Airborne Brand Can Stay Healthy, Experts Say

NEW YORK Consumers are likely to shrug off Airborne’s false advertising-related settlement this week and the brand will remain healthy, marketing experts say.

The company, which markets herbal supplements, agreed to pay more than $23 million in a class-action settlement over false claims in an ad, but that’s likely to be the extent of the damage, said Rob Frankel, a Los Angeles-based marketing consultant. “The stuff that generally kills a brand is endangerment, not ineffectiveness.”

Frankel added that the fact the product does not appear to cure colds, as the packaging previously stated, “is going to be countered by all these people that dump on Western medicine.”

Airborne, Pittsburgh, said its supplement was created by former second-grade teacher Victoria Knight-McDowell, who needed a remedy to fight germs and viruses. Since 1999, it has racked up hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

In February 2006, a report surfaced on Good Morning America that exposed Airborne’s clinical trial as a two-man operation without doctors or scientists. The same year, a class-action lawsuit was filed in California against the company when it was discovered that Airborne contains vitamins A, C and E, plus other nutrients found in most multivitamins, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, which is participating in the lawsuit.

Airborne has since changed its tactics, claiming instead that the supplement “boosts the immune system with seven herbal extracts and a proprietary blend of vitamins, electrolytes, amino acids and antioxidants.” It also agreed to refund consumers, who bought Airborne under pretenses that it fights colds, and pay for ads notifying consumers about the litigation in Better Homes & Gardens, Parade, People, Newsweek and other publications.

Stephen Gardner, director of litigation at the CSPI, said the outcome of the lawsuit is going to hurt Airborne because “now everyone is aware that Airborne is marketed through deception. Both supplement companies and food companies should be getting the message that nonsense claims about their products will get them in trouble.”

Airborne denies claims of any wrongdoing. Said a rep: “We have tens of thousands of satisfied customers who buy Airborne again and again. Since its inception, Airborne offered a 100 percent satisfaction guarantee . . . We reached the settlement to avoid mounting expenses related to the litigation. Airborne vigorously disputes the claims and continues to stay behind its denial of liability.”

But there are some groups that believe Airborne continues to falsely advertise its product since it’s still stocked on pharmacy shelves next to cold remedies and the packaging shows cartoon-like germs attacking people in public places. There is another lawsuit pending in federal court in New Jersey against Airborne. The plaintiffs in the case are represented by a group of consumer rights attorneys, who feel that a monetary settlement is not enough.

“We think it’s a bad deal for consumers,” said Jonathan Tycko of Tycko & Zavareei, a Washington law firm that is representing the plaintiffs. “The goal of this type of litigation shouldn’t just be about money. This litigation should be about stopping the company from bogus marketing of the product.”

Airborne is not the first company to be sued for false advertising. The CSPI last year filed a lawsuit against Coca-Cola and Nestle for “making fraudulent claims in marketing and labeling” for Enviga, an artificially sweetened green tea drink for weight loss. The lawsuit asserts that Enviga is not a “calorie burner” drink (as advertised), but rather a highly caffeinated and overpriced diet soda.

Airborne’s troubles also come after Pfizer pulled ads featuring artificial heart inventor Robert Jarvik promoting Lipitor after it was revealed that Jarvik, though a medical school graduate, is not licensed to practice medicine. Merck & Co. and Schering-Plough also pulled ads for the cholesterol drug Vytorin this year after The New York Times revealed the companies kept studies showing the drug was ineffective under wraps for more than a year.

In light of such news, Airborne’s false advertising claim will probably be quickly forgotten, asserted Laura Ries, partner of branding consultancy Ries & Ries, Great Neck, N.Y. “As a brand, Airborne has a lot of trust with consumers,” she said. “It has been immensely successful with its marketing and packaging. It also didn’t admit to wrongdoing, but I think the company did a smart thing by settling the case. Strong brands tend to survive and consumers are willing to forgive.”