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03.10.09 6:05 AM ET

The Case for Upsizing

Do the “male enhancement” pills from late-night infomercials really supersize a man? Daniel Nester—the man who tanned his way to happiness—inches his way to the answer.

Do the “male enhancement” pills from late-night infomercials really supersize a man? Daniel Nester— the man who tanned his way to happiness—inches his way to the answer.

It’s late at night and I’m watching an unidentified woman in a tight, blue mini-dress tell a middle-aged man named Frank that “size matters.”

“I know it matters to me,” she says as she leans forward, her brown curls cascading over an ample décolletage. “But what’s kind of interesting is that some studies show that as many as 60 percent of women are not fully satisfied by the size of their partner.”

One subject did report a “strange, random erection at gym” on Day Six while “watching the Alex Rodriguez press conference.”

Welcome to the lowest common denominator of infomercials, the one that says, “Your dick is small, and you don’t even know it.” A foundation-shaking statement for a red-blooded male at any moment in history, but especially right now. We’re weathering an extended period of emasculation, with the recession gutting men from the workplace at a faster rate than women. We’re mortgaged to the hilt, downsized, bubble-popped, and credit-crunched. The dream of an exurban McMansion and an impractically large automobile is crumbling before our eyes.

Which is why we sit up and listen when the woman in the blue mini-dress, former Miss Hawaiian Tropic and Britney Spears backup dancer Bridgetta Tomarchio, tells us there’s still one part of the American Dream within reach: “A product out there called ExtenZe that can increase your size.”

The manufacturer of ExtenZe claims more than 460,000 customers have bought in the neighborhood of 250 million pills. Recent campaigns tout the ExtenZe drink, and infomercials in front of the Playboy mansion feature “ExtenZe Girls” dressed in cheerleader outfits. Response, a trade magazine that covers the “direct-response ad” industry, ranked ExtenZe as the seventh-most popular campaign in 2008, beating out the Ab Rocket and the Dual Action Cleanse.

As a former hack medical journalist, I wanted to find out if ExtenZe really works. I bought 120 pills on eBay, recruited 12 thirty- and fortysomething overeducated white males, and mailed each of them a 20-inch tube filled with ten ExtenZe pills, a foot-long ruler from Staples, an informed-consent form, a survey, and what I called a Boner Diary. I advised each patient to try to have an erection each day for ten days, directing them to the YouPorn, Victoria’s Secret, and American Apparel websites. Armed with an official-sounding name, the Watchful Analysis of New Growth, we were in business.

Several of my subjects dropped out of the study, or chickened out, once they received the pills in their mailbox. (I give them credit for trying—those who initially declined my request, down to the last man, said they couldn’t take ExtenZe because they were “too big already.”)

I was left with data from five guys. Subjects answered questions on a rating of 1 to 5, 1 being “Strongly Disagree” to 5 being “Strongly Agree.” All of the guys selected “strongly disagree” to such statements as “My penis looks up to one inch longer,” “My penis looks greater than one inch longer,” and “My penis looks greater than two inches longer.” In fact, three reported no difference at all in the quality of their erections, and no subject reported a change in their penis size.

In his notes, one subject did report a “strange, random erection at gym” on Day Six while “watching the Alex Rodriguez press conference.” He later attributed this to a “treadmill boner,” the rhythm of workout shorts against a flaccid penis.

Two other subjects reported a “tingle sensation” along with their erections in the first few days, then nothing more. One subject put it best: “The first couple of days, it does send a rush of blood down to the netherworld,” he writes. “So it sorta feels like something is happening. My guess is that they count on people feeling that and then quickly ordering a lifetime supply. Then, on the third day or so, there is no more sensation down there. By that time, though, people will have probably pumped another $150 into the company and will be too embarrassed to ask for their money back.”

Perhaps based on this tingle-then-nothing effect, ExtenZe’s manufacturer, Maximizer Health, has had to cool down many of its claims since a 2005 Better Business Bureau report. No more claiming that 98 percent of men who take the pills experience this performance improvement regardless of age, or that it will increase “that certain part of the male body” up to 25 percent. Do the math: If each dude got the 25 percent benefit the company claims, and we assume that the average erect penis is five inches long, that’s a total of 575,000 extra inches, all thanks to ExtenZe. Recent ExtenZe infomercials feature Bridgetta, simply asking company representative Dr. Michael Nelson if the pill “really works.”

“Our ingredients suggest that would be the case,” Dr. Nelson demurs.

The ingredients he refers to are basically a greatest hits package of herbal supplements that have claimed to increase men’s virility over the centuries: folic acid, zinc, black pepper, ginger, yohimbe, velvet deer antler, horny goat weed, pumpkin, licorice extract, and ho shou wu extract, along with the legal steroids Pregnenolone and Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA.

At a bare minimum, perhaps ExtenZe makes it OK to have erections. All five subjects had at least one erection a day over the 10-day study period, and all had more than one erection on two days or more. Not a statistically significant increase from normal, perhaps, though one subject with a low sex drive noted that “there are few men out there less horny than I was to start with,” and even he was able to get aroused once a day on ExtenZe. This could be attributed to placebo effect, however, or possibly a Hawthorne Effect generated from recording his daily libido in a diary that someone else will eventually see.

Or maybe the pills put you in a tent-pitch-friendly mind-set. “Let me be clear: This pill did not work,” one participant wrote in his notes on Day Eight. “But I did enjoy clicking around the American Apparel site.”

The only published medical trial for ExtenZe came out last June in Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association. Co-authored by Daniel S. Stein, MD, ExtenZe’s unpaid spokesperson, the pilot study monitored 20 males for an eight-week trial, and performed ultrasounds of blood flow and neurosensory analysis. The study didn’t report that anyone’s penis actually grew like the ads claim; rather, the researchers found an increase in erection strength.

So even though ExtenZe in no way increases penis size, as any reasonably intelligent person could probably have guessed, men still dial the number on the bottom of the screen at 3 a.m.

'Twas ever thus. For centuries, men around the world have inserted small objects inside the skins of their penises. These “Pearly Penile Papules,” as they are called in the medical literature, act as Ben Wa balls to “exacerbate sexual pleasure” and measure from 5 to 7 millimeters.

Current methods of penile augmentation are glorified versions of the penile papule model. Between 1991 and 1998, as many as 10,000 men have undergone penis operations in the US for cosmetic purposes since the introduction of an elongating method created by Dr. Dao-Chou Long in 1990. (Yes, his name is Dr. Long.) Phalloplasty treatments in the pipeline include grafts or patches, all for a net gain of 1 to 1.5 inches, as well as injections of gels into the glans or tip, which results in a longer, albeit maraca-shaped penis.

All of which proves, if anything, the great lengths to which men will go to increase their own size. ExtenZe may not deliver on all its promises, but it continues to sell, and like all the best products, it’s not selling a product so much as a promise. Because what’s a foreclosure or two when you’re solvent in the one place that matters? As long as the dream of a date with Bridgetta lives on, so will ads that offer her up in the form of a pill.

Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate, a book of humorous nonfiction. He lives in upstate New York.