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When the Doctor's Office Is Also a Day Spa

Dr. Howard Murad mixes the concepts of medicine and beauty--and creates a $60-million company.

April 02, 1999|MIMI AVINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sales, he knew, were directly dependent on education, so he gave free seminars to consumers and salon owners (a practice the company rigorously continues). Before fashion and beauty magazines heralded alpha hydroxy acids as the secret ingredient of a new elixir, most women would welcome a pie in the face before they'd willingly put acid on their skin. Murad repeatedly invited beauty editors to lectures, explaining so clearly how AHAs worked that the skin care mavens of Vogue and Mirabella couldn't wait to inform their readers.

By 1992, Murad's inaugural alpha hydroxy trio were sold in 2,500 salons. Seeking to reach a still wider audience, Murad made an infomercial. He had been teaching at UCLA Medical School as an assistant clinical professor since 1973, and using a pseudo-sitcom story about two women--one who took care of her skin, the other who didn't--he reconstituted his tutorial on alpha hydroxy acids, antioxidants and liposomes for remote control-toting audience of insomniacs. The infomercial, which Murad now considers "ahead of its time," was a total flop.

"Maybe three people in the whole country bought products," he says. "I wasn't devastated. I was building the business through the aestheticians."

Two years later, he tried again. By then, the infomercial had progressed from neologism to marketing phenomenon. Murad's followed the accepted format: A recognizable talk show host type (Sarah Purcell) presided over a group of enthusiastic Murad users in an ersatz living room. Murad participated in the chatfest, dispensing skin care advice that didn't always point straight to an available product. From June 1994 through December 1996 the company spent half a million dollars a week buying television air time; every day, the Murad infomercial was running at some time, on some channel, somewhere in America. In contrast to the "what if you gave a party and nobody came" response to the first television push, the second effort motivated 700,000 people to order $119 starter kits containing four products. In keeping with Murad's belief that women should get professional help for their skin, the kits included a coupon that could be redeemed for a discount on a service at a local salon or spa.

Although medical advertising has been legal since 1977, most doctors don't do it, much less star in their own 30-minute TV sellathons. "A lot of the medical community is very conservative and frowns upon doctors who do infomercials because they think it's too promotional," says Arnold Klein, a Beverly Hills dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine.

If Murad knew his colleagues were frowning at his talking on the tube about cream that absorbs oil in the T-zone, he ignored their reaction. He thought it was important to broadcast news of a breakthrough.

"I never really pay attention to what other people think," he says. "I don't know what other doctors think. I thought doing the infomercial was a different way to go, but I didn't think it was anything bad."

A Medical Degree, Then Service in Vietnam

Anyone searching for an explanation for Murad's willingness to buck convention might look to his childhood. As a Jew who spent the first seven years of his life in Iraq, he was born an outsider.

"When my family left Iraq for the United States in 1946," he says, "there were 250,000 Jews there, including families who had been there for generations. Today, there are less than 5,000 left. It was never good to be a Jew in Iraq. There was a kind of coexistence, but we weren't first-class citizens there. In America, I feel like an American. In Iraq, I felt like a foreigner."

He graduated from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, then worked his way through the then-California College of Medicine, now the UC Irvine College of Medicine, as a night-shift pharmacist. After completing an internship in surgery, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. Attached to an airborne division, he tended to soldiers brought into a base camp before they were shipped to a MASH medical unit. The experience left him with the feeling that he wanted more contact with patients, and less with their body parts. He did a residency in dermatology after his discharge in 1962.

His medical office claims, at most, a day per week of his time. Four months of the year, he teaches at UCLA for a few hours a week, and he volunteers one day a month at Vista Del Mar, a resident center for troubled children. Murad's 180 employees are also encouraged to take off one paid day a month to devote time to a charity. The company supports the Los Angeles Free Clinic and funds a scholarship program administered by Big Sisters of Los Angeles for young women interested in medicine or aesthetics.

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