Advertising and Marketing

Anatomy of a bogus drug ad


When I opened my paper yesterday evening, I discovered a garish four-page insert from a company called Warner advertising a product called "Shark" 帅克. My suspicions were aroused by the unnumbered pages and curious celebrity endorsements, and a quick survey of other news kiosks confirmed that this ad did not come from the Mirror distribution center.

Like the unregistered press, unauthorized advertisements still find ways to circulate. In this case, since the advertisement would definitely not make it past the Mirror's ad department, someone paid the kiosk attendant a small sum to expedite the process by sticking the insert into the evening's paper. I was reminded of my childhood paper route, getting paid an extra 2 cents a copy to stick ads for Dianetics into the free weekly I delivered...

"Shark" is a sexual aid made from shark-fin cartilage and other traditional Chinese remedies but processed using the most advanced American technology. One capsule lasts for five days, or so the ad claims. As illegal drug ads go, this one is fairly typical; the one thing that's missing is a set of CAD diagrams of the drug's passage through the body. Check below for a look at how Shark is presented to the public.

(Links in the text are all in Chinese; many do have photos or illustrations.)


1. No page number or header: Legitimate newspaper ads are included in the page numbering scheme, and full-page ads are usually headed with 广告 or some similar designation.

2. Impressive-looking nameplate: "Warner Times: Shark special issue", credited to obvious pseudonyms Feifei, Leilei, and A-zhong. "Warner" is probably meant to recall the legitimacy of Warner-Lambert. For a cutting-edge drug, the choice of a pre-9/11 New York skyline is odd.

3. Wildly exaggerated claims: The product claims it's an American virility product that "lets men be as bold as sharks". On its registration information, however, it sticks with the slightly more conservative claim of boosting the immune system (see this chart under 卫食健进字1999第0049号).

4. Meaningless claims: "Exempt from American FDA inspection for 6 years, it is safe, with no side effects." The license Shark received was for a food supplement, a class of health products entirely unregulated by the FDA. The advertisement carefully avoids promoting the product as "medicine", except in the rather conspicuous company name, "American Warner Pharmaceutical Company." The impression left is of a medication rather than a supplement.

5. American technology: "The legendary American product: Shark." Website advertisements claim "America's top brand for increasing male virility," and the ad itself says that Shark became one of the top 3 sex aids after just 3 weeks on the market. Has anyone heard of it? Anyone?

Americans and their sexual practices are held up as a model throughout the ad copy:

How is it that American seniors can be as powerful as sharks in their love life?

Truth be told, American men are very clear about the stresses they face every day, the harmful air they breathe in, the polluted foods they eat. If they don't improve their 'sexual immune system,' how will they insure that their masculine vigor and aura haven't been stolen from them?

Page 2

The second page of the ad is mostly text, so I haven't reproduced it here. More extraordinary claims are made, both in the guise of expert analysis and in apparent testimonials from satisfied men and their wives, all of whom speak in advertising copy.

A few foreign news reports are cited lauding the wonder-drug. These are writen in translatese and credited to familiar-sounding papers. The Washington Recorder says: "This is an interesting product - a sexual health product that combines Chinese and Western preparations. Because of its effectiveness, executives sensitive about criticism always carry it in their suit pocket." The New York Daily Bulletin says, "Men take this little fella with them in their pocket when they go to cocktail parties."

Both of these quotations previously ran in an ad masquerading as a news story in the Jingjiang Evening News back in June of last year.


6. Viagra comparison: As a sex enhancer, Shark naturally needs to measure up against the baseline, so we have the headline in red and black, "Sexual health craze sweeps Europe and America - Shark topples Viagra." This is proven by the anecdotes given on page 2.

7. Happy, attractive couples: Each page features a corporate logo superimposed on an affectionate pair. Entirely western.

8. Expert testimonials: This part's the most fun - international experts, looking for all the world like their pictures have been pulled off of some college's Hall of Past Presidents, provide "technical information." The second expert, supposedly a Dr. Gauss, senior researcher at the Cambridge University Advanced Drugs Group, says:

The combination of multiple ingredients was Tanke's idea. We used modern biological extraction technology to obtain extracts of reishi, ginseng, wolfberry, peony, and licorice. Through DNA molecular synthesis technology we then blended in shark cartilage powder and vitamin C. I was a researcher, but at the same time I was the first beneficiary.

Dr. Tanke, first on the list, is a scientist in the employ of Warner. The others are a vice-director of the Pan-American Men's Virility Drug Research Group, the editor of the men's health column in the Washington Science News, and the Dean of the Harvard Institute of Men's Health. The printing is rather muddy here so the names aren't clear, but they aren't very creative in any case.


9. Absolute language: Just days after the Beijing Drug Administration repeated its warning to consumers to beware of absolute language (绝对化用语), this advertisement comes out, claiming at the top "Seven areas of absolute superiority." Collaboration with Cal Tech to concentrate the ingredients at -180°C, and a promise of 30 minutes in the bedroom without tiring are just two of them.

10. Warning against imitations: Intentionally ironic? I wouldn't bet on it, since the text hypes Shark by citing the rash of imitation advertisements in the wake of its explosion onto the Beijing pharmaceutical market. "Shark ads can be copied, but nothing can compare to Shark's potent effect."

11. It's useful for everyone! Well, all men, anyway. It's superior powers are beneficial to the weak or exhausted and the overstressed. It cures the sexually frigid and the easily upset; it reawakens interest in sex for those suffering from physical or psychological problems. You have pain in your joints or ringing in your ears? This'll clear that up for you.

But that's not all. The Shark capsule will give you larger, thicker, longer, and harder equipment to last longer and perform better. You know, like a shark.

12. Celebrity endorsements: Recognizable celebrities who are not yet national-treasures pose with the box. This wouldn't work with Andy Lau, at least not for long. It's not clear even from the higher-res web photos whether the box has been photoshopped in or if the celebrities simply took a quick payday. Does this sort of thing really work? A woman won double her money back in a suit last year, after claiming that the presence of celebrities helped win her over.

Regulation seems to be ineffective - online sources turn up citations for illegal advertisement in various individual provinces, mostly falling under the category of "falsely advertising as a drug" when the product is not, in fact, a drug. These date from last summer, yet the Warner company is still able to sell its product at the seven stores listed and the bottom of page 4.

There is a URL under the nameplate on page 1, leading to the Health & Wealth website, a Spike Lee-esque "Meiqingsong International Enterprise Joint." The product information page for Shark could not be more different from the newspaper insert, in both design and content. The website, for example, advises people who have had heart trouble in the last month not to take the capsules, but the insert says they are safe for all.

Other products, such as calcium supplements, are marketed similarly - first as a mild health supplement on the website, and then as a miraculous height-enhancer through partnered websites and illegal print ads. Digging further through the Meiqingsong product line, we find a breast enhancement cream, "M39," that claims favorable reviews in The Times and The New York Times. But the newspapers pictured are the Erie Times-News and the Des Moines Register, onto which bountiful bosoms have been photoshopped. With an endorsement from Dr. Johns Hopkins, dean of Harvard Medical School, this ad beats out Shark's in imagination. But the rewards for wading through this dreck are few, and the advertisements are relentless.

There's one remaining curiosity. Practically the only thing Shark doesn't claim to do is cure cancer - ironic, considering that the "shark cartilage craze" in the US was all about tumor-free sharks and had little to nothing to do with sex.

LINK: Danwei has more on Men's Health in Getting it up in China by David Moser.

Recognize any of the "experts" in the Shark and M39 ads? Send positive IDs to joel - at - danwei - org

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