PITTSBURGH -- The mass of dieters doing away with carbohydrates may be changing the demographics for companies that traditionally have marketed fiber laxatives to the silver-haired crowd.
In an advertising campaign appearing at newsstands, GlaxoSmithKline is offering a "zero-carb solution to a low-carb problem," referring to the irregularity suffered by some people on the Atkins and South Beach diets.
It was the first shot in a marketing blitz that has pharmaceutical companies seeking out consumers who might traditionally be more familiar with hair gel products than fiber laxatives.
GlaxoSmithKline said it is responding to a bump in sales and a surge in calls over the past year to consumer lines regarding Citrucel, its fiber laxative.
Just days after the GlaxoSmithKline ads appeared, Procter & Gamble fired back, promising in advertisements that its brand, Metamucil, allows users to "Stay regular. The 0 net carb way."
Labels on Citrucel caplets now let the low-carb crowd know the fiber laxative won't set them back. The caplet form has no carbohydrates and can "help you get back on track," according to magazine ads appearing in March editions.
Patrick Seiffert, brand manager for Citrucel, said GlaxoSmithKline is targeting consumers who follow a particular lifestyle and not an age group, but acknowledges that the target audience for the product may be changing, largely because of low-carb dieters.
"About 20 percent of the population is now on a low-carb diet and about a third experience changes in regularity," Seiffert said. "That's about 13 million people. That's significant for us."
The estimated number of people on low-carbohydrate diets varies widely, as does the number of people who suffer adverse effects from eating more meats and cheeses, hallmarks of the diet.
Yet Internet forums dedicated to Atkins and South Beach are clogged with the woes of people who have not replaced the fiber that was once part of their diet.
GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare, a division based just outside Pittsburgh, is grabbing for a larger market share from industry leader Procter & Gamble. P&G controls about 40 percent of the market, GlaxoSmithKline about 20 percent.
The two products are just a portion of the $350 million laxatives market, but marketing experts said companies can win customers for life if they get them first.
"That category tends to skew older, and it's intuitive that if you can broaden what is a pretty narrow demographic market, that would increase sales and presumably profits," said Lawrence Feick, a professor of marketing at Katz Business School at the University of Pittsburgh.
Procter & Gamble boasts that Metamucil is mentioned in "The South Beach Diet" by its author, Dr. Arthur Agatston. However, no P&G market research shows younger consumers may be using more Metamucil, but the company is keeping tabs on the data, said Dr. Kurt Weingand, associate director of the P&G Health Sciences Institute.
Metamucil has three grams of carbohydrates, but they are all nondigestible dietary fiber, meaning zero net carbs for consumers, Weingand said.
"People are just coming to Metamucil with South Beach being No. 1 on The New York Times' best seller list," he said. "We've gotten a lot of play out of that."
The marketing power of carb-centered products remains a big seller, and GlaxoSmithKline says they're the market leader as far as carbs go.
"We have zero, zero, zero (carbs)," said company spokeswoman Lori Lukus. "We don't have any."
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