourtAvenue, a digital growth agency.
“A public Internet transmission system is missing,” he said. “My fear is that, because of how we receive the information now, the circles where we choose to spend our time will not have a common baseline of what is ‘true’.”