Here is a short narrative of nationalism as placebo effect: Canada is cold. Canadians get cold. Canadians get colds! Therefore, Canadians need Cold FX!
Claiming to kickstart a winter-battered immune system and to mitigate the effects and frequency of cold and flus, Cold FX frankly appeals to the Canadian-ness of Canadians. Legions of hockey and sports heroes vouch for it, while Cold FX itself boasts about being “proudly Canadian” and emphasizes its bootstraps-pulled roots in Edmonton, Alberta. No wonder the ginseng capsules are the best selling cold product in Canada.
Credit CBC’s Marketplace for revealing how this potent national symbol is actually quite a bit less potent than popularly believed. A recent episode investigates the shoddy science behind Cold FX — but in so doing incidentally reveals much about the relationship between hockey, national mythology, and the placebo effect.
The extent to which these elements are entangled becomes clear when Marketplace host Erica Johnson goes to a hockey arena and gives pop quizzes about Cold FX to random hockey-watchers. She asks: Has Cold FX been clinically proven to reduce the duration of colds? The severity? The frequency? And is it most effective when taken at the first sign of a cold?
If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, you’re wrong. None of the statements are true, despite the fact that Cold FX’s labels suggest that they are. The study commissioned by Cold FX that is cited in support of these claims, however, showed no appreciable reduction in the severity or duration of cold and flu symptoms in subjects given the product. To boot, subjects were given daily doses, not at the onset of symptoms.
As for reducing the frequency of cold and flu outbreaks, as a University of Alberta scientist tells Marketplace, after having reviewed all studies investigating Cold FX, that the product taken daily (again, not at the onset of cold or flu symptoms) has been shown to prevent the average person from becoming sick once in seventeen cold and flu seasons. Alternatively put, of seventeen people taking the supplement daily, only one person would show a reduction (by one!) in the frequency of cold and flu outbreaks.
Remember that Cold FX is some $60 for a bottle of 150 — twice daily is nearly three hundred dollars a year. Whether this is worth avoiding only one cold in seventeen years is debatable. When hand washing and sanitization, which has been proven to be far more effective (see the up-to-40%-fewer colds reported here) at preventing the spread of the cold and flu, is free (or much cheaper, if you’re going for sanitization), however, the debate is likely not to be a very heated one.
Founded in Edmonton in 1992, Cold FX created an eponymous concoction of ginseng and took the unusual step of commissioning pharmacologically rigorous product testing in order to show the product’s effectiveness. Even though the results were, as mentioned above, mostly inconclusive, having pseudo-scientific backing formed the backbone of Cold FX’s mainstream legitimacy.
That said, a huge part of Cold FX’s current appeal isn’t scientific, but how it’s been successfully twinned to success in sport, and success as a patriotic endeavour. From claiming that “it’s reported that 75% of Canada’s Olympic athletes” use the product (reported by whom?), to its aggressive recruitment of Canadian Olympians as “athlete ambassadors”, Cold FX has strategically positioned itself as a product that permits athletes to succeed as synecdoches for Canadian physical hardiness (or imperviousness to colds/cold).
Endorsements, like that from football team Edmonton Eskimos, more conclusively link sport and a Canada as stereotypical great white north, whose inhabitants are fighting off not just colds but the cold.
Says one TD Forss, head athletic therapist for the Eskimos: “COLD-FX helps the team overcome the difficulties of travel and playing in colder climates. It also enables us to perform at our highest level late in the season, when typically athletes start to feel run down.”
Again, Cold FX allegedly enables Canadians to persevere in a climate that is fundamentally both inhospitable and hostile — enduring a Canadian winter, Cold FX’s marketing implies, is an feat akin to competing in the Olympics. (Just as inversely, success in the Olympics is demonstration of inherent Canadian superiority.) Therefore, enduring a Canadian winter without succumbing either to the cold or a cold requires Cold FX.
Like this, “cold” takes on wholly unscientific valance. Cold begets colds. And Cold FX intervenes when the “effects” of the cold set in.
It is this folk logic that informs not just the hapless hockey fans, who with both shocked and shocking consistency fail their arena-side pop quizzes, but pharmacists who should, by their professional standards, know better.
In the Marketplace episode, they are shown with their faces blotted out. “It works best if you take at the first sign of a cold,” says one pharmacist confidently, in a it-could-be-anywhere pharmacy. Those lines are repeated near-verbatim by a host of other pharmacists similarly lulled into critical stupour by the claims on Cold FX’s blue-and-pink packaging.
Arguably Cold FX’s most prominent “ambassador”, Don Cherry, the still-inexplicably-influential barking head hockey commentator, was first a paid supporter of the product, and then, following Cold FX ’s sale to the pharma giant Valeant, as an unpaid one. (He still takes four capsules a day, he boasts to Johnson.)
When Johnson offers that there is no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of Cold FX, Cherry demonstrates his enduring quotability in declaring: “I’m not interested in what scientists say. Science — so what.”
In a nutshell, this is the reason that Marketplace’s exposé will likely have no effect on Cold FX’s sales. We like to talk about science and proof and rationality, but in the end belief in hockey and maple leaves and the coldness of winter wins out. Cold FX, this “struggling true-blue Canadian company,” in Cherry’s words — producing a product in China, not Alberta — deserves our allegiance.
At least the placebo effect has been scientifically proven.