Jul 26 2016

Marketing Conspiracies and Conspiracy Marketing

selling pseudoscience6_nA recent article by Spenser Davis details how Alex Jones uses his conspiracy mongering to sell conspiracy-themed supplements and products. This phenomenon goes way past Alex Jones. This post from Destroyed by Science lists a few of the more popular websites that combine conspiracy theories and dubious supplements and other products.

In my opinion, Jones pales in comparison to Natural News. This online empire closely connects conspiracies about medicine and the government with specific alternative health products and supplements.

The marriage of conspiracy theories and selling snake oil and pseudoscience is an obvious one. My question, however, is in which direction does the arrow of causation go?

Springtime for Charlatans

Pseudoscience, scientific illiteracy in general, and conspiracy thinking are goldmines for the sellers of dubious products. Think about it – what better potential customer is there than someone who is willing to believe fantastical claims does not require claims to even be scientifically plausible, let alone supported by solid science, and is skeptical of the regulatory system designed to protect consumers from fraud?

Ironically, conspiracy and alternative medicine sites promote a narrative in which the public cannot trust big corporations and malign their competitors by claiming that they are all about profit. This is an easy accusation to make because corporations do exist primarily to make profit. That is why I recommend a generally skeptical attitude toward all corporations, and in fact toward anyone trying to sell you something.

The reason this narrative is ironic is because the conspiracy sites are promoting their own big corporations who are also trying to sell you something. In their narrative, they are just mom-and-pop operations, but this is nonsense. The big conspiracy websites are making millions of dollars. The supplement industry is worth billions of dollars a year, as is the alternative medicine industry.

The cries of “Big Pharma” are no more valid than Big Supplement, Big Conspiracy, or Big Alternative.

In fact, those complaining the most about the abuses of Big Whatever are the ones who are the most guilty of the malfeasance of which they accuse others.

I will never defend the abuses and excesses of the pharmaceutical industry, but at least they are regulated. They have a watchdog. In fact, most drugs don’t make it through the pipeline – they die at some point along the way because a dangerous side effect crops up, or they simply don’t work. Pharmaceutical companies go bankrupt (or are gobbled up by bigger companies) when one of their drugs fails after millions were invested in research.

If the system were truly rigged as the conspiracy theorists say, this would not be happening on a regular basis as it is. (Again, I am not saying the system is perfect, it’s just not the cartoon villainy the conspiracy theorists claim.)

In the last few decades, however, there has been only one supplement pulled from the shelves because users were dropping dead, ephedra. Other supplements received a stern warning because their products were adulterated with actual drugs. Otherwise, there isn’t a single supplement that failed to make it to market because of research (because no research is necessary) or was pulled from shelves because evidence of lack of efficacy or of harm.

Therefore, conspiracy theorists are selling supplements, which are almost entirely unregulated, and can be sold with implied health claims without any oversight. They do this while complaining about the pharmaceutical industry, who are tightly regulated, have to spend millions of dollars to get a product to market, and have often been fined hundreds of millions of dollars for stepping outside the lines in their marketing.

Chicken and the Egg

Back to my question – what actually comes first, the conspiracy theories or the snake oil?

First, an important caveat. I am not generically criticizing monetizing journalism or advocacy (even advocacy with which I disagree). Everyone has to do it. I have no problem with anyone asking for donations, using ads to pay for bandwidth, selling books or videos, selling merchandise, or anything like that. We all do it; time is money. It takes resources to get things done, and I have no problem with people making money for their hard and valued work.

The question is – is the marketing supporting the advocacy, or is the advocacy supporting the marketing?

Often the types of conspiracy mongering being offered by the likes of Alex Jones and, even more so, Mike Adams seems perfectly tailored for selling their snake oil. It would not surprise me at all if the extreme conspiracy theorist personas were entirely fabricated for the express purpose of cultivating a gullible audience and then selling them snake oil.

There are some straight-up con artists like this. I would put Kevin Trudeau in this category. It makes sense that even if an earnest conspiracy subculture existed, it would attract con artists and sociopaths.

There are also some true believers at the other end of the spectrum. They don’t appear to be savvy self-marketers, and just appear to be doing advocacy.

Many of the most popular conspiracy theorists, however, are likely somewhere along that spectrum from true believer to con artist. The conspiracy theories and the snake oil play well off each other. The lines blur as the two things because part of the same narrative, and it’s hard to question the whole thing when millions of dollars start rolling in.

Conclusion

Ironically, as a skeptic I am often accused of marketing skepticism in order to make money. As any skeptical activist can tell you, this is absurd on its face. All the money is on the other side. Even those with successful outlets are spending way more time for the money they generate than is worth it just for the income. Skeptical activism is a hugely inefficient way to generate income.

I am also accused of being a shill for Big Whatever. This is just the “shill gambit” – an ad hominem approach to dismiss legitimate criticism.

Unfortunately, the narrative is somewhat successful, at least among the target audience of those likely to purchase snake oil with outrageous claims. It is important for us to dispel that narrative.

The conspiracy theories, alternative health gurus, and similar sites are the ones trying to sell you something. The successful ones are making millions. They want to sell you dubious products with amazing claims without any burden of evidence or quality control. They want to be immune to prosecution for fraud.

So they attack the government who would regulate them. They attack their competitors as big evil corporations. They attack their critics as shills. And the people who believe this nonsense are their best customers.

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