The product: We may live in a divided nation, but there is one man with the charisma to bring us together. "Smiling Bob," pitchman for the herbal supplement Enzyte, is destined to annoy us all. His face, frozen in a wide smile, gets more airtime than Paris Hilton. According to the ubiquitous television ads, he owes his perma-grin to Enzyte, a pill that delivers "natural male enhancement." The TV spots never explicitly say what "natural male enhancement" means, but the golf clubs and hoses he's always clutching give us a clue. (Presumably, someone decided that a giant cigar wouldn't strike the right tone of subtlety.)
The ads have evidently worked, says Dr. Mark Moyad, a urologist and the director of complementary and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. "Patients ask about Enzyte all the time," he says. Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, the Cincinnati-based company that makes and distributes Enzyte, says more than 3 million people have already tried the product.
According to the label, Enzyte is an herbal grab-bag featuring, among other things, Korean red ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, Tribulus terrestris (a.k.a. puncture vine) and -- this is true -- horny goat weed (Epimedium). It also contains less-exotic ingredients such as niacin, copper and zinc.
Enzyte is sold at drugstores everywhere, as well as over the Internet. A one-month supply costs about $50.
The claims: Smiling Bob's facial expression hasn't changed over the years, but the definition of "natural male enhancement" certainly has. Magazine ads from a few years ago promised that Enzyte could add "one to three inches to your size in just 8 months." Claims have softened dramatically since then, thanks in part to a series of lawsuits from dissatisfied customers. Now the Enzyte website promises "firmer and fuller feeling erections, along with improvements in sexual energy, stamina and confidence."
Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals declined to comment on its top-selling product.
The bottom line: Any man who still hopes that "natural male enhancement" is code for "larger penis" is bound to be disappointed by Enzyte, Moyad says. In fact, no supplement, vitamin or anything else in a pill could ever make a penis larger, he says. "That would be like trying to lengthen your leg."
Enzyte isn't likely to do anything else for a man's sex life, says Dr. Ira Sharlip, a urologist at UC San Francisco and president of the International Society for Sexual Medicine. He can't dismiss the product outright, though, because nobody has ever formally tested it. "They don't have any evidence that it's safe or effective," he says. "It's infuriating that companies can make these claims."
Although Enzyte's prowess is unproven, Moyad says, some of its ingredients could possibly give men a sexual lift. A few studies suggest that large doses of Korean red ginseng -- about six times larger than the total herbal blend found in Enzyte -- can treat erectile dysfunction. In a small Brazilian study published earlier this year, two-thirds of men taking 3 grams of ginseng daily reported stronger erections. Men taking a placebo didn't report improvements.
Moyad also thinks Tribulus terrestris might help boost testosterone, which could spark sex drives of men with low levels of the hormone. (For the record, there's no good evidence that horny goat weed lives up to its name either.)
The problem, Moyad says, is that Enzyte takes a scattershot approach -- throwing small amounts of different herbs at sexual problems instead of focusing on any particular herb or condition. If a man wanted to try an herbal remedy for erection problems, Moyad says, it would make more sense to buy a big batch of ginseng. "I'm a supporter of alternative medicines," he says. "But I'm no fan of Enzyte."
Evidently, lots of those 3 million Enzyte customers aren't huge fans either. Last September, federal prosecutors, spurred by customer complaints, indicted Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals and president Steve Warshak on 112 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, bank fraud and money laundering. The company was charged with bilking customers of more than $100 million in fraudulent charges. (The case is still pending.)
Perhaps Bob deserves some credit after all. A lesser man might have quit smiling long ago.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer based in Billings, Mont.