Excedrin by any other name works just the same

All Excedrin products have been recalled by Novartis because some bottles might be contaminated with “stray tablets” of other products, so now they’re big sellers on the Internet black market among people who swear that no other drug will do the job for them. This story interests me because the Excedrin formula–acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine–is the one I use when I have a headache. I guess I’m just lucky (?) that the generic formulation is as effective against my headaches as the three-times-more-expensive brand name, so I haven’t noticed that these products have been missing from the stores for six months.

I did some research on Excedrin a few years back and found to my great surprise that the various products are mostly the same, despite their different names. They are marketed as if each were unique and effective only against certain symptoms that the others are not.

The following formulas contain identical ingredients per pill: 250 mg acetaminophen, 250 mg aspirin, and 65 mg caffeine. (Express Gels are simply a different type of pill, not a separate formula.)

These formulas are unique:

Looking at all these labels, I have to wonder how anybody can say that the Migraine formulation is the only one that relieves their headache when the Menstrual Complete formula would work just the same. Furthermore, there is nothing magical about the ingredients used to make Excedrin. Acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine are not patented, nor is the ratio of the combination unique to Excedrin. I have a $2 bottle of tablets with the identical label in my medicine cabinet right now. Works great.

Marketing is all about perception. People want to buy products specific to their individual needs. A man will never buy a “menstrual relief” product no matter what it contains or promises or costs. Similarly, dog owners do not want to give their pets foods or medicines that are labeled for cats, so manufacturers often package identical product formulations into separate canine and feline lines. The only thing different is the animal pictured on the label, which determines the market for that product.

As consumers, we should be smarter than that. Never underestimate the power of the placebo effect: If you believe that only a name-brand drug will relieve your symptoms and its generic equivalent will not (or vice-versa), you will probably make yourself right. Half the power–maybe more–of any remedy is in whether or not we believe it will work. Read labels carefully and don’t let them fool you into paying too much.


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