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May 6th, 2009
09:45 PM ET

Profiting from panic?

Eliza Browning
AC360° Associate Producer

The swine flu hysteria appears to be fading – at least for now.

Despite news this week that a second person in the United States, Judy Trunnell of Texas, died while infected with the H1N1 virus, U.S. and Mexican officials hope the worst may be over.

The latest World Health Organization count puts the total number of confirmed cases at 1,516 in 22 countries and 30 deaths. Officials are still recommending that individuals take precautions, but in the U.S. schools were urged not to close. Newly appointed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said scientists believe that the flu strain is no more dangerous than seasonal flu, and that schools should act accordingly.

And flu fears, stirred up by daily updates from the WHO, the Obama administration and news media, now appear to be waning.

But even a few days of flu frenzy can be fodder for the most brazen of entrepreneurs.

Last week in New York, Alan Wolan – who runs a marketing agency – was taking his son to school on the subway, when he noticed a commuter wearing a surgical mask.

And he immediately had an idea.

Wolan’s firm, GoGorilla Media, works with advertisers to spot new trends and develop unique advertising strategies. So it’s no surprise that Wolan saw the swine flu hysteria as an opportunity, and the surgical mask as prime real estate for advertising.

Why not turn them into marketing tools?

“I’m in the business of coming up with novel ways to advertise,” Wolan told me, “We advertise on dollar bills, sidewalks. This is what I think of in my free time.”

At work, Wolan fired off a pitch to clients. It promised advertisers, “an opportunity to contribute to consumers’ health while alt the same time getting their message across in a lively, fun and sure-to-be-talked about way.”

“It was just plausible enough," said Wolan, “Kind of tongue-in-cheek, but I thought maybe one advertiser would be ‘kooky’ enough to jump on it.”

But the idea backfired.

Almost immediately, the inboxes of Wolan’s four sales representatives were flooded with complaints, calling the idea “insensitive.”

Less than five hours later, Wolan sent out an email apologizing to clients.

“In hindsight, the concept was not as clever as I had originally thought,” he wrote. “I did not intend for it to make light of the recent swine flu outbreak and regret any anguish we caused you.”

But even though the idea itself didn’t get much traction, Wolan’s company did.

Interest in GoGorilla Media has spiked, he says. “We’re getting a ton of hits to our website,” said Wolan. “And we’ve had many more RFPs (requests for business proposals) in the past few days than I can remember.”

Dan Gardner, author of “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear,” isn’t surprised. He studies how humans perceive risk and how media and marketers can perpetuate fear. He says the swine flu panic is a classic example of how some industries capitalize on the public’s fears.

When the media report on something, Gardner says, it gets on the public radar. “And then ‘fear mongerers’ [those who spread the perception of fear] latch onto it and it’s in the public consciousness – which, in turn, encourages the media to do more reporting,” Gardner said. He calls it the feedback loop.

“We’re social animals,” says Gardner. “What other people are talking about matters enormously to how we prioritize things. When everyone stops on the sidewalk to look up, what do you do, you stop and look up.”

And Gardner says the H1N1 flu strain was a textbook case because it involved germs – which he says play into our deepest fears.

“It’s easy for marketers and media to capitalize on the fear of germs – or ‘germaphobia,’ because you don’t actually have to prove they’re there. Take a look at Purell – that product is solely based on a fear of germs.”

Since the outbreak of the swine flu virus, sales of Purell, the antibacterial hand sanitizer have spiked. And lately everywhere you turn there is someone carrying around a bottle of hand sanitizer. It’s become a fixture next to cash registers in some retail stores.

Lori Dolginoff, the Director of Communications for Johnson & Johnson – the company that owns Purell - said that she couldn’t release specific numbers for recent sales of Purell, but production has accelerated. “We have noticed a significant increase in demand from retailers,” she added.

ReStockit.com, one of the leading online retailers of cleaning, janitorial and office supplies, reports that Purell sales have increased more than 200 percent, while orders for liquid foam soap, masks and other germ-fighting products have also gone up.

A simple search on Amazon.com ranks surgical masks and hand sanitizers in the Top Seller lists for the health category. And the descriptions for some products have been changed to include phrases like, “Swine Flu protection.” Another example of quick-response marketing.

“We are seeing an increase in customers purchasing surgical masks and hand sanitizer since the flu outbreak,” said Megan Hurd, of Amazon.com. The top sellers for the past 10 days have been products such as masks and first aid kits which include “swine flu protection” in their descriptions.

Kimberly Clark says sales of its popular surgical mask "n95" have also spiked - and not just in areas actlually hit by the flu.

“We’ve seen demand for our n95 masks grow significantly on a global basis, mainly from clients like governmental agencies, hospitals and clinics.” Dickson says the company has ramped up its production to meet customer demand.

Ironically, the majority of manufacturing facilities that produce surgical masks are based in Mexico. Let’s hope its workers haven’t had to call in sick.

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Terry, TX

    The point of the article is what.... you want a mask...cleaning supplies.. you pay for it...is that something you want the American taxpayer to pay for along with all the rest of the welfare/entitilement programs. I don't where this article was going...good to know some companies who don't have bailouts are doing just fine...thank you.

    May 7, 2009 at 11:41 am |
  2. Cathy

    Why is it wrong? If a company puts its logo on the mask and distributes it free of charge where is the harm in that?

    If it was advrtising a funeral service OK that would be tacky.

    AIDS campaigns hand out free condoms. Why not hand out free masks?

    May 7, 2009 at 10:22 am |
  3. Richard Berln

    Reading Ms. Browning's article reassures me that capitalism is alive and well in our United States. I expect we'll be seeing Chanel emblazoned surgical masks any day now in Hollywood and New York City.

    I have to fly down to Florida next week and I hope I'll be able to sport a Red Sox surgical mask to wear on the plane along with my "Big B" baseball cap.

    I wonder if Ms. Browning is sporting a surgical mask? Would it serve to protect her from H1 N1 virus or to hide her tongue buried in her cheek?

    May 7, 2009 at 10:15 am |
  4. Dean Schindler

    I guess I look at things a bit differently than most people. The economy is in the toilet, and that is not a secret. If this company is still going to sell the face mask that will protect people, and it happens to have a logo on it, what is the harm? Companies sell knit ski caps to keep people from catching a cold with logos on them, cars are made to keep people safer with logos on them, even the hand sanitizers that are referenced use the 'germ fighting' swine flu as a way to keep yourself clean in these troublesome times. Why shouldn't people gain from the process and why do others look down on them for doing so? It is not like this gentleman set out to infect people with the Swine flu...he is still protecting people...it is just that he is making a little cash in the process.
    I think there are more important things to be worried about than who is making a few bucks off of something that is oh the hotlist at the moment anyway...like focusing on how to prevent this from happening again. Get to the root cause of the situation...not just using a bandaide approach.

    May 7, 2009 at 8:55 am |
  5. Kelly St. john

    drug companies are profiting here. scare people into thinking theres an epidemic and poor funds into vaccines that will eventually be just like any other flu which kills 30-40k a year. we've had 1 american. whoopty f'in do

    May 6, 2009 at 11:54 pm |
  6. Art

    It's always about money, to bad.

    May 6, 2009 at 8:03 pm |
  7. Judi in Illinois

    I've long believed that the media is more involved in "making" news than in reporting it. This latest fiasco simply exemplifies the fact. I saw a report over the weekend (wish I remembered who was talking), where one of the commentators mentioned the profit incentive of the media. He was dead on! And while the other commentators were saying things like "we've tried to be very balanced in our reporting...giving people the latest CDC recommendations, trying to tame the potential hysteria...if you look at all of our 20 something reports, you'll see that's true". And, since I watched many of those reports, I DID see that it was true. However, that's the 20 SOMETHING REPORTS....the killer, though, was in the MANY HUNDREDS OF SOUND BITES meant to lure people to watch those reports. On those sound bites (and MANY people never do watch the whole report...the only impression they have of what's happening is in the soundbite promo!) "pandemic", "schools throughout Mexico are closing...are we next???", "could this be the next killer flu?", "worldwide epidemic", "no cure".

    Now, listend to that a few hundred times and tell me the media provides "balance" in its reporting!

    May 6, 2009 at 7:52 pm |
  8. Tiffany

    Can't say that i'm really surprised that some moron came up with an idea to make money based on the nation's fears....but isn't that how the media makes it's money as well?

    May 6, 2009 at 7:44 pm |
  9. Bryan G.

    Insightful, very well written piece

    May 6, 2009 at 7:41 pm |
  10. Annie Kate

    If the swine flu was really bad and spreading at a rate that health organizations and such believed it would last week, I don't think any of us would care if our face masks had a message on them – particularly if it meant we got the face mask for free (that way those on low incomes don't have to worry about yet another cost). All I would care about if we needed to wear face masks is that they were well made and worked the way they were suppose to and didn't tear up easily.

    May 6, 2009 at 7:26 pm |
  11. Isabel

    The avalanche of news about the swine flu is decreasing as well as the interest of people. I just fear that people neglect and the situation backwards.

    I don't think the idea is insensitive.
    There are taste (and bad taste) to everything in life!

    May 6, 2009 at 6:45 pm |
  12. Peter Kraft

    Great article.

    May 6, 2009 at 6:04 pm |
  13. Melissa

    I think its despicable to make a profit out of someone elses fears and misfortune especially in an instance like this one.

    May 6, 2009 at 5:10 pm |
  14. Sharon Kitchen

    other folks might make a profit......not here in this lttle spot in Georgia....where they will charge you for going to a doctor.......but the do Not even do a nose swab.......not even something this simple.
    so......are people that have been terribly ill still infecting others???
    join us in little Glynn County,McIntosh county in Georgia.........find out for yourself...........someone will write it down somewhere.......I guess.
    If you become ill......someone will get you to the only hospital.....wait they like the clinics will not be taking any swabs until next year.......so better wait........that is o.k. though.......right?

    May 6, 2009 at 4:54 pm |