The $100 million Helsinki Formula Con
Looking back on it now, the whole Helsinki Formula experience seems almost comical. How could those idiots who lived way back in the 1980s have been so gullible as to believe that a shampoo made with a common food additive could actually grow hair?
The main tipoff to the grift should have been the use of Robert Vaughn as a spokesman for the product. Vaughn, whose cheesy movie-star acting style made almost any film or TV show seem campy, was paid $25,000 to not smirk as he promoted Helsinki Formula in in a new and outrageously unbelievable TV format: the infomercial. Vaughn’s own lusciously Brylcreamy locks mocked balding viewers until they were forced to Call Now!
You only get the highlights here, but if you ever feel vulnerable to hair loss hucksterism, spend a few moments researching the full story of Helsinki Formula.
It’s a fascinating story of American (and Finnish) stick-to-it-iveness that evaded both logic and the FTC for a long time before collapsing into a pile of broken promises. Now ask yourself, do I want to be a sucker all my life? (If the answer is “yes,” then you can still purchase the product via a website that promises only that you will be spending money for a bottle full of stuff.)
Between 1985 and 1990, two separate companies competed furiously to convince desperate men that products containing polysorbate 60 not only cleaned what was left of their hair, but allowed new growth to spring up miraculously.
Based on the dubious results of sloppily conducted clinical studies in Finland, the claims made for Helsinki Formula helped sell more than $100 million worth of the product. One of its slogans was, “What have you got to lose that you haven’t lost already?”
In 1988, the Federal Trade Commission filed suit against the manufacturer of Helsinki Formula. (The competitor already had settled and backed down on its spurious claims.) The maker did not give up easily and fought the government through a trial and appeals for years until it was finally ordered to pay a $27 million judgment.
There is no record that the company, which declared bankruptcy, paid any portion of that amount. Vaughn went on to shill for Omega 3 and many slip-and-fall law firms.
The Helsinki Formula was a marketing triumph that used consumers’ blind trust in science to convince them that this, for once, was a product that really, really worked. Even when three-month trial users discovered the scam, an entire country of new prospects remained vulnerable.
Today, most hair growth products make at least a feeble attempt to promote their scientific effectiveness. They do a remarkable job, as proven by the fact that, when the authorities finally get around to stomping a few of them down, a black market in unused product springs up immediately.
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