As reported in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, “Awaiting approval from U.S. regulators to sell an over-the-counter diet pill called Alli, GlaxoSmithKline PLC has set out to establish itself as an online weight-loss authority, with a Web site that offers dieting tips and collects data and email addresses from consumers who visit” (see “Web Site Is a Prelude To Glaxo’s OTC Weight-Loss Pill“).
The Web site is Questioneverything.com.
Although this Web site is not new — it was first launched in April — it was new to me, illustrating again the value of good PR as a marketing tactic (for more on PR and marketing, see “Marketing Disguised as PR” and “PR Marketing: Mystery Wrapped in a Riddle“).
In synch with the spirit of questioneverything.com, I question a few things about the site and its purpose.
I Question if Barriers to Alli Can Be Overcome
For those of you who do not know, Alli is a low dose form of Xenical, a prescription diet pill that has been on the market for a long time. It hasn’t done very well, however. It received a lot of bad press around the time it was launched because of its unpleasant side effects — especially “anal leakage.” Need I say more? Yes, I do!
Obviously, GSK needs to overcome some barriers associated with Xenical’s side effects. A name change is only the first — albeit very important — step. With apologies to Shakespeare:
What’s in a name?
That which we call Xenical by any other name
Would cause anal leakage as foul.
How to prevent this side effect or at least deal with it when positioning Alli after approval is the second barrier to overcome.
The flatulence and anal leakage side effects can be mitigated by sticking to a low fat diet, which is advocated on the site. As the WSJ article notes: “Clinical trials indicate that people taking Alli experience fewer gastrointestinal side effects if they stick to a low-fat diet. Alli blocks the body’s absorption of dietary fat, which results in flatulence and other unpleasant side effects. If it is cleared for sale, Alli would be the first FDA-approved OTC diet pill on the U.S. market.”
The third barrier is competition from other OTC products, including supplements like Hoodia, which I am sure you’ve been getting a lot spam emails about. The name of the site — Questioneverything — helps implant the message to deal with this barrier: question everything about the competition. There’s an entire section devoted to bashing supplements entitled “Weight loss supplements: Do they work or not?” There’s even information about how to file a complaint about supplements to the FDA! I am sure, you won’t see similar instructions for filing a complaint about Alli on its site once that product is approved!
BTW, questioneverything.com is another example of what I have called the “Immutable Laws of DTC Domain Naming.”
I Question Who the Site Aimed At
One thing that bothers me about the site is its feminine appeal and lack of any attention to males. According to US government statistics of adults over 20 years of age, more US males than females are overweight (68.8% vs. 61.7%, respectively). If anything, therefore, the site should be aimed at males. I guess they believe either that men are a lost cause for diet pill marketing or that women are making decisions for men. But as a man who is grappling with a weight issue, I know that there are certain male issues related to weight loss that really motivate me.
Every graphical image of a human figure on the site, however, is female. Cute ones to boot! (See home page image below.)
I Question the Site’s Online Discussion Board
Another feature of Questioneverything.com that you will not see on the Alli web site once it is operational, is the moderated online discussion board. Virtually every page of the site encourages you to join the discussion. It’s obviously the most important part of the site as far as marketers are concerned.
The board is pre-loaded with topic areas such as “Your heart should race from being in love, not from your diet pill” and “You’re working hard. So how come it’s not enough?” As pointed out in the WSJ article, the discussion board is a clever way to gather consumer attitudes about dieting issues that can be used to position Alli. Reading posts to the board and responses from other “visitors” and the paid moderators gives us a glimpse into how these discussions are not just mined for information, but also manipulated to constantly repeat the positioning messages already in place.
To test this, I posted my own message and tried to stay within the rules. At first, I didn’t know where to post my comment — no topic was really appropriate and the site does not allow you to create a new topic area. I chose the first topic area — “Your heart should race from being in love, not from your diet pill” — because it was top of the list and I could create a catchy title. NOTE: This topic area is obviously designed to capitalize on the cardiovascular problems of some diet pills that will compete with Alli.
Here’s my post and the replies:
July 12, 2006, 8:12 AM 2599
* You — not your heart — should race from obesity meds
I am concerned about all the hype swirling around new drugs to treat obesity like Acomplia (approved in the EU and soon in the US; see http://pharma-mkting.com/blog/2006/06/fat-acomplia/) and Alli (an OTC version of Xenical, soon to be marketed by GSK, owner of this site). Diet and exercise alone can deliver better results in a shorter amount of time than with some of these drugs — I know: I lost 13% of my body weight in only 6 months by starting out with the South Beach diet and then just cutting out carbs, watching portions, and cutting back on beef and other meat. In trials of Acomplia, on the other hand, those taking the drug shed only between 5% and 10% of their body weight if they stayed on the drug for two years! Some deal! Also, Acomplia and other obesity drugs are approved only as an adjunct to to diet and exercise. So why take these drugs at all if they cannot accomplish the same weight loss in as short a time as diet and exercise? Besides, there are side effects from all drugs and not just involving your heart. Xenical, for example, can cause flatulence and anal leakage (referred to euphemistically in today’s Wall Street Journal article about this Web site as “incontinence”). I’m wondering what other people on this forum think. (Too bad we can’t create our own topic areas!)
July 12, 2006, 4:35 PM 2604 in reply to 2599
* Re: You — not your heart — should race from obesity meds
I, like you, am very concerned with obesity medications that potentially cause more problems than they solve. Four years ago, I had a stroke. I was just 35 years old and “on paper,” I was pretty healthy – normal cholesterol, normal blood pressure. But, I was significantly overweight – 298 lbs. Just like my father and sister, who both opted for the gastric bypass surgery. Fast forward three years and I still hadn’t taken control of my life. I finally decided to go to a bariatric specialist to find out how to slay the fat demon once and for all. Well, as you can imagine, the doctor was leery about any medication that would affect the brain – due to my stroke. So, he talked to me about Xenical. First, he asked if I was serious about losing weight. I responded “Absolutely!” Then he told me how Xenical works – blocking 30% of your fat intake. However, there was a major caveat – “fat eater beware!” He also explained the side effects and, yes, flatulence and anal leakage got my attention. I was so worried about the side effects that initially I don’t think ate over 20 grams of fat all day! Next week will be exactly one year and I have lost a total of 110 pounds with the help of Xenical (and my wonderful doctor, of course). I cannot express in words the difference it has made in my life. I do believe it is possible to lose weight with pure diet and exercise but for most, it’s easier said than done. I still watch my fat intake religiously and have never had one side effect from the drug. To me, Xenical is one rung in the ladder of weight loss success. But, to me, it made the climb to the top so much easier.
July 12, 2006, 11:19 PM 2612 in reply to 2599
* Re: You — not your heart — should race from obesity meds
Hi Johnmack, I have to admit that before I began working in the field of weight loss I also used to think that all that people needed to do was modify their diet and physical activity. After over 8 years, and hundreds of clients, I can tell you that medication can be an integral part of the treatment for long-term weight loss and maintenance for some people. The current guidelines for weight loss are to lose 5 to 10% of your weight. Though that may not seem like a lot, there have been proven health benefits with this amount. These guidelines can be found at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/ob_home/. You can also look out the outstanding results from a weight loss of 7% for the Diabetes Prevention Program at http://diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/preventionprogram/. Many people believe that what works for them will work for everyone else. I often ask people, who do you know who eats the same foods, at the time same time and place every day that you do? We all have different habits and needs so what works for one person probably won’t work exactly the same for someone else. One of the keys to long-term weight loss is to find what works for you and to utilize all of the tools available. There is no “cure” for obesity. Surgery and medications are part of the tools to use in conjunction with diet, exercise and behavior modifications. For anyone who has lost weight and regained it, they will understand that there are times where you need help with beginning, maintaining and/or getting back on track with your weight loss plan. My experience is that medications can do this for some and there is nothing wrong with getting medical assistance with something that you will have to pay attention to for the rest of your life. For anyone who has any questions or concerns about what is right for them they should speak with their physician. I invite others to share their views on this. Betty
Betty is dietician Betty Kovacs. She is also the moderator and obviously paid to do this. The site, however, does not reveal this fact, nor does it explain who pays Betty — the money obviously originates with GSK. That’s minor point.
However, I question the credentials of “bfenn.” I suspect that “she” is also on the payroll and her job is “stealth marketing.” What gave it away is the obvious plug for Xenical and the major positioning message that fat is the culprit, not the drug: “Then he [her doctor] told me how Xenical works – blocking 30% of your fat intake. However, there was a major caveat – ‘fat eater beware!’ ” Also this: “I have lost a total of 110 pounds with the help of Xenical (and my wonderful doctor, of course). I cannot express in words the difference it has made in my life.”
Such claims could never be made on a branded site, but no holds are barred on unbranded site like questioneverything.com!
Of course, I can easily throw back at “bfenn” Betty’s criticism of my testimonial: “We all have different habits and needs so what works for one person probably won’t work exactly the same for someone else.” BTW, this is an absolutely bullshit response — diet and exercise will work for everyone, as long as they stay on the diet! On the other hand, it is a well-known fact that not all drugs work for everyone even if they stay compliant — as 70% of the men who have tried Viagra without success can tell you!
Questioneverything.com is one of those stealthy sites that will never compete with true “consumer-generated sites.” Therefore, it has limited potential to achieve any goals relating to changing public opinion about Xenical/Alli. It should really stick to its market research goal and stop inserting positioning messages all over the place.
In conclusion, I offer GSK these suggestions for improving Questioneverything.com:
- give visitors real tools like the ability to create their own topic areas in the discussion area
- keep up the great input from Betty and other experts, but free them from being shills and constantly repeating the nascent marketing messages
- why wait to communicate with users until after Alli is launched? You need to at least send visitors a welcome message when they register! Very impolite.