Human beings haven’t changed all that much. We’d like to believe we’re smarter, that we’d be able to spot the lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its veneer of believability has only become more sophisticated over time. — Jason P. Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois
Human beings haven’t changed all that much. We’d like to believe we’re smarter, that we’d be able to spot the lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its veneer of believability has only become more sophisticated over time. — Jason P. Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois
A Century After Phony Flu Ads, Companies Hype Dubious Covid Cures
Musical medicine? Corona-fighting herbs? “Human beings haven’t changed all that much,” a marketing professor says of the similarities between ads from 1918 and recent months.

With a pandemic raging, a spate of ads promised dubious remedies in the form of lozenges, tonics, unguents, blood-builders and an antiseptic shield to be used while kissing.

That was in 1918, during the influenza outbreak that eventually claimed an estimated 50 million lives, including 675,000 in the United States.

More than a century later, not much has changed. Ads promoting unproven miracle cures — including intravenous drips, ozone therapy and immunity-boosting music — have targeted people trying to avoid the coronavirus pandemic.

“History is repeating itself,” said Roi Mandel, the head of research at the ancestry website MyHeritage, which recently unearthed and compared pandemic ads published generations apart. “So many things are exactly the same, even 102 years later, even after science has made such huge progress.”


This year, a company with a California address peddled products containing kratom, an herbal extract that has drawn concern from regulators and health experts, with the promise that it might “keep the coronavirus at bay.” The Food and Drug Administration sent the company a warning in May.

The claims are an echo from 1918, when an ad for Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets promised that the pills — made from “May-apple, leaves of aloe, jalap” — offered protection “against the deadly attack of the Spanish Influenza.”

... “Human beings haven’t changed all that much,” said Jason P. Chambers, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Illinois. “We’d like to believe we’re smarter, that we’d be able to spot the lies, but the ability of advertising to maintain its veneer of believability has only become more sophisticated over time.”

... “I’m not sure there’s a clear sense that this will get any better when the next pandemic comes along,” he said. “Companies are just selling the same old falsehoods in new packaging, and the incidents are only increasing. The regulations are getting better, but the process is still quite slow and budgets are quite thin. It’s a bit of a Whac-a-Mole problem.”