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The greatest quack ever

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Dudley J. LeBlanc

Dudley J. LeBlanc  was a Louisiana senator in the 1940s whose unrivalled skill and enthusiasm for promoting his Hadacol vitamin supplement earned him the Time magazine accolade of “a stem-winding salesman who knows every razzle-dazzle switch in the pitchman’s trade”.

The author of The Guardian’s Bad Science column, Ben Goldacre, calls him “the greatest quack ever to live”.

When LeBlanc discovered that the elixir he had been given by a doctor for his gout was nothing more than a vitamin B tonic, he made a few minor changes to the potion and promoted it to a mass market under the name of Hadacol. “I hadda’ call it something,” he said.

In a 15-month period ending in March 1951, LeBlanc sold more than $3.6m worth of the tonic. Its 12 per cent alcohol content (listed as “preservative” on the label) made the product particularly popular in the “dry” counties of the southern US.

Its label directed that one tablespoonful should be taken four times daily in a half glass of water after meals and before retiring. Some pharmacies in dry counties, however, would sell Hadacol by the shot glass.

But the success of Hadacol was mainly down to LeBlanc’s powerful marketing, at one point spending more on advertising than he was taking in receipts. He made no medicinal claims, instead relying on customer testimonials.

The American Medical Association was not amused and released the following statement: “It is hoped that no doctor will be uncritical enough to join in the promotion of Hadacol. It is difficult to imagine how one could do himself or his profession greater harm from the standpoint of the abuse of the trust of a patient suffering from any condition.”

The “Hadacol Boogie” jingle that accompanied advertising became a popular recording. And LeBlanc brought in Hollywood celebrities for his “Hadacol Caravan” touring show. The audience paid in Hadacol bottle tops, and could see the likes of Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope and Judy Garland.

In 1951, LeBlanc sold the company to investors for more than $8m. Soon afterwards, the enterprise collapsed under the weight of debtors and LeBlanc, facing charges of fraud, disappeared.

Shortly before LeBlanc sold his stake in the company, Groucho Marx asked him what Hadacol was good for. He replied: “It was good for about five and a half million dollars for me last year.”

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