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Phillips founded Muscle Media 2000, a magazine popular among the gym crowd, and he began pushing MET-Rx to its readers. For many of the kitchen chemists who would come to control their own supplement companies, the arrival of MET-Rx was a watershed moment. The powder tasted horrible and was a chalky mess, but it worked. Many of today's supplement makers talk nostalgically of the first time they took it. For some, Connelly's creation changed their lives.
The alliance between the scientist Connelly and the promoter Phillips was a short one. Phillips left MET-Rx in the mid-1990s and took control of Monterey, Calif.--based Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS), building it into one of the industry's giants. Connelly sold MET-Rx in January 2000.
"I think at the start, a lot of [supplement] companies had the model of pharmaceutical companies," says Matt Vukovich, the clinical research director for EAS from 1997 to '99, and now an associate professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at South Dakota State. But because supplement makers can't patent their ingredients, a competitor could simply appropriate their research and development, making the pharmaceutical approach less cost-effective. So, says Vukovich, "Today some of the biggest [supplement] companies are just big marketing departments."
At the Boca Raton, Fla., offices of BSN—which outsources its manufacturing—certified athletic trainers and nutritionists take calls from customers and recommend products while bright plasma screens track their performance stats. (Linda is leading in inbound calls, but Shawn averages more than $100 per sale.) Some supplement makers may be chemistry dilettantes, but almost all of them have marketing down to a science. They use "steroid-bloated bodybuilders," as Connelly calls them, in magazine ads and include steroid shorthand (terms like deca and drol) in the names of their pills. VPX includes a syringe-like device with some products to lend a hard-core feel.
Getting a product on the shelves of GNC remains the surest way to hit it big, and the quickest way to move it once it's there is by paying a "spiff," or commission, to GNC salespeople—from 25 cents to $8 for every tub or bottle they sell. As a result, several former and current GNC salespeople told SI, unsuspecting customers are sometimes steered to a supplement that is inappropriate for their needs. "I once saw a guy recommend creatine for arthritis," says a former general manager of a GNC store. No study has ever proved that creatine benefits arthritis sufferers, and supplement makers are not allowed to pitch their products as medical remedies.
Kevin Mullins, a 20-year-old kinesiology student at Maryland and a GNC sales associate, says that "if a guy comes in with a realistic goal, I say, O.K., let me put away the spiff product that helps me and get this guy the best products we have. [But] if there's a 20-year-old college student who just wants to look good and get laid, and he says, 'Yeah, man, I've got $120 to spend,' then he's not going to stick with it anyway, so I might just help myself."
In a statement to SI, GNC said that "like many other retailers, GNC occasionally participates in manufacturer incentive programs on a specific product.... We believe that GNC's customers are informed and intelligent consumers who are not so easily swayed."
MuscleTech is a well-known spiffer—offering up to $8 per sale, according to GNC employees—and one of the industry's most prolific marketers. (A recent 486-page issue of Muscular Development included 62 pages of ads for MuscleTech products.) During a slew of lawsuits several years ago related to the company's no-longer-made ephedra products, some of MuscleTech's tactics were exposed. According to one suit, one magazine advertisement included before and after pictures but failed to mention that the woman, Marla Duncan, was actually a fitness model. Nor did some of the ads indicate that the before picture was taken shortly after she gave birth.
That was a minor misstep compared to MuscleTech's manipulation of the findings from clinical studies. In one instance the company allegedly tried to have subjects who dropped out of a study because of heart palpitations and high blood pressure not counted in the data. MuscleTech's actions were so egregious that upon the January 2003 settlement of one suit in Oklahoma, previously sealed documents were released so the company's actions would be, in the words of the judge, "publicly known and incapable of repetition in future cases."
Today it remains difficult to differentiate scientific findings from a marketer's handiwork. Darryn Willoughby of Baylor says he is often approached by companies wanting to create only the illusion of a real study. "They might want to take 15 or 20 guys, give them whey protein, have them train or whatever, and then do before and after measurements," Willoughby says. "Sure, they're going to improve, but there's no control group to compare them against." Even when he does determine that a supplement increases energy or causes weight loss, Willoughby says it is impossible to tell which of the dozens of ingredients are causing the effect. "It could just be the caffeine," he says. "You don't know."