Sep 14 2012

The Personal Anecdote as Sales Pitch

I frequently write about snake oil, dubious treatments, overhyped nonsense, and pure quackery on this blog. Invariably one or more comments show up after such posts that follow the same basic format:

“I don’t care what your science says. I tried this product and it worked for me. I had these symptoms, and then used the magic gadget, and my symptoms improved. Explain that. I don’t know how it works, I just know that it does.”

Of course I understand how compelling personal anecdotes can seem. Understanding all the myriad ways in which we can be fooled into thinking a treatment is effective when it isn’t is part of skepticism and critical thinking, and often what separates skeptics from believers. It is therefore important to explain often why anecdotes should not be compelling, and why they certainly don’t trump rigorous scientific studies.

It is sometimes surprising, however, when I write a blog post explicitly explaining this concept only to have someone write – yes, but it worked for me, and then they are shocked when other commenters here don’t find their story convincing.

There are a few variations of the personal anecdote comment. Some commenters will weave in a healthy dose of conspiracy thinking, disparaging the entire scientific enterprise, or at least modern medicine. Those are always fun.

But there is a variant I usually do not let passed moderation – the corporate shill. I may not be 100% correct in my judgements, but whenever a comment comes off more like ad copy than a genuine observation by a reader, I send it to the trash. I don’t like fake comments from marketers, and if you write a comment that comes off that way don’t expect it to get through.

Here is the most recent example:

Well all I can tell you is I just finished a twelve-hour shift and had really decent energy throughout …and for 4 more hours after it ended. I slept like a log afterward, and felt quite refreshed when I woke up.

I am very impressed by this tech. I never noticed much of an energy increase with either the Q-Ray or the Power Balance. This definitely has the edge over both far and wide. Energy up, stress out, and calm in… I guess that is it in a nutshell.

Most days, I am just a tired and stressed shift-working mom… but not any longer. I plan to buy Shuzi bracelets for three of my family members upcoming birthdays in October and November.

All the best to everyone,

This was in response to my post criticizing the magical claims of the latest power bracelet knockoff. If this is a genuine anecdote,  it’s pointless and clueless. There are several red flags of a shill, however. For example, the comment specifically mentions the competition in a negative way. Any comment that promotes a specific brand of nonsense over competitor nonsense is likely coming from the company itself.

Ssecond – it contains an ad slogan – “Energy up, stress out, and calm in.” That’s just a bit too slick to the average user. The last line also reads like a commercial – “they make wonderful gifts.”

The comment is a list of talking points for promoting a product. This isn’t even the worst that I have seen.

This is the tip of an ugly iceberg that we have to deal with on the internet. Companies are posting fake reviews, trashing their competitors, and infiltrating the comments to blogs with essentially what they see as free advertising and marketing. This disrupts the purpose of genuine reviews and online discussion, however. I don’t know of any way to stop it. We just have to remain vigilant to minimize it.

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