Spiritual Balm, At Only $23.95

The e-mail from Deepak Chopra to 22,000 of his fans began with a simple greeting: ''Dear Friends.''

New York Times/October 21, 2001
By Alex Kuczynski

Sent to Mr. Chopra's Internet mailing list on Tuesday, Sept. 25, it continued: ''In the midst of the grief over the tragedy of Sept. 11, I feel that spiritual comfort becomes more important than ever.''

Mr. Chopra wrote that it is natural right now for Americans to ask questions about religion, the afterlife and the permanence of the soul. But by the second paragraph, what began as a communiqué of spiritual affinity turned into marketing, plain and simple.

''Just one day before the catastrophe, I published a novel about love that survives death and suffering,'' Mr. Chopra wrote. ''It is called 'Soulmate' and it contains reassurance about all these issues. In the hopes that it won't be overlooked in these difficult days, I'd like to bring this story to your attention.''

Several readers said they were directed to a link where they could purchase the book for $23.95.

Over the next two weeks, the e-mail note traveled from one disbelieving reader to the next, sometimes affixed with disapproving notes: ''This is appalling,'' read one. ''For those of you who thought cynicism was dead,'' said another.

As Americans grieve, panic, lie awake at night and turn over the fundamental questions of life, the world of healers -- pop gurus, yogis, New Age nutritionists, herbalists, even pharmacies and social workers -- has spawned the first wave of marketing that offers the promise of spiritual and physical peace, in exchange for cash and publicity.

Psychic peace may be priceless. But the new Downtown Detox treatment -- designed to leech the post-Sept. 11 toxins from downtown residents at the SoHo Sanctuary spa? That's $85.

Not every yogi, aromatherapist, psychologist and spa owner is capitalizing on insecurity or fear, of course. Nor are they all marketing unnecessary services in questionable or opportunistic ways. It is reasonable to think that residents of Lower Manhattan, where the air smells like a mountain of burning tires, might crave the steam, massage and mud wrap that makes a Downtown Detox.

But those peddling products and services have to tread lightly, said Donna Turro, the director of Soho Sanctuary. ''You have to be very, very careful about how you promote it,'' she said. ''You put it out there, but you don't push it. A hard sell with anything related to Sept. 11 is a real turnoff.''

Visitors to the Web site of Gurumayi -- a Siddha yoga instructor who is guru to Hollywood dharma-seekers like Meg Ryan and Don Johnson -- will find that its bookstore page presents a note for her followers, which offers ''prayers and blessings to everyone impacted by the tragedy of September 11, 2001.'' It goes on to say, ''We have put together some suggestions for spiritual support during this time.''

Spiritual support, though, will cost you: there is the $108 prayer shawl, a mantra sung by Gurumayi (on cassette, $15.95, CD $18.95) and a Gurumayi lecture ($15.95).

Kathleen Harkins, the SYDA Foundation's communications director, said she did not think the marketing was inappropriate, because visitors to Gurumayi's Web site already practiced Siddha yoga and the bookstore offerings were meant to offer meditation items that were especially useful now.

Mr. Chopra said the 22,000 e-mail recipients on his list were people who had signed up for information about his activities and presumably wanted to hear about new ones. He added that he stopped all promotional efforts and refused bookstore appearances after Sept. 11. ''It seemed totally inappropriate,'' he said. He said that he read the letter again on Friday and that he realized it sounded off-putting. ''In hindsight, that letter was totally inappropriate,'' he said. ''It should not have been sent, and I am sorry.''

Best-selling authors and the occasional social worker -- people in professions that presumably demand a keenly sensitive touch -- have made some awkward public relations missteps in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, for example, the plywood wall in front of a building under construction at Greenwich and Jay Streets was covered with photographs and fliers of the missing. There was also an advertisement, taped up in several places, for mental health services.

''Problems?'' it read. ''Professional trauma specialist and psychotherapist.'' An 800 number, but no name, was listed. At the bottom, as on the taped-up ads on college campuses for futons, was a fringe of phone numbers to be torn off. And affixed to at least two other missing persons fliers was a business card: ''Psychotherapy. Laura Florman.'' It listed a Manhattan phone number.

Both the flyer and the business card numbers reached the voice mail of Ms. Florman, who said later that she was a clinical social worker. Ms. Florman said she recalled putting up the fliers on a blank wall, not a wall filled with profiles of victims, even though at least one of her fliers appeared to have been taped up over those of the missing. When told that her ads were commingled with victims' fliers, she remarked: ''Whoa, now that looks insensitive.''

Ms. Florman said she had never advertised with fliers before and had not intended specifically to attract victims' family members or friends. Rather, she said that because no phones were working in TriBeCa, where she lived, she needed to find another way to let the community know that she was available.

Dr. Robert S. Schacter, the executive director of the New York City chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the association's code of ethics stated that social workers should not engage ''in uninvited solicitation of potential clients who because of their circumstances are vulnerable to manipulation or coercion.'' In Ms. Florman's case, he said, ''it's a judgment call, but we'd be concerned about it.''

Sometimes judgment calls can cause friction between the side that wants to pursue a questionable marketing effort and the side that does not. In March, Hampton Roads Publishing Inc. of Charlottesville, Va., published ''Fast Lane to Heaven,'' a book about a near-death experience by a former nightclub owner turned New Age evangelist named Ned Dougherty. In the book, Mr. Dougherty wrote that he had visions during his near-death experience; one was of terrorist attacks on Washington and New York by religious fanatics. After Sept. 11, Mr. Dougherty urged the editor at Hampton Roads, Frank DeMarco, to publicize his prediction and his message of peace from beyond the grave. Mr. Demarco refused.

''We believe in Ned's message and in his book,'' Mr. Demarco said. ''And I know there are people out there marketing the American flag and making a fortune. But I know what it looks like to me when I see other people do it, and I don't like it, so I felt it was not right for us.''

Mr. Dougherty hired his own public relations consultant, who began a campaign of press releases last week about Mr. Dougherty's vision.

''Prior to 9-1-1, I had to beat the doors down at Barnes & Noble,'' Mr. Dougherty said, using shorthand for the date of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. ''And since 9-1-1 I have been getting numerous calls to speak all over. So I thought it was important to have someone to manage that.''

Providers of products and services can argue that they are merely offering useful information to people in need, but some promotional tactics that would have been acceptable in the marketing climate just six weeks ago are now inappropriate, said Jonah Bloom, the editor in chief of P.R. Week, a trade publication for public-relations executives.

''If you have a product with any connection to the events of 9-1-1 or anthrax, the point is to avoid sounding too crass or opportunistic,'' Mr. Bloom said. Organizations that offer spiritual advice or healing specifically tailored to the attacks or anxieties about anthrax would have the most problems promoting themselves right now, he said.

''I would say the healy-feely 'I'm going to put crystals on your temples and make you feel all better' people have to be the most careful,'' he said. ''There are some major institutions offering counseling, like the Red Cross, and to promote anything along those lines you have to be a part of organizations people already trust.''

Unlike licensed professions such as social work or psychotherapy, the World Wide Web has no governing code of ethics. In the last week, some sites have started to send e-mail messages to their customers promoting herbal remedies for anthrax, which doctors say are probably useless.

For example, the home page of a Utah company called Whole Life Health Services was advertising colloidal silver as a ''natural antibiotic'' and ''a natural way to build your immune system to fight off anthrax.''

Internet pharmacies have begun to solicit clients for ciprofloxacin, the generic name for Cipro, the most common antibiotic used to treat anthrax. USA Prescription.com, a Web site that sells prescription drugs after an online consultation, sent a note to subscribers Tuesday announcing its newest page, Bioterrorism.com, in a tone some recipients construed as provocative, if not terrifying. ''Dear Valued Patient,'' it read. ''We at USA Prescription.com are pleased to announce the launch of http ://www.BioTerrorism.com.'' The letter noted that ''we have enemies that are willing to go to any length to destroy our country.'' The site offers ciprofloxacin, which is ''very expensive and very difficult to find,'' it said. ''We do have a limited supply available now.''

The last sentence of the letter emphasized the drug's scarcity: ''Place your order for antibiotics today. . . . Supplies are VERY limited.''

Dr. George J. Annas, a specialist in medical ethics at Boston University, said he was disturbed by the hawkers of herbs and fear-rousing online pharmacies.

''For physicians, this kind of behavior would be inexcusable,'' Dr. Annas said. ''Doctors should be telling people not to get Cipro, not to take any of these marginal medications, which are expensive and probably useless,'' he said, adding that the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, the best defense against misinformation, ''have their own problems right now.''

But then again, Dr. Annas added, none of it surprised him too much. ''In times of crisis, you will always see people charging what the market will bear, and advertising products that don't exist, or don't work, just to make a buck,'' he said. ''After all, this is America.''

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