PILL MARKETERS GO TO ANY LENGTHS TO MAKE PROFIT ON THE WEB
Every medium seems to have its signature hucksters, with advertising messages that are annoying, repetitive, improbable - yet somehow successful.
Ads in American comic books once promoted Charles Atlas's Dynamic-Tension exercise programs. And in today's online world, if an e-mail subject line says. "Does Size Matter?" or "Increase Your Self Esteem," odds are it involves an offer for pills promising to enlarge your penis - if you have one.
The pills are profitable - they cost as little as $2.50 a bottle to produce but sell for $50 a bottle or more - and the marketing mechanism is cheap: an elaborate sales effort of millions of unsolicited e-mail messages, or spam, each day.
Carrying medically impossible promise, a few million bottles of the pills are sold annually by at least 50 companies, according to pill makers and dealers, producing revenue of more than $100 million a year for the so-called "male enhancement" industry.
"Every man feels he could use a little more sexual power, size and stamina," said Gil Gerstein, co-owner of Eye Five, based in Van Nuys, California, the maker of VP-RX, one of the most widely advertised brands. As the penis enlargement messages and others like them have become a staple of online marketers, this deluge of spam is no small factor in a bipartisan push for new U.S. federal legislation to restrict unsolicited e-mail.
But as Congress considers laws to crack down on spam, the decentralized structure of the e-mail marketing industry shows how difficult the task will be. Most pill makers, like Eye Five, sell their products indirectly, through thousands of independent affiliates, a technique pioneered online by Amazon.com. Often, a dozen affiliates end up mailing the same message to similar lists of e-mail addresses, confounding millions of computer users - including women.
The spammers themselves are generally very small outfits that hide by bouncing their messages off computers in laxly regulated countries.
The pill makers are more visible, but insist that they have strict policies against spamming by their affiliates. They concede, though, that spammers often evade those policies.
"It is impossible for us to control the marketing of all aspects of our products," Gerstein said. The pills are typically the same cocktail of herbal ingredients - like yohimbe bark and horny goat weed - that are sold in health food stores as sexual stimulants. These ingredients may indeed affect sexual arousal, though not as much as prescription drugs like Viagra, said Dr. John Bancroft, who runs the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University. But they cannot permanently change the size or shape of a body part, he said. Critical to the success of the herbal-pill makers was the approval of Pfizer Inc.'s Viagra by U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998, and the mass-marketing campaign for the drug. "Pfizer opened the door by putting erectile dysfunction on prime-time television," said Malcolm Casselle, chief executive of Elima Biotronic, the maker of Opus-X, an herbal concoction that is marketed as increasing sexual pleasure. The first penis enlargement pills were introduced about five years ago by companies like CP Direct Inc. of Phoenix, maker of Longitude. They were sold in men's magazines and on late-night TV, but soon migrated to the Web.
People who had lists of e-mail addresses could count on being paid $20 to $50 for each pill order, with the distributors providing the graphics and sales pitches used in the e-mail messages. "You only need to take in $150 a day to break even," said Michael Clark, managing partner of HerbalPartners.com, which sells more than 300,000 bottles a year of Herbal Vigor pills. "If you can send out 10 million e-mails a day from your bedroom, and you make $50 a bottle, you can make a decent profit."