Apply Liberally: Consumers Use Products as They See Fit


Preparation H is generally not something you'd dab on while waiting in line outside a Manhattan dance club, but according to recent media coverage, that's exactly what some men are doing. They're using the hemorrhoids cream, however, well north of where it's intended: on their torsos and arms to appear more muscular.

According to reports on ABC News and numerous blogs, among other places, this may yield results, since shrinking nearby tissue may make muscles appear more defined.

It's hardly the first time Prep H has been used for an odd purpose. Newsweek reported in 1975 that the "newest cosmetic fad" was to use the product to reduce puffiness under eyes, and the claim has been widely reported (and disputed) in publications and online ever since. More recently, as evidenced by thousands of mentions online, the product has been suggested for treating just-tattooed skin.

Prep H is just one of countless brands, ranging from Bounce and Arm & Hammer baking soda to Vaseline petroleum jelly, used in ways not advertised by manufacturers.

Not everyone embraces the innovative uses.

"We don't approve or endorse any off-label uses of our products, including Preparation H," says Millicent Brooks, a representative at Prep H parent company, Wyeth Consumer Healthcare. "We have certain quality-control standards at Wyeth, where unless it has been thoroughly tested, we wouldn't endorse the use or promote it."

Consumers have always used -- or misused -- products however they see fit. And they've always shared their discoveries (that Hellmann's mayonnaise, say, works as a hair conditioner), albeit in limited ways. But when it comes to products these days, the ubiquity of blogs and online inquiries means people are increasingly going public with alternative uses.

"A big part of these social networks is people asking open-ended questions and sharing insights, and it's uncovering these nuggets of off-label uses," says Rohit Bhargava, svp at Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence.

The question for marketers, then, is whether or not to promote these uses -- and if you do promote them, how not to undermine the products' established strengths.

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