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Month: April 2021

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Celebrity sells medicines – then and now

Seeing the steady stream of celebrities being used to encourage us to have our COVID vaccinations reminded me of a story I wrote about an early use of celebrity endorsement which helped successfully launch a new treatment.


If Beyoncé and Jay Z may be America’s “it” couple now, if you went back to the mid 1930’s it would have been FDR Jr and Ethel Du Pont.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr was a Harvard student and the eldest son of the President of the United States. Ethel du Pont was the heir to the du Pont family fortune and so one of the richest socialites of her day. The paparazzi loved them and followed them to every event they attended, and their pictures filled the society pages.

Attending the Hock Popo Ski Club party at the Agawam Hunt Club, Rhode Island, in November 1936 was nothing out of the ordinary. Nor, at first, was the sore throat and slight cough that FDR Jr complained of the next day. It hadn’t even been bad enough for him and Ethel to leave the party early.

However, things soon changed. The throat got worse and a few days later FDR Jr had a fever and was put to bed. Just before Thanksgiving, and now diagnosed with an acute sinus infection he was admitted to the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Still nothing too much out of the ordinary or so everyone thought. He was a strong young man, and with some rest and something to take the fever down all would be well again.

Only it wasn’t. The infection didn’t clear up and in fact got worse. He remained in hospital. His mother, Eleanor Roosevelt was getting more and more worried and insisted on a new doctor, a top doctor specializing in ear, nose and throat.

Checking over his new patient the doctor was very concerned, there was a tender spot under his cheek which looked like it was infected and the beginnings of an abscess. He immediately took a sample and discovered a highly dangerous strain of strep, one that could release poisons and other infections into the blood stream. If that happened it could ultimately lead to the death of the President’s son.

While the White House medical staff considered the option of a risky surgical procedure, the new doctor remembered reading some reports about a new drug, Prontosil, developed by Bayer in Germany. The reports spoke of near miraculous results and initial tests at John Hopkins were also very positive.

He recommended it to Mrs. Roosevelt.

At first, she wasn’t sure but having read more about it and in the face of the still worsening condition of her son, she agreed.

Some carefully wrapped glass phials were duly shipped from Germany to the USA.

The doctor gave him a dose and followed it with further doses every hour.

Ethel sat in the room with FDR Jr, his mother sat outside working on correspondence. At first nothing seemed to be happening and the hours seem to stretch on and on but in the morning, things started to change.

The swelling around the abscess looked like it was shrinking. FDR Jr was sleeping better and seemed to have more energy when he was awake. Later that day his fever broke.

The doctors were amazed; never before, had they seen a strep case that was resolved so well and so quickly.

FDR Jr was released a few days after Christmas.

He would later marry Ethel (the first of his five wives), be decorated for his service in WWII and go onto serve three terms in Congress.

However, what he also did was prove that celebrity sells. Headlines in The New York Times and other prominent newspapers, the story of his recovery, and the role of the new wonder drug, heralded the start of the era of antibacterial chemotherapy in the United States.

MORAL: Celebrity sells. Is there a role for celebrity endorsement in your marketing?

Footnote: Eleanor Roosevelt had her own brush with celebrity endorsement. She agreed to do a commercial for Good Luck Margarine in which she said, “The new Good Luck Margarine really tastes delicious.” Not only did the brand fail, it wasn’t all good news for Mrs. Roosevelt either. Asked about it some time later she recalled getting a sack full of letters in which “one half was sad because I had damaged my reputation and the other were happy that I had damaged my reputation.”   

It’s just a game – Lumosity

It’s just a game – Lumosity

‘Medicine’ and ‘fun’ don’t sound like they go together. Medicine is all about science, laboratories and research. It’s serious and professional. On the other hand, ‘fun’ is about playing games and laughter. It’s light-hearted and enjoyable.

However, it’s the clever combination of the two that has led to the development and marketing of a brand which 14 years after its launch has over 100 million members.

The brand employs everyone from neuroscientists to visual artists.

The brand is Lumosity and its parent company is Lumos Labs.

Mike Scanlon is, by training, a neuroscientist- a specialist in brain plasticity; the brain’s ability to modify its own structure and function following changes within the body or in the external environment. It’s an interest which he recognizes was in part motivated by his family history. Both his grandmothers suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

He had moved to California after college to further study neuroscience at Stanford and while there he got in touch with Kunal Sarkar an old college friend who was living in San Francisco and working at a private-equity firm.

The friends got together often and talked about the possibility to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity to improve cognitive abilities. The basis of the idea was what we now know as ‘gamification’, a concept that was already being applied in other marketing sectors. They wondered if they could take brain training to the next level.

Scanlon recognized that for years researchers has created tasks to measure cognitive abilities. These were most often used during in-person studies in a lab using pen and paper. Their idea was simple – could scientists and game designers work together to turn common cognitive and neuropsychological research tasks into exciting games which hopefully would improving the user’s brain’s ability in a way that felt like fun, not hard work?

In 2005, Sarkar quit his job, Scanlon took a leave of absence from Stanford, and they teamed up with Dave Drescher, a technology expert with the aim of creating a palette of online games said to help sharpen memory, attention, and other brain functions.

Their classic games have clear links back to well-known scientific tests.

Lumosity’s Color Match is inspired by the Stroop Test, a classic task first published in 1935. It measures your ability to focus on the difference between naming a color used in the letterforms of a word, even if the text of the word conveys a different color. Color Match tests should, over time, improve your ability to suppress your response to what the word says and focus on how the word looks. It challenges your response inhibition: the ability to quash inappropriate responses that get in the way of your goal.

Lost in Migration is based on the 1974 Flanker Task, which challenges selective attention: your ability to ignore distracting details and focus only on the target. Just like the original Flanker Task, Lost in Migration challenges you to respond to the central target — in this case, a bird — and ignore distracting information from the surrounding flankers. launched in 2007 and since then has grown rapidly.

The team see links with academia as vital for the long-term future, not least because they are still seeking strong independent research that their games do actually deliver improvements. Therefore, Lumos Labs is involved in the Human Cognition Project which has partnerships with more than 100 different collaborators at University level. This partnership allows qualified research professionals to make use of the tools and tasks available through Lumosity in order to assist them in conducting studies.

One other challenge that this interesting melting pot of expertise raises is how engineers, designers, artists and researchers can work side by side to create effective products and services, despite different mindsets, goals and timelines. Research is measured in years, game development in months.

According to Scanlon, “The one key thing that has really helped to resolve a lot of those challenges is that everyone has the same mission at the end of the day. I think everyone at our company is in part there because they believe in the mission of improving people’s brain health. So, you can resolve a lot of conflict by taking a step back.” Scanlon as a non-marketer may not realize it but he is expressing a well-known marketing principle namely the need for a clear brand purpose.

MORAL: Who knew medicine can be ‘fun’. How could you use gamification in your product and service development?