Aug 11 2011

How To Sell Magic Beans

One of the eternal questions for skeptics is – how can some people be so gullible? We have a standard answer which captures many of the factors: poor understanding of science, lack of an innate sense of probability, all the various mechanisms of self-deception, and the strong desire to believe in certain things. Further, some cons are just slick, and anyone can be fooled by a clever-enough deception.

But still, there are some claims that are so astoundingly gullible it’s difficult not to face-palm when confronted by them. One category of such claims is what I think of as the equivalent of magic amulets, or the magic beans from Jack and the Beanstalk. To believe in these magic amulets you either have to flat-out believe in magic, or you have to be so befuddled by science that it all seems like magic to you. The latter, I think, is what many marketers of magic amulets are counting on. They are deliberately marketing to the scientifically illiterate, in a very cynical way.

One strategy of such marketing is to use sciencey-sounding terminology to describe everyday objects, giving them a futuristic mystique that makes them sound more impressive than they are.

For example, I have a new nutritional product that provides nutrition on the cellular level, with nano-sized micro and macro-nutrients. It also comes packaged with its own hydration, providing the perfect balance of water and nutrition to your body. We call it – hydronutrient therapy. Further, this product is all natural and has been used safely for centuries.  (OK – it’s an apple.)

The next layer of marketing magic is to combine ancient and exotic sounding practices and describe them in pseudoscientific terms. Just sprinkle in terms like “quantum,” “nano,” “vibration,” “energy,” or “resonance.”  Here’s a good example:

Max Stress B Nano-Plex is billed as “The world’s first natural-source B vitamins, made from probiotic fermentation.” These are “highly active ‘living’ B vitamins in their end-chain forms, delivering high cellular resonance.

Nicely done. This product comes from the “Quantum Nutrition Labs.” Everything is nano. I don’t know about you, but I hate eating dead vitamins that don’t resonate with my cells. And if they are not in their end-chain form, forget about it. Probiotic is another nice buzz word, gotta throw that in. I’m surprised, though, that they forgot to mention antioxidants. Oh wait – that’s their Nano-DHLA:

Nano-DHLA — DHLA (dihydrolipoic acid) could be thought of as the king of antioxidants (“the most powerful antioxidant on Earth”). It has the unique capability of quenching every known free radical that can be found in your body, whether water-soluble or fat soluble (which is not true of alpha lipoic acid, ALA, or R-lipoic acid). Nano-DHLA is made by the same process used in making Max Stress B Nano-Plex .

I bet it would be easy to build a  snake-oil technobabble generator. Here is a Star Trek technobabble generator, and here is one for steam punk. I have to adapt this for snake-oil.

Anyway – let’s get to the real magic. Ben Radford from CSI recently sent around this one:

3000 Years of Science in a 21st Century Delivery System

CieAura Transparent Holographic Chips™ use a proprietary combination of homeopathic formulas consisting of intrinsic energies that affect positive health responses. CieAura Chips have the look of simple decals on the body or clothing and are totally non-invasive, without any chemical component. When placed along sensitive acupuncture meridian points, results such as increased energy, improved stamina, deeper, more restful nights, and other assorted reactions occur, depending on the program formula of the Holographic Chip and the related placement.

Yep – those are magic beans. You see, the holographic chips balance the innate bio-energy, operating along meridians, triggering a homeopathic response that restores proper flow to the connecticazoit. It’s the best of both words – ancient wisdom and modern science, the exotic and the unintelligible. The benefits of all this are the exact claims that companies are allowed to make without FDA oversight (by astounding coincidence). The product does not, however, do anything that would require actual evidence. This company also has the most robust disclaimer I have seen:

CieAura products are sold for learning, self-improvement and simple relaxation. No statement contained in this writing, and no information provided by any CieAura employee or retailer, should be construed as a claim or representation that these products are intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease or any other medical condition. The information contained in this writing is deemed to be based on reliable and authoritative report. However, certain persons considered experts may disagree with one or more of the statements contained here. CieAura assumes no liability or risk involved in the use of the products described here. We make no warranty, expressed or implied, other than that the material conforms to applicable standard specifications.

This is almost Simpsons-esque. It’s basically saying – our products are for entertainment purposes only, so ignore all that stuff we were saying above. Of course, we hope that you don’t actually read this disclaimer, but by having it here you can’t sue us if you ever come to your senses.

This is, of course, no different than wearing a piece of rubber on your wrist and thinking it will improve your balance and athletic performance. The fact that the company selling those made hundreds of millions of dollars tells us something about human nature and our current culture. You can sell people magic beans.

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