The thing about the placebo effect is

That the placebo effect works.

Cough syrup maker Benylin has been accused of selling identical pills as cures for different types of colds.

Benylin’s medicines, one of which claims to be for “chesty”, the other for “mucus” coughs, carry the same product license meaning they contain identical ingredients.

The disclosure was made by Martin Lewis, founder of, who has been vocal on medicine rip-offs including the often inflated cost of branded medications versus own brand tablets.

He warned that the Benylin branding could lead to consumers thinking that it offered “something extra”, potentially prompting them to buy them rather than cheaper genetic equivalents, which may be just as effective.

Which is lucky for those who want to do market segmentation and product differentiation.

13 thoughts on “The thing about the placebo effect is”

  1. “cheaper genetic equivalents” – Genetic treatments are somewhat excessive for a cough, and unlikely to be cheaper.

    And this only one post after your most recent criticism of the Telegraph sub editors.

  2. If they are selling them as ‘cures’ for the common cold then they are definitely lying. But the Telegraph is the one lying here.

  3. It is perfectly possible that the same ingredients could be remedies for two symptoms of the common cold. Why is it so unlikely? The issue then is why market them differently, to which one just shrugs.

  4. Placebo effect and product segmentation are obvious reasons for this.

    The less reported reason is in the packaging around the active ingredient. It can change where in the digestive tract the active ingredient gets absorbed, which does have some effect. Not sure if that is the case here but it sometimes is.

  5. Bloke in North Dorset

    If they had one product that cured all cough symptoms it would soon start to look like snake oil and reduce overall sales.

  6. As far as I can see segmentation in this market is that you pay more for ones that taste terrible.

    Disclaimer – I use Benylin (I think, without going to the medicine cabinet to check?)

  7. The interesting bit is even if they did find an actual cure for the common cold and marketed it differently in two products, the part the media would focus on would be the latter and not the miraculous former.

  8. Martin Lewis should read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science. The placebo effect works. More expensive medicine works better than cheaper medicine – even if the consumer knows perfectly well that two products are identical.

    Nurofen works better than exactly the same generic ibuprofen. It may for some be worth the extra cost.

  9. I was fooled by the quote that said “carry the same product license meaning they contain identical ingredients” – this implied, to me, that the active ingredients were not listed on the label. I’m in the US, and didn’t know what UK did.
    However, I went to the article, and there in the leading graphic is a comparison of the two labels WITH A LISTING OF THE ACTIVE INGREDIENTS ON EACH. So the author of the article is an idiot, and Martin Wilson may not be much better.
    I can read labels, which apparently nobody at the Telegraph can, and can choose what works best for me. If two (or more) alternatives have the same ingredients, I’ll get the cheaper one. Ms. Morley and Mr. Wilson would do better to clue in the public that reading labels can save them money and not rail against consumer choice.
    That said, inactive ingredients do vary, sometimes a lot. I can take cherry flavored NyQuil, but any other flavor and every generic equivalent I’ve tried made me gag. YMMV, but then, that’s the point. I will buy what works for me, someone else can get what works for them.

  10. Yes, presentation change change effects. Peppermint Rennies work for me, Spearmint Rennie don’t even though they are identical other than the flavour. Tumms and Settlers don’t work, even though the active ingredient is the same.

  11. Bloke in Costa Rica

    I’ve factored in the placebo effect when it comes to NSAIDs, so generic ibuprofen works as well as Advil for me. I got a friend to bring back a bottle of 600 generic 200mg ibuprofens from Canada for the princely sum of $20, and they work like the ones costing 10× more..

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