Purveyors of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) don’t have any credible scientific evidence. If they did, their treatments would not be called “alternative” but would have been accepted into mainstream practice and would just be called “medicine.” They tend not to appreciate science or even to understand it. They don’t need or want scientific evidence. For them, testimonials are all-powerful and are all the evidence they ask for.
There are many bogus dietary supplements on the market. In the absence of scientific evidence, all they can do is resort to dishonest marketing ploys. And they have been offering some real doozies. Another typical example just popped up in my email today, claiming that a simple trick you can do every morning will eliminate your need for eyeglasses and will cure every kind of eye disease, from cataracts to diabetic retinopathy to macular degeneration. Marketers claim to have discovered miraculous cures for all kinds of diseases that have eluded mainstream medicine. My husband asked, “If they could really do all that, where are their Nobel Prizes?” Don’t hold your breath!
Recently, I have noticed a recurring pattern of stupid videos. They keep intruding on my social media feeds and my email inbox. Some imaginative advertising agent must have created a recipe for others to follow. Among the products I have seen featured in these videos are a way to eliminate the need for eyeglasses, a cure for all eye diseases, a cure for prostate disease, a treatment for erectile dysfunction (perhaps they thought “Harriet” was a man’s name?), weight loss (52 pounds in 28 days without dieting or exercising!), tinnitus (which allegedly has nothing to do with the ears and is 100% curable!), and a penis enlargement scam. I haven’t been able to locate the original recipe for the videos, but its principles are easy to deduce.
The recipe for stupid videos
First, find a spokesperson to present the video. It needn’t be a credible expert. It needn’t even be a real person. You could just make up a fictitious character; you could even admit that it isn’t real. The website for one video promoting a prostate remedy admits that the presenter’s name is a pen name used for marketing purposes and to hide his real identity.
Use an enticing “click-bait” slogan to get people’s attention. Promise to reveal a simple secret: a practice that takes only seconds each morning. Make them suffer through the entire video before disclosing what the secret is. You can start by calling it a technique or a “ritual,” but wait until the last minute to reveal that it is just another pill, a mixture of herbs and other dietary supplements.
Make up an emotional sob story with exaggerated, unbelievable details. In the tinnitus video a fictitious presenter claimed his tinnitus was so unbearable he tried to shoot himself (in front of his family!) with a Glock. When he looked into his son’s eyes, he couldn’t do it. He dropped the gun, which went off (something that couldn’t possibly have happened because of the way the safety works on a Glock). The bullet passed one inch from his wife’s cheek (who measured that?) and lodged in the wall. You can make the story as improbable as you want. Don’t worry; people will believe anything.
If necessary, make up a disease (“small penis syndrome”).
Emphasize the embarrassment caused by the problem (“My glasses made me look ugly.” “Other guys made fun of my small penis.”)
Badmouth real doctors, saying they had failed to listen to the patient, had only useless treatments to offer, and had made things much worse. Wildly exaggerate the cost of conventional treatments.
Describe how you developed your product by trial and error, how you accessed rare ingredients, and how you tested it by giving it to a few people with no control group. You can even elicit sympathy by claiming that your research bankrupted you, caused you to lose your house, and destroyed your marriage.
Claim that supplies of your product are running out, and customers must order NOW. Offer a discount and a money-back guarantee. Claim that lots of satisfied customers are already benefitting from it. Just make up any large number; customers will not be able to fact-check you. You can say the discount is only available TODAY. People won’t notice that “today” will depend on when they watched the video.
Claim that you are being persecuted for revealing this secret. Claim that your video is about to be taken down by Big Pharma because it threatens their livelihood. Explain that you are not out to make money but are just motivated to help people. Claim that your product is scientifically proven to work. Don’t worry, your customers don’t understand what “scientifically proven” means any more than you do. Explain that the mixture of ingredients is unique and can’t be replicated by buying the individual components. Claim that your product has good side benefits like increasing your energy, improving your immune function, and balancing your hormones.
Promise to explain how each ingredient works; but then don’t do it. Claim that there are no side effects (people won’t bother to look up the readily available reports of adverse effects for each ingredient). Claim that your specific mixture is uniquely effective. Say that this untested mixture has been clinically proven to work. If you must cite studies, you can easily locate some tangentially related studies of individual components and claim that giving all these ingredients together must be more effective.
Use picturesque, emotion-based, unscientific language (your prostate could “pop” at any moment). Don’t worry about misspellings; your customers can’t spell any better than you can.
More marketing ploys
In addition to these stupid videos, other ads for dietary supplements feature deceptive marketing ploys. Here are a few to watch for:
Celebrity endorsements. Some people value celebrity opinions over scientific evidence. Mayim Byalik, Sheldon’s girlfriend on The Big Bang, is pushing Neuriva. She has a PhD in neuroscience and says she loves the science of Neuriva. But the science isn’t there: the product has never been properly tested. An article in Psychology Todayreviewed the scientific evidence and proclaimed Neuriva “just another snake oil.”
Appeal to nature. They promote the logical fallacy that natural compounds are inherently superior to manufactured ones.
More is better? They combine numerous ingredients, often with no clear rationale. They believe A and B both work, and they assume a mixture of A and B will work even better due to a synergistic effect. That may or not be true; the mixture must be tested to find out.
Testimonials. They offer testimonials galore, as if testimonials were reliable evidence of effectiveness; they aren’t. We can’t even assume that the “satisfied customers” are real people, and of course we don’t hear anything from dissatisfied customers.
Reports from medical doctors. They think customers will be impressed by anything a medical doctor says, but MDs may be wrong or untrustworthy. Jennifer Daniels is a medical doctor who insists turpentine is a Fountain of Youth although it is a known poison that has been tested and not found useful for any human ailment. She says when she took turpentine it felt like her IQ went up 50 points, her mother felt better less than a minute (!) after taking it. She started treating all her patients with it, with miraculous results. She has stopped using antibiotics, tells her patients to stop taking their medications, and she opposes vaccines. She cites a review of 100 studies that she thinks support her claims; they don’t. Rather than evidence for the effectiveness of turpentine, her writings sound like an admission of malpractice.
No side effects. Anything that has an effect is bound to have side effects, but the ads deny this. They don’t divulge the reports of adverse effects that are readily available for each of the ingredients in their mixtures.
Money-back guarantees. They know that only a small minority of customers will ask for their money back, and they are making such huge profits that they can write this off as a cost of doing business.
Claiming their product is superior to others. They say it is better absorbed or otherwise better than similar products on the market. But better absorption doesn’t necessarily mean more effective. How do they know it is more effective than other products when no comparison studies have ever been done?
Pseudoscience. They try to impress customers by misusing scientific terminology like “quantum” and “energy.” They promise to “boost your immune system” but that’s contraindicated for autoimmune diseases, and the only reliable way to boost immunity is vaccination. They cite antioxidants as if they were always a good thing (they aren’t).
Fictitious diseases. They may make up a new disease or may offer to treat diseases that have not been accepted by medical science. Treatments for alleged “chronic Lyme disease” have been shown not to work and have caused serious harms and even deaths.
Multilevel marketing. Products that don’t work can’t make it on their own, so they may resort to multilevel marketing schemes. Distributors can make any claims they want at sales parties in the privacy of their own homes, and they are fooled into thinking they will profit when most distributors actually lose money.
Small print. They include the obligatory FDA disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” But they put this in small print at the bottom of their ad, hoping people will not read it or will disregard it.
Take-home message: trust science, not marketing ploys
This article was originally published in Skeptic Magazine.