the winter months, there is one thing that strikes fear into people more than
nasty weather ever could: the common cold. Scientists and health technicians are
constantly looking for ways to help alleviate the symptoms of colds or prevent
this incurable virus. But for all the years they've tried and all the treatments
they've created, no cure exists. The public is left with no choice but to constantly
wash their hands after they touch a doorknob, have tissues ready at a moment's
notice, or stay away from friends and loved ones who have fallen victim to the
plague that winter has brought.
Now, however, there seems to be something that works. You may have seen Oprah
Winfrey talking about it on her famous talk show. Or maybe you are a Howard Stern
fan and heard him singing the praises of this new medicine on his radio talk show.
Perhaps you thought Barry Williams, otherwise known as Bobby Brady from "The Brady
Bunch," was funny in those commercials, and you are asking yourself, "Does that
stuff really work?" Do A-list and B-list celebrities have access to some sort
of miracle product that stops the cold dead in its tracks?
Its name is Airborne, a multivitamin that is an herbal remedy. Some may say it
is a miracle product, but the real miracle might be if you can actually find a
store that has it in stock. The other miracle might be if it stays on the market.
It has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but those
who have been taking it might be on to something. With sales up 286 percent this
year, according to Information Resources, Inc., it is obvious that a lot of people
believe Airborne truly works.
In addition to wondering how to get your hands on Airborne, you might be wondering
who the mastermind is behind this miracle drug. Is it some Harvard medical student
with genius-level intelligence? Is it some corporate big-wig who hid this secret
formula for years? If you're thinking of something along those lines, you're dead
wrong. It was a second grade teacher who was just tired of catching colds from
Victoria Knight-McDowell is her name. Like everyone at this time of year, she
was tired of getting sick all the time, whether it was in the classroom or crowded
public facility. She started experimenting with different vitamins and home remedies
to see if she could create something that would prevent her from getting sick.
Among the popular remedies she tried was: vitamins C, E, and A; zinc and selenium;
and Echinacea, forsythia, ginger, and isatis root. Before long, she had discovered
the formula for Airborne.
How does someone go from a second grade teacher toying with herbs and vitamins
to selling millions of dollars worth of a product around the country? It helps
if you take risks. That is what Victoria's husband, Rider McDowell, did. Rider,
now CEO of Knight-McDowell Labs, the manufacturer of Airborne, was a screenwriter
in California in 1997 when he received $170,000 for writing and producing a holiday
movie, The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of taking a common type of risk,
like putting all the money into the stock market, or doing something practical,
like putting it towards a new house, Rider decided to invest the money into Airborne.
After starting out in a small town pharmacy, Airborne gained the attention of
Trader Joe's, a national grocery store chain. They put in a $75,000 order for
Airborne. At this time, Victoria was still a second grade teacher. After an exhausting
day at school, she would come home not only to piles of school papers, but also
to thousands of labels that would need to be affixed to her product.
In 1999, Longs Drugs, a drugstore chain, ordered even more Airborne. And it was
just the beginning. Today, you can find Airborne at just about any store that
sells vitamins. This includes large, nationwide chains such as Wal-Mart, Walgreen's,
Eckerd, Jewel Osco, and many more. Of course, just because more stores carry Airborne
does not mean it will be easy to find.
Road to Stardom
is another reason why Airborne is a very hot commodity right now: celebrity endorsements.
In 2003, relatively few people knew of Airborne. Now, viewers of Oprah Winfrey's
talk show know about it, and when Oprah promotes something, it usually means money
in the bank. Howard Stern talks about it every day on his radio show and he gets
millions of listeners each day. Regular viewers of "The Price is Right" will often
see Airborne as a product in the many pricing games played on the show. But when
Entertainment Weekly lists commercials for Airborne in their weekly "Must List,"
you know that something has clicked.
It makes perfect sense. Rider McDowell used his media-savvy to create entertaining
commercials starring Barry Williams. In the commercials, viewers are asked certain
TV trivia questions. Ten winners were chosen and received a year's supply of Airborne.
Commercial viewers also got the chance to spend an evening with Barry Williams
and win a "dream date" with "Family Affair's" Johnny Whitaker.
Perhaps the best press for Airborne came from their banned Super Bowl commercial.
Knight-McDowell Labs spent $1.2 million to get a coveted Super Bowl commercial
spot, but after last year's infamous wardrobe malfunction, the Fox network was
very careful not to offend anyone this year. In the ad spot, Mickey Rooney is
in a sauna. When someone sneezes, he jumps up and runs out of the room, but not
before letting his towel fall and exposing his bare bottom.
Even though the spot never aired, the commercial was shown on The Tonight Show
with Jay Leno and can be seen on Airborne's website. Since watching the commercial
online requires you to visit the website, the ban may be resulting in more hits
for the site than if the commercial had actually aired
Like Hot Cakes
It is a typical day at Eckerd drug store in Mantua, New Jersey. Customers walk
through the aisles, making sure they have their coupons ready for any good bargains.
Many go to the pharmacy to pick up their prescriptions. On any given day for the
past five months, a conversation like this is heard somewhere in the store:
"Do you guys carry Airborne?" the customer asks.
"We do, but we don't have any in stock right now," the manager or clerk will respond.
"I've tried five different places and nobody has it," the customer replies.
"Well, we had it, but it sold out in a couple of days. We're ordering it every
chance we get. Try back in a couple of weeks. Be sure to call first."
Even with spring, the sign of the end of the cold season, just around the corner,
people still want to get their hands on Airborne.
In 2004, Airborne generated over $16 million in sales. While some over-the-counter
cold treatment products saw losses in sales last year, Airborne saw a gain. The
company reported a 286 percent gain, according to Information Resources Incorporated.
When you consider that each unit of Airborne, which contains 10 tablets, retails
for $6 to $8, depending on where you buy it, those numbers simply cannot be ignored.
Yeah, but does it really work?
The common cold is something that has frustrated doctors and patients alike for
hundreds of years. Despite all the research that has been done and all the products
that have been developed, no cure exists for the common cold. Countless clinical
trials are conducted every year. For every trial that says vitamin C is effective
in treating the common cold, there is another trial that says vitamin C has absolutely
However, just about everyone who has access to Airborne says that they "live by
it", that it "really works."
In a New York Times story, Dr. Aaron Glatt of Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center
in the Bronx said, "You can show that certain components of vitamins are essential
to the body's normal immune response, but nobody's ever shown that a particular
supplement prevents colds." In other words, Airborne does what every other vitamin
on the market does. It helps to strengthen the body's immune system.
Doctors and pharmacists are not the ones responsible for the run on Airborne.
"Quite possibly, the demand is not justified by the current data available," said
James Matsuk, a pharmacist at Eckerd in Mantua, New Jersey. "I think [the makers
of Airborne] should have another study done by an independent group."
A clinical trial was done by Florida-based GNG Pharmaceutical Services. It was
a double-blind, placebo controlled, multi-center, randomized clinical trial, and
the results were overwhelmingly positive. A full response to the vitamin was experienced
by 47 percent of the active arm participants. However, the study was sponsored
by Knight-McDowell Labs, so it is difficult to determine if the results were skewed
in favor of the manufacturer. But because Airborne is a vitamin composed of herbal
remedies, the Food and Drug Administration has not conducted its own clinical
trial to reach a verdict on Airborne. In fact, if a study was conducted by the
FDA, it could determine whether or not Airborne is even allowed to stay on the
The Future of Airborne
From a little remedy used by a second grade teacher to one of the best selling
over-the-counter medicines available on the market, the story of Airborne is quite
a remarkable one. It is a story that is still being written. Will supply ever
meet the increasingly growing demand? Will the FDA approve this medicine once
and for all? Will that commercial with Mickey Rooney's rear ever be seen on television
again? Airborne is one of those products that the stars use, and everyone wants
to feel like a star. Everyone wants to avoid catching a cold, too. Perhaps the
combination of the two is behind the story of how this little-vitamin-that-could
has swept the nation.
Ben Leach is a Journalism and Professional Writing major
at The College of New Jersey with a Chemistry minor. He will be writing for
The Daily Journal in Vineland, New Jersey, this summer. He is also involved
with the Student Honors Society and is a staff writer for The Signal, TCNJ's