If there’s a thin line between love and hate, the line between profiting and profiteering is often indefinable. The Federal Trade Commission has taken action against only a handful of companies for false advertising in the wake of Sept. 11, most notably the makers of bogus “anthrax detection kits.” But the Internet is packed with corporations and entrepreneurs who have made a bundle on one of the worst tragedies in the nation’s history. Are they stoking fears for profit? Is it just coincidence? The answers vary widely and often depend on who is asking the question.
Hundreds of products, manuals and elixirs were repackaged or relaunched to take advantage of the new demand for home security and self-defense following the Sept. 11 tragedies. Some of them, undoubtedly, are excellent products that will add to a prospective consumer’s sense of personal security. Others may be downright scams or, at the very least, opportunistic attempts to capitalize on a tragedy.
In November of last year, then again in January, the Federal Trade Commission began sending warnings to many such companies. According to the FTC, an Internet search by its inspectors turned up more than 200 sites marketing bioterrorism-related products, 121 of which received warnings.
The FTC is shooting at a moving target, however. Here is a sampling of the varied offerings currently on the Internet seeking to connect their products to Sept. 11:
The weeks after Sept. 11 brought a brief but very real spike in gun sales, and the world’s firearms industry was ready to meet it. But some gun makers were more creative than others.
The Italian gun maker Beretta, for example, sold a “United We Stand” 9 mm pistol. The company donated $50,000 of the profits from the sale of the pistol to The Survivors’ Fund of The Community Foundation, which offers long-term support for victims and families affected by the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon. Just how much profit it kept has not been made public.
The Ithaca Gun Co., another gun-maker, issued a line of Homeland Security shotguns. Touted for being “constructed from 100 percent American steel … and no foreign parts,” the shotgun “is produced to protect our homes ... and our nation throughout this dark time in our history,” the company says.
The panic market
A plethora of companies began offering devises, drugs and survival kits that promised everything from a defense against anthrax to immunity to radioactive fallout.
Sales of Cipro, the only antidote to inhaled anthrax currently recognized by the Food and Drug Administration, famously spiked during the September and October 2001 anthrax attacks.
Other companies offered less reputable products.
Vital Living Products Inc., a manufacturer of PH test kits and aquarium products, was marketing an anthrax test kit that scientists say can’t possibly work. In fact, the FDA ultimately filed an injunction against the company.
Another company marketed an ultra violet light as an anthrax eliminator until the FDA demanded it cease. The Germinator was hardly the cure-all its retailer claimed it to be. As Ronald Atlas, the president of the American Society for Microbiology, told MSNBC.com in November, “Yes, ultraviolet light can kill anthrax on a surface. But if they are really marketing a UV light, then we have a problem because you could go blind from looking at it.”
The company has revised its marketing material to remove any reference to anthrax.
Gas or hot air?
A widespread offering on the Internet is gas masks. Almost universally, the ads for these products are flag-draped and designed to evoke dread. Among the largest of these marketers is approvedgasmasks.com, a one-stop bazaar for those gripped by fear of attack, and Biologik Gas Masks, which offers a range of military surplus masks, as well as special models for children and infants.
New danger, new angle
More recently, as talk has shifted to possible plots to compromise nuclear power plants or even explode a radiological bomb in a U.S. population center, other products have been offered that have raised eyebrows.
One is “Pro-KI,” a pill that its manufacturers claim can prevent sickness from radiation exposure. While potassium iodide is a proven inhibitor of some very specific forms of radiation sickness, this is only true if the drug is taken before exposure or immediately afterward, and then only in some instances. An attack using radiation, which is colorless and odorless, would be unlikely occur with such warning.
Another, more ambitious product is “The American Safe Room,” a filtering system that its inventor claims “converts any room into a nuclear fallout shelter or bio-chem safe room within a matter of minutes.”
Experts say this claim is baseless, particularly since radiation does not respect drywall, wood or brick. Nonetheless, the product is for sale on the Internet via the Emergency and Survival Web Ring, a repository of similar products. The site is sponsored by Gun and Game, a magazine affiliated with the National Rifle Association and dedicated to hunting gear and tactics.
A question of taste
Not all the marketing tactics that have drawn criticism are the work of small entrepreneurs or the gun industry.
Cantor Fitzgerald became a household name after losing more employees than any other company in the Trade Center attacks. Now the bond trading firm is hoping to bring back business with a controversial new ad campaign in which employees speak about the day that 658 of their co-workers died.
New York officials demanded that online auctioneer ebayremove all items that “exploit the World Trade Center tragedy for private gain.” In a response, eBay deputy general counsel Robert Chestnut said eight objectionable items cited by the city had been removed, including compact discs purportedly containing recorded police and fire radio transmissions from Sept. 11. The dealer touts: “Relive this horrific day in history!”
Another item removed — a “genuine office key” from the towers, a “most rare item for serious collectors,” according to the dealer.