Editor's note: For related a report on CBS Evening News, done in collaboration with BusinessWeek, click here, or go to CBS Evening News and search for resveratrol.
When Harvard University scientist David Sinclair discovered that a substance in red wine called resveratrol might explain the life-extending powers attributed to the beverage, he became an instant celebrity. Barbara Walters featured the youthful Australian in a 2008 ABC News TV special called Live to Be 150: Can You Do It? Sinclair also appeared on 60 Minutes and other news shows. In April 2008, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) bought Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, the company Sinclair co-founded, for $720 million.
The media interviews were celebrations of scientific discoveries, not product promotions. But to Sinclair's chagrin, he was quickly turned into a pitchman by companies selling resveratrol supplements on the Internet. Their ads, placed alongside search results when people typed in "anti-aging" or "resveratrol," contained links with titles such as "dr-sinclair-resveratrol.com." This particular site, which appeared on the Web in June, could fool the most savvy shopper into thinking Sinclair was selling the product. "If you have been following 60 Minutes, you would have seen my segment on resveratrol, and everything it can do for you," read the text beside a photo of Sinclair. "As mentioned, I take resveratrol myself, and love it."
The site offered a free trial to anyone who typed in their credit-card number. Those who tried to click off the ad were stopped by a large boxed message, which read: "Wait! Dr. Sinclair wants to make sure you take advantage of this limited time opportunity!"
The doctor never uttered any of the words attributed to him. In fact, Sinclair is the first to admit that the whole resveratrol story has never been clear-cut. Although that name is on the label of red-grape extracts sold in health food stores everywhere, such resveratrol pills have never been proven effective in large-scale clinical trials. Resveratrol probably has some effect, Sinclair says. His lab showed that mice fed the chemicals live at least 15% longer than normal mice. But to get such benefits, human beings might have to consume up to 5 grams of resveratrol a day, he says. That's about 80 pills, at doses found in a typical bottle.
All this helps explain why resveratrol concoctions have never been endorsed by Sinclair, Sirtris, or Glaxo. The compounds Glaxo is currently developing aren't resveratrol at all; they're synthesized molecules that appear to have a much more potent biological effect—at least in lab animals. What's more, Glaxo's drugs based on Sinclair's work aren't being tested against aging, but rather to treat diseases common in the elderly such as cancer and diabetes. Asked about the resveratrol ads invoking Sinclair and Sirtris, Glaxo spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne said: "We're investigating the situation."
"Free" Trials FWM Laboratories of Hollywood, Fla., which sells Resveratrol Ultra, is behind many of the ads—and has taken the brunt of customers' ire. The company sells monthly subscriptions to a handful of supplements, including açai, a Brazilian berry it promotes as a weight-loss treatment. A recent search on consumer site Complaintsboard.com brought up 1,200 posts from agitated FWM customers. The company offers 15-day free trials, but many customers don't realize the trials start when they type in their credit-card numbers, not when they receive their first shipment. It's in the fine print of the "terms and conditions" document on the company's Web site, but that can be hard to find. Some customers report that they continue to incur monthly charges long after they cancel. And when they call FWM's 800 number to complain, they're often put on hold interminably.
FWM CEO Brian Weiss says FWM doesn't create the ads, approve them, or place them on the Net. It delegates those tasks to ad networks, which the company pays to spread the word about its products. He declined to name which networks FWM uses. As for the content of the ads, Weiss says: "We don't control them." But he adds that he has five employees who troll the Internet all day for improper promotions. If they find any, they contact the network's managers and ask them to "please cease this immediately."
Internet marketing abuses have been around since the birth of the Web, but few match resveratrol when it comes to entangling dubious products with specious celebrity endorsements. Oprah Winfrey and Mehmet Oz, a Columbia University medical professor who appears regularly on her show, have both been invoked in resveratrol ads, as has TV chef Rachael Ray. The ads, served up by Google (GOOG) and other search engines, sometimes pop up as "sponsored links" on health portals and even on legitimate Web sites associated with the celebrities. And there's little these luminaries have been able to do about it—a problem that highlights certain flaws in the controversial ad-placement software used by Google and some of its competitors.
It is true Oprah and others have talked excitedly about resveratrol. Clips of these animated discussions are sometimes embedded in the Internet ads and then linked to specific products the celebrities never mention. One ad, for example, gushes: "Resveratrol Ultra is one of the most popular products. It has been featured over and over again on 60 Minutes, the Dr. Oz show, CNN, NBC and The New York Times." (It has not.)
Spokespeople for CBS (CBS), Winfrey, Oz, and Ray say their legal teams are pursuing the companies making false claims. Winfrey has posted a notice on her Web site telling fans that neither she nor Oz has endorsed any product or "online solicitation." Barbara Walters—who is seen in many of the ads schmoozing with Sinclair at his Harvard lab during last year's TV special—is not happy, either. "Bottom line: We don't like it. We try to stop it. We'll keep fighting it," says Jeffrey Schneider, senior vice-president at ABC News.
Even people who should know better have been snookered by the fake celebrity endorsements. Himani Vejandla, a PhD student in physiology at West Virginia University, ordered what she thought was a free sample of Resveratrol Ultra in June. She was reading a medical article on WebMD (WBMD) when the ad popped up, and she was impressed that experts such as Sinclair and Oz supposedly endorsed the product. But she got suspicious when the shipment arrived with no information about how to return the pills. Then FWM charged her $87.13—not once, but twice. When she complained, the company returned the first payment, but she had to file a claim with her bank to try to recover the second one after FWM's customer service people told her they had no record of the charge. "They're literally ripping people off," Vejandla says.
Florida's Better Business Bureau (BBB), which has also been inundated with complaints about FWM, slapped the company with an F rating. And the Florida Attorney General's Economic Crimes Div. in West Palm Beach has launched an investigation.
FWM's Weiss declined to comment on the investigation. He says the customer service gripes are "older complaints" and that the one-year-old company now has 24/7 phone and Web support. As for the BBB rating, he says: "We respond to every inquiry that comes from them. Their Web site isn't accurate." Regardless of Weiss' responses, says Michael Galvin, a spokesman for the BBB in Miami, "We have serious concerns about his sales techniques. He'll still have an F."
Holes in the Screen Google has not been effective at screening out fake celebrity endorsements disseminated via its popular AdWords program. Through AdWords, companies bid on the placement of their promotions in searches and sponsored links and pay only when Web surfers click on their ads. The program accounted for most of Google's $22 billion in revenues last year. On June 15, Google formally allowed companies to cite registered trademarks in ads, including celebrity names they don't own. The point was to enable legitimate commerce: An online shoe store, for example, can attract traffic by using trademarks such as Nike (NKE).
Even so, Google says it tries to block ads that make false claims and push credit-card schemes. It recently banned false celebrity endorsements, too. The company uses automated and manual processes to weed these out. When asked why so many are getting through, a spokeswoman says: "We're doing our best."
Harvard's Sinclair wishes Glaxo, or perhaps lawyers representing the celebrities, would do more to try to stop the ads. But he may actually have opened the door to the abuse last year when he joined the scientific advisory board of Shaklee, in Pleasanton, Calif. Shaklee sells Vivix Cellular Anti-Aging Tonic, which contains resveratrol. Sinclair says he quit the post when other companies started using his name and likeness. He's opposed, he says, "to any use of my name to sell products."
Business Exchange: Read, save, and add content on BW's new Web 2.0 topic networkCBS-BW CollaborationIn a joint investigation with BusinessWeek, the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric explores the problem of supplements sold on the Net, a growing area of credit-card abuse.To read more, go to cbsnews.com, or visit http://bx.businessweek.com/anti-aging-business/reference Bogus Berry Elixer?The Center for Science in the Public Interest has issued a report on the Brazilian berry açai. Extracts of the berry are sold as weight-loss aids, but the center found no evidence it works and spotted bogus "before and after" photos on blogs.For more stories, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/anti-aging-business/reference