Vicks and their Tricks

Science, truth

Oh I despise advertisers. They’re such liars! (Or at least perverters of the truth.)

They make people buy stuff they don’t need with money they don’t have.



Consider Vicks First Defence, a product featured in a Tube ad I saw the other day, which incited my hatred by claiming “to attack the cold virus”.

“What a load of absolute bollocks” I thought, knowing that the cold virus (or rhinovirus, rhino meaning ‘nose’, rhinoceros meaning ‘nose of horn’) comes in hundreds of different variants and there aren’t any antiviral agents for colds.

Wanting to give Vicks the benefit of the doubt, I went to their website to glean some more information. And I find this:

Vicks First Defence is clinically proven to significantly reduce the incidence of cold. In a survey* conducted amongst consumers in the United Kingdom, over 88 percent claimed that they did not catch a cold, or their cold was less severe than usual after using the product.

* P&G UK Usage and Attitude Study, 90 respondents, March 2006

Now, I wasn’t 100% sure what clinically proven means, and I can’t find any reliable source on the web to help me out, but one person replying to a question on this subject says:

It means (usually) that there was more than one controlled study. “Clinically shown” means there was only one study.

The studies are not overseen or rated by any governmental agency, such as the FDA, unless so stated.

So basically, it means nothing…Doing a clinical trial with a small number of observations will greatly increase the chance of observing some wanted fact 100% of the time.

Which is what I thought – “clinically proven” means sod all; it’s a phrase invented to deliberately mislead people. I’ll pick out three reasons to mistrust the claims of the product from the marketing blurb quoted above:

  1. Small trial size – for a proper trial, you need hundreds of people, not just 90. Notice they start off saying “clinically proven” then move imperceptibly onto “survey” quoting the details in an asterisked footnote that most people don’t bother to read (or can’t read, because it’s so small)
  2. Subjective – this ‘trial’ measures the opinion of people in a survey.  It’s based on how people feel and not on observable fact. That doesn’t constitute Proof.
  3. Subtle – so, over 88 percent (which = 80 of the 90 people) claimed that they did not catch a cold, or their cold was less severe than usual after using the product? That’s basically the same thing as saying that 88% of people who ate Ready Brek for breakfast claimed they didn’t get hungry, or that their hunger was less severe than usual after using the product. Big deal! Most of them probably didn’t have a cold in the first place!
  4. Significant – they claim a “significant” reduction in the incidence of colds. Well, if you check out the Times Online article about the product, it says:

In one trial, 70 healthy volunteers were dosed with a rhinovirus that causes a cold. Among those treated with a placebo, 79 per cent developed a cold, whereas 57 per cent of those treated with First Defence did. First Defence also reduced the severity of symptoms.

In a second trial on 400 volunteers, it was tested against naturally acquired colds. The volunteers were asked to start their treatment four times a day as soon as they experienced cold symptoms. Those using First Defence recovered in an average of 6.1 days, compared with 7.2 days for those using a placebo and 8.9 days for those taking no treatment. Although this is far from a cure, it is an improvement that may justify the £6.99 that the treatment will cost.

So, it does have some effect. But, on their website it says that “Vicks First Defence attacks colds at their source, removing the virus before it has a chance to develop.” Cutting down the duration of a cold from 9 days to 6 days is NOT the removal of the virus before it has a chance to develop, is it?

One final thing. The Times Online article explains that Vicks First Defence isn’t a pharmaceutical product – it works by enveloping the cold virus in a sort of gel, and irritating the nose so that you snot it out trapped in the gel. That’s fine. If something works, it works. However, Vicks don’t bother to tell us that it’s not a drug product. My cynical side would say that it is in Vicks’ interests to keep quiet about this, as it probably enhances the placebo effect if the people buying it think it’s effective. It’s also very incoincidental that the £6.99 cost for VFD is so close to the current NHS prescription charge of £6.85.

OK, well that’s my rant over. I’ll never be in PR/advertising/marketing/selling because I hate it when people lie.


4 thoughts on “Vicks and their Tricks

  1. I had an extremely bad reaction to using First Defence. The “irritiation” of the nose was causing intense pain by the third dose so I stopped. The pain was actually much worse than any cold I have had and I went straight from having a tickle at the back of my throat to having a painful throat infection. Many other people posting comments about this product also seem to have severe reactions (though they do seem to be the minority)

  2. Thanks for this! I’ve been well into this stuff cause I’ve had an insane amount of colds.

    So far in 6 months I have had 5 colds. That means first defense could potentially save 15 days of my life 😛 Been trying very hard to see if there is anything in it. It seems there is something in it, not much but possibly worth £5

  3. I have used Vicks First Defence for a couple of years now and haven’t had a full blown cold since so it definitely works for me. I might be the minority but if it works for me, I’m happy!

  4. I’ve been using first defence for years. OK its not that pleasant to use, but I’m convinced it works. Now, I’m a research scientist, so I understand a little about how its supposed to work, and it sounds feasible. However, nor would I underestimate the power of the placebo effect – so I keep telling myself it works, and it does! Make your own decision – but I wouldnt be without it.

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