HeadOn Works!

The ads work, that is. HeadOn, that homeopathic (and therefore completely ineffective) head rub for head pain isn’t effective. But it’s still selling, because advertising and propaganda often trumps evidence! Mya Frazier of AdAge reports:

Those rapid-fire “HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead” spots are arguably among the worst commercials ever from a creative standpoint. They’re annoying, repetitive, obnoxious — and effective.
Clutter buster: HeadOn ads seem amateurish and mindnumbing, but the company’s marketing chief said consumers remember them.


HeadOn is logging some heady growth rates — 234% from 2005 to 2006. And for the first half of 2007, the brand looks to be on track to double sales. HeadOn ranks No. 9 in the external-analgesics-rubs category and logged $6.5 million in sales last year, up from just $1.9 million in 2005, according to Information Resources Inc. That’s not including Wal-Mart, who is “one of our biggest customers” Mr. Charron said.

Miralus’ ActivOn, for joint pain, launched in 2006, has leapfrogged past HeadOn, topping out at $5.5 million in sales and jumping to the No. 6 spot in the $278 million external-analgesic-rubs category. Within that category, Head-On is stealing share from such brands as Icy Hot, which was up just 4.4% in 2006; Bengay, which was down 2.5% last year; and Aspercreme, down 12.6% in 2006. (The last for a long time had its own cheesy tagline, “You bet your sweet Aspercreme,” since changed to “You bet if it’s Aspercreme.)


Mr. Charron is a big believer in focus groups and takes a rather unconventional approach to this most traditional of research tools. “Our No. 1 priority is recall,” said Mr. Charron, and sounding a bit like the HeadOn spots himself, he added: “It’s all about recall. It’s all about recall.”

Instead of testing the commercials against other headache remedies or other health-care advertising, Mr. Charron has tested HeadOn spots instead against what he refers to as ad clutter. “Odds are, 99% of the time, our ad won’t be next to a headache remedy anyway but a car ad or electronics ad or food ad,” he said.


But if the HeadOn story is inspiring as a case study, remember, it’s all about the long haul. Despite the buzz and the impressive sales growth figures, Miralus isn’t in the black yet.


  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    September 25, 2007

    Hands down most annoying commercial ever.

  2. #2 Tyler DiPietro
    September 25, 2007

    One of your links is very interesting. Apparently, The Washington Post has to be fair regardless of the facts. So they quote some whack-job saying this:

    The Response That dismissive view is typical of traditional medicine, Charron said. “We respect every doctor’s opinion, but they are not exposed to homeopathy, and they don’t understand how this works,” he said.”


  3. #3 Qoheleth
    September 25, 2007

    “Completely ineffective?” I wouldn’t argue with “no more effective than placebo,” but given what we know about the placebo effect, “completely ineffective” doesn’t seem likely.

  4. #4 Chris H
    September 25, 2007

    @Qoheleth, fair enough! C

  5. #5 Sven DiMilo
    September 25, 2007

    But the really great thing about those ads is that they make no claim of effectiveness whatsoever; in fact, they don’t even mention what the stuff is supposed to be for (“headache” is assumed–never stated)…just where to apply it.
    By the way, I’ve tried it, and it kind of makes your skin tingle a bit (menthol, an “inactive ingredient”), giving some illusion of effectiveness at…something.

  6. #6 Kagehi
    September 26, 2007

    Yeah. The “other” version of this might work, by shear accident. Its not unheard of for meds to be applied in a patch, and its not improbable that it would work with something like a pain reducer. They do it all the time for athletes with sprains, though by using a high capsacin gel (which you have to be numbed to the point of not feeling anything to use it), but which blocks chronic pain for like six months (by overloading the nerve receptors). Other less extreme forms of meds are given through the skin as well. Its not improbable that, over a length of time, asprin or the like could seep through the skin and have an effect. What makes this products a crank psuedoscience product is not that the idea was, in principle, bad, but that headaches are **not** caused by the same kind of pain, or in the same way, as more localized forms.

    Solving such, by taking a real aspirin, is likely to work, for some headaches. Slapping one on your head.. not so much. lol

  7. #7 Theodore Price
    September 27, 2007

    I have no idea if Headon works, but… it does contain menthol. Menthol is an agonist of TRPM8 receptors which are expressed by a subset of sensory neurons that are involved in pain modulation. There is evidence in pre-clinical models that menthol can alleviate neuropathic touch-evoked pain when applied topically. See Proudfoot et al., (2006) Current Biology 16 (16) 1591-1605. Capsaicin works by activating and then desensitizing TRPV1 receptors which are expressed by a large population of pain sensing neurons. This desensitization appears to lead to a longer term desensitization of that neuron (up to 6 months). Several proposals of how that happens are currently under investigation but the mechanism is not known at this point.

    Medicines applied by patch are used all the time for pain. Opioids can be delivered this way (namely fentanyl) and there are several promising cannabinoid receptor agonist trials underway that use a similar approach.

  8. #8 Rach
    September 27, 2007

    We have something similar in the UK called 4head – I’d always assumed that the whole point of the thing was to provide a sort of soothing effect rather than actually act as a painkiller. I use it when I take a painkiller, and by the time the tingle wears off, the painkiller’s kicked in. Now I’m wondering why that tingly feeling seems soothing to me.

  9. #9 Kagehi
    September 27, 2007

    Well, Theodore, the point with “Headon” and the like is that it can’t work, because headaches are not localized in the same fashion and caused by the same sort of things that normal pai is. I get a head ache and it could be anything from a tooth ache, to neck muscles, to an ear infection, to a fracking pinched nerve at the base of the spine, which just “happens” to trigger the pain in the head, instead of my ass. Unless you dump enough meds into the patch to numb the persons entire body, which I don’t think they are doing, the odds that *your* headache is caused by something *in your head* is not so good, and the odds that its going to be caused by rogue nerves in your forehead, unless your pain is coming from something like a sinus infection or cold, is even more improbable. Its not that it can’t work. Its that it implies, how ever indirectly, that it could/will work on something that in 90% of all cases is either not “in your head” to start with, or no where near the location you are placing it, in the cases it is there.

    Its not quite as crank as healing magnets, but its about as useful, in general, as suggestion you use leeches to cure everything from allergies to broken bones, instead of “only” when its useful to use them as a natural blood thinner. Just because something works in 1% of the case, because its useful in those cases, doesn’t mean it not total BS the other 99% of the time. That’s what makes this crank science. The exaggeration of benefit, not the lack of one. 😉

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