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Folk Remedies and the Arrogance of Knowledge

Backup of a drawing for Cold Call in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, January 8, 2006.

"Why a remedy created by a novice can seem more trustworthy than one created by experts."

Cold Call, by Rob Walker

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 8, 2006
Latest Update: January 8, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Backup of Cold Call
By Rob Walker
SOURCE: New York Times Magazine
Copyright: Source Copyright.
Included here under Fair Use Doctrine for teaching purposes.
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January 8, 2006
Cold Call


Packages of Airborne, found in the cough-and-cold aisle of major chains like CVS, Rite Aid and Wal-Mart, proudly proclaim that the product was "Created by a School Teacher!" This seems a little odd. Don't we want to fight our seasonal ailments with things created by, for instance, doctors and scientists? Apparently not all of us do: Airborne is extremely successful, and its creation by someone without the slightest medical expertise or qualification is almost certainly a factor in its success.

For one thing, it makes for an excellent creation story. In the late 1990's, Victoria Knight-McDowell, an elementary-school teacher in Spreckels, Calif., grew weary of picking up colds from her students and began "researching Chinese and holistic medicine and the use of herbs and vitamins to boost the immune system," an official company history explains. She and her husband then decided to market her "natural formula of 17 ingredients" in 1997. They used the money her husband had made selling a television script. They handed out samples in malls and gradually got distribution in various stores. Kevin Costner became one of many celebrities to declare his confidence in the product. In 2000, Knight-McDowell gave up her teaching gig, and by 2004 annual sales hit $90 million. Along the way, Knight-McDowell appeared on "Dr. Phil," and Airborne was discussed on "Live With Regis and Kelly" and other shows.

In March 2005, Airborne brought in Elise Donahue, a former executive for Prestige Brands and Procter & Gamble, as C.E.O. She says that Airborne buyers feel that "if a schoolteacher who's around germy little kids all the time can find something that keeps her from getting sick," then her solution should work for them too. Similarly, the cartoon characters on the package lend a friendly, almost nonmedicinal aura to the product that stands out in the cough-and-cold aisle. (Although it stands out just a bit less lately, since drugstore chains and others have introduced copycat products with cartoon-character packaging.) The silly cartoon feel has carried over into Airborne's first TV advertisements.

People also must use Airborne because it works, or rather because they believe it works. Technically, Airborne is a dietary supplement (you're supposed to take it "at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded environments"), meaning that it does not require Food and Drug Administration testing and approval. As the package disclaimer notes, it is "not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." As with many supplements, there is no independent scientific evidence of Airborne's medicinal value. But many people continue to buy the herbal supplement echinacea, despite many studies (including one in The New England Journal of Medicine) saying it does nothing to ward off or treat colds.

Apart from the power of the placebo effect, this consumer indifference to scientific proof brings up the critical issue of trust and, perhaps more important, distrust. The medical establishments of the 18th and 19th centuries sparred with folk remedies, too; of course, establishment methods of the time included bleeding and phrenology. Some consumers, then as now, clearly distrust official, orthodox methods. And let's face it, the current reputation of the people who do have expertise in the concoction of remedies is not so great. The astonishing onslaught of consumer advertising for pharmaceuticals in recent years has more recently been followed by an onslaught of safety concerns and lawsuits. Merck, a heroic company just a few years ago, now calls to mind Vioxx lawsuits and trials. Consumer groups paint the pharma giants as shameless profiteers. "We're losing the battle for consumer trust," a top Bayer executive confessed to The Wall Street Journal last year.

Airborne - which, Donahue points out, is positioned as a mainstream product, not as an "alternative medicine" - is not against pharmaceutical companies or anyone else. It is simply for something that happens to have been invented by a nonexpert. But it probably benefits from distrust of medical authority and faith in a certain kind of folk wisdom just the same. Donahue acknowledges that, for instance, the phrase "Created by a Journalist!" might not be such a great marketing device. "People trust a schoolteacher," she says.

Copyright 2006The New York Times Company

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