“Nurofen did not set out to mislead consumers,” said Montse Pena, a spokeswoman for manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser after an Australian court ordered it to remove many diverse Nurofen products from the nation’s shelves.
The judgement stated that UK-based company was misleading customers by marketing differently branded products using the same amount of the basic pain-killing ingredient, ibuprofen, for different ailments – for example, it’s possible to purchase one product for back pain, another for tension headaches, yet another for migraine and so on – and charging a hefty premium for the privilege.
In its defence Reckitt Benckiser further claimed that its products are specifically designed to help consumers “easily navigate our range”, especially in shops without a pharmacist able to provide real-time advice.
Meanwhile in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is currently examining an advert for Nurofen Express concerning whether consumers are being misled into thinking that the product has a direct effect on muscles in the head.
Richard Headland, editor of consumer magazine Which?, has also intervened. He strongly advises consumers to buy generic versions of common painkillers, including ibuprofen, rather than high-price branded products whenever possible.
Good advice. However, a few years ago I was teaching consumer behaviour to second year students in the Business School, University of Roehampton, and I was curious to explore their preferences for everyday pain-killing products.
The question I posed to the students was this: for an identical price you can buy either Nurofen or a generic product from a leading, trusted supermarket which is chemically identical and will have identical effects in the body.
All of them stated that they would purchase the Nurofen, which they considered somehow superior to the generic version.
The experience taught me, and hopefully some of them, a lot about brand magic – the non-rational element that informs our consumer purchases, whether of painkillers, smartphones or foreign holidays.
Dr Sean Carey is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester