From pop to Prozac

Written by Kim Shiffman

If Disco Fire, 25 Polka Greats or Corny Country sound familiar, you really need to get out more. But anyone over 30 should recall K-tel International Inc., the ’70s icon behind hundreds of such compilation LPs and the fast-paced TV advertising promoting them. Since December, millions of Americans have been hearing the K-tel name again. Only this time around, K-tel is an online pharmacy selling cheap Canadian drugs to U.S. buyers.

Who’s behind the brand-new K-tel Drug Mart of Canada? Philip Kives, the Saskatchewan-born founder of K-tel International and the man largely credited with inventing the direct-response TV spot. So it’s no surprise that Kives is using mass TV advertising to promote K-tel Drug Mart, one of about 100 Canadian online pharmacies exploiting America’s demand for affordable drugs. (Drugs cost less here because Ottawa regulates the prices drug manufacturers charge wholesalers.)

“I only know one way of selling a product,” says Kives, “and that’s television.” Kives writes and produces the spots himself, just as he did for Donny Osmond Superstar and Pinball Rock. His secret formula: “In the first two lines of my commercials I say what I’m selling and why I’m selling it immediately so people don’t have to guess what it’s all about.”

The Winnipeg company launched in December, after strong response to a test ad that ran in the retiree-heavy U.S. Southeast. Now an ad is running on 250 local stations covering two-thirds of the country. The ad cost just $1,800 to produce, but the airtime is costing “millions,” says Kives. “Now we have to wait and see what percentage of those calls we can convert to sales.”

Although Canada’s online drug dealers did $1 billion in sales last year, the industry is on shaky ground. Sending drugs cross-border violates U.S. law, and drug manufacturers are threatening to cut off the wholesalers that supply online pharmacies, claiming patient safety and product integrity are at risk. But Kives is confident his fledgling industry won’t be denied: “I don’t think this business is going to go away.”

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