Commentary

'Forget We Ever Said That' Syndrome

Hewlett-Packard is having second thoughts about spinning off its PC business, the Wall Street Journal’s Ben Worthen reports this morning, as new CEO Meg Whitman mulls an internal report that advises against the decision reached by her unlamented predecessor, Leo Apotheker, in August.

One reason is that its ability to get price breaks on microprocessors and hard drives for its server business would be diminished. Oh, and then there’s the bottom line: the business contributed $40.1 billion in revenue and $2 billion in operating profit last year.

It’s not a surprising decision given some of the initial feedback by media and analysts but you have to wonder what damage has been done to the brand. If you’d ever thought about buying a Saturn, you probably shelved the idea once you heard that General Motors was considering jettisoning or shutting down the brand. Throughout the HP scenario, the “consumer” has been a factor only as a nettlesome penny-pincher.

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“[Apotheker] said developing cutting-edge consumer devices requires funds that within H-P had a higher return when invested in other areas,” Worthen points out.

Meanwhile, Netflix has our heads spinning so fast that, if you’re like me, you’re wishing that neighborhood video you abandoned a few years ago would open its doors again. If the parts of the reunited entity aren’t objectively lesser than they used to be, they certainly seem that way when you factor in the 60% price increase. The cheaper streaming option is a nice adjunct but it’s not ready for prime time: Friday night at the movies with a salad. And can we ever take anything Reed Hastings and the boys say seriously again?

“I think these moves show that this management team has no idea what it's doing,” Barbara Apple Sullivan, founder and managing partner of brand engagement firm Sullivan NYC toldMarketing Daily’s Tanya Irwin. If only we could find a competitor who does.

Then there’s the news that a government-backed panel is recommending that the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test that’s given to men to detect possible signs of prostate cancer be downgraded to “D” status because "there is moderate or high certainty that the service has no net benefit or that the harms outweigh the benefits."

What that boils down to is that the panel doesn’t think enough lives are ultimately saved to justify the cost of the test. Patient advocacy groups disagree with the findings, however, and say that, for all of the test’s flaws, it’s the best method available.

Prostate cancer remains the second-leading cause of cancer death in the United States, Scott Eggener, a University of Chicago surgeon, tells Reuters’ Julie Steenhuysen. “Widespread PSA screening … has resulted in a 30% decrease in death rates when adjusted for men's ages,” he says.

In another blow to the prostate cancer community, a supplement that once was touted as perhaps having cancer-fighting properties -- vitamin E -- was said to have no perceptible positive effect a few years ago. Now, according to a follow-up study, it appears that “the men who had taken the vitamin E had a 17% increased risk of prostate cancer compared to men only taking placebos, a statistically significant difference,” according to the National Institutes of Health website.

"People tend to think of vitamins as innocuous substances, almost like chicken soup -- take a little and it can't hurt," lead author Eric Klein of the Cleveland Clinic says in a story by the AP’s Lindsey Tanner. "If you have normal levels, the vitamin is probably of no benefit, and if you take too much, you can be harmed."

And then we have the news that another study finds that “some dietary supplements are associated with an increased risk of death in older women,” the Los Angeles Times’ Eryn Brown reports, according to a study released Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

"This paper contributes to the growing amount of studies showing no benefits for supplement use in the prevention of chronic diseases," says the study’s first author, Jaakko Mursu, a post-doctoral researcher in nutrition at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health.

The supplement industry, which news reports constantly remind us is “unregulated,” has grown to a $27 billion business, according to a trade group, the Council for Responsible Nutrition, with various products used by 150 million Americans. It calls the study a “hunt for harm,” and details what it means by thathere.

So what does all this flip-flopping and conflicting data add up to? That the quants, for all of their scientific methodology, often don’t have a clue about what’s really going on. And what really frightening about that is that sometimes they clearly do.

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