In May of 2006, a complaint was filed against the makers of Airborne, the herbal supplement, for false advertising. A year later, the complaint was amended, and alleged that Airborne engaged in “consumer fraud, deceptive or unfair business practices, false or misleading advertising, concealment, omission, unfair competition by marketing and advertising the Products as a preventative or a cure for the common cold.”
Last Monday, a settlement was announced to the tune of $23.3 million, requiring that Airborne offer refunds to anyone who purchased any of their products between May 2001 and November 2007. In an ironic twist, having been accused of false advertising, Airborne must also take out advertisements in several newspapers and magazines with refund instructions. (You can read the full terms of the settlement here.)
In short, Airborne Health and Knight-McDowell labs were nailed for marketing their product on the basis that if you have a cold or are worried about getting one, pop an Airborne and you’re safe. But look closely at their marketing–on their website, they claim that “Airborne is the best-selling herbal health formula that boosts your immune system to help your body combat germs.” Know what else boosts your immune system? Any source of good old-fashioned Vitamin C, like oranges or grapefruits.
Airborne may be an herbal health formula, and it may be the best-selling product of its kind, but there’s nothing in that statement about its proven effectiveness. On top of that, the lab tests are of questionable legitimacy. However, someone who finds Airborne in the cold remedy aisle might well understand it to be just that: a remedy, which it is not. Read the packaging, ask the right questions, and you’ll understand that it’s just another way to get a concentrated boost of vitamins and minerals that support your immune system. There’s no guarantee you won’t get sick.
The defendants in the case still deny any wrongdoing. Not having followed the lawsuit over the past few years, and not knowing the intimate details of Airborne marketing history or development, I may be no more equipped than anyone else to pass judgment on whether Airborne is or is not guilty of deliberately misleading consumers in efforts to sell their product. I believe, however, that there are plenty of other companies out there that are doing just what has Airborne has done, and at minimum make false implications. Any time you see an ad, remember–tap in to your media literacy skills, ask questions, and think critically about what you’re told. Our advertising workshop is a great place to start, and it’s not too late to sign up.