Marketers Promise to Make You a Muscle Man

Decades worth of supplement strength claims

For every industry whose marketing has undergone a revolution over the years, it’s always amusing to find the relative handful for whom time seems to have stood still. Case in point: the dietary supplements business. Sure, the models are better looking now, and pills have largely ceded the market to powders. But as the accompanying ads demonstrate, the same old sell is alive and well.

“These two ads and others I’ve seen all follow the same premise,” observed Joe Cannon, a noted health and nutrition counselor, lecturer and author (who also sports a Master’s in exercise science and a B.S. in chemistry and biology). “Back when I was a kid, you’d see the Charles Atlas ads inside of bubble gum wrappers showing the skinny kid getting sand kicked in his face. And they’d say: Just take this pill or powder and you’ll get big muscles too! What they’re not telling you is that you have to put the hard work in. It’s interesting to see how little things have changed from the 1930s to today.”

Fortunately for the average consumer, things have changed a little bit. In 1936, Allied Laboratories in New York was doing a brisk business selling something called Seedol Kelpamalt, a remarkable product that purportedly helped the skinny, weak, pale and nervous among us. But one look at the ad told the buyer all he really wanted to know: Take this pill, fella, and you’ll get big muscles.

Funny thing is, Kelpamalt’s principal ingredient was “a new mineral concentrate from the sea” (in other words, seaweed). Kelp was rich in iodine—but it didn’t help build muscles. “The thing that amazed me is that they were saying iodine was going to bulk you up,” Cannon said. “But it has just the opposite effect.” In fact, today iodine is often found in weight-loss remedies because it ramps up thyroid hormones, thereby increasing metabolism. Did Kelpamalt make you less weak, pale or nervous? “I doubt it,” Cannon said. Nevertheless, Kelpamalt was a fixture in the back pages of magazines in the 1930s, and there’s little doubt that plenty of hopeful, scrawny guys sent in for those wonder pills.

In the 77 years since, Americans have gotten savvier (if not healthier) about what they eat. Some 55 percent get regular exercise. And the 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement and Education Act has applied a few regulatory strictures to what can and can’t be said when it comes to this stripe of advertising. But if the 2013 ad for Muscletech’s Six Star Elite Series Whey Protein powder is any indication, the dream of being just scoops away from softball-sized biceps carries on unhindered.

In fairness to the Six Star folks, Cannon said, “there is research that shows whey protein can help muscles grow.” But apart from the fact that this ad came from a muscle mag, there’s only a passing reference in the tiny print that Ryan Schneider had to bust his ass to get this Michelangelo body. What’s more, Cannon’s skeptical that the powder is instrumental in a transformation like this. “You can get protein through food,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of us don’t need supplements.”

But alas, 99 percent of guys probably do want to look like Ryan, a fact sure to guarantee muscular revenues for the supplement brands.