Dec 02 2011

You Too Can Be a Snake Oil Salesman

Almost every day I get e-mails asking me about some new supplement, health product, or new treatment. They seem to be endless, and there is no way I can get to them all. That’s why it is so important to understand how to assess such claims – the whole “give me a fish and feed me for a day, teach me to fish and feed me for life” thing.

This morning I was asked about a product called Neurosafe, which is claimed to be a “seatbelt for the brain.” Specifically they claim that their supplement “may” help protect athletes from brain injury and help recover faster. Are the claims credible? Before I get to this one product, let me give you a how-to guide for selling snake oil.

The first thing you need to realize is that it doesn’t matter at all what you put in your product. The easiest thing to do is use everyday vitamins in low to moderate doses. Just look at Airborne – you can sell a multivitamin and pretty much make up whatever claim you want for it.

If you want to get fancy you can put other nutrients in there as well. Amino acids, fatty acids, and minerals are all good. If you want to include herbs that is yet another option. Again – it doesn’t really matter which ones you choose.

Next come up with a marketing angle, some target demographic or condition you want to claim to help. Name your product something that suggests it will help with the identified condition. Then simply claim that your product “may” help, or that it will boost the immune system or support the bodies ability to heal from or deal with the condition.

These types of claims are called “structure function” claims – a massive loophole invented as a gift to the supplement industry. In the US at least you can make such claims with carte blanche, without any need to provide evidence to back up the claims.

That is all you really need to do – you now have a supplement you can sell with pseudo-health claims. The FDA requires that you slap on what we call the “quack Miranda warning” – “these claims have not been reviewed by the FDA,” etc. But most of your prospective customers will likely not even notice the boilerplate.

If you want to take the even easier route, don’t even bother with supplements. You can market anything – a silly piece of rubber and plastic – and make whatever structure function claims you wish. You can sell magic beans – whatever. It does not appear to matter.

Marketing your product is the key. Testimonials work the best, especially if they are from a celebrity. If you are marketing a product for any performance or sports related condition, then a sports star is a must. Don’t worry, they are easy endorsements to get, and it’s a worthwhile investment. Cherry picking and the placebo effect with guarantee that you can find testimonials to support whatever claims you want to market. Don’t worry about the fact that your product does not actually do anything.

If you want to go that extra step, then you can pretend that there is scientific evidence to back up your claims. There are two routes to take for this. The first is to simply search for basic science research that is already published – just search on the name of your ingredients and plenty of studies will come up. These will be studies in test tubes or animals, mostly. Then extrapolate wildly from whatever effects are seen in these studies. Anything that affects any component of the immune system and you can claim your product “boosts the immune system.”

For supplements all you have to do is find out in what part of the body they can be found, then claim that supplementing that nutrient will enhance that body function. Muscles are made of proteins, right. So eating protein will build muscle. Brains are made of lots of things, including glycoproteins and lipids, so eating these things may boost brain function. It’s that simple.

For “magic bracelet” type products it’s even easier. Your product essentially works by magic, so just throw out a bunch of technobabble that doesn’t mean anything. Keep up with the latest buzzwords for maximal effectiveness, but here are some suggestions: “Balances your energy frequencies,” “Quantum whatever,” “Works on the nano cellular level, “Resonates with your connecticazoit.” Make sure to include at least one reference to “quantum” or “energy” and you’re good.

For more ambitious marketing you can do an actual clinical trial. Don’t bother with FDA applications – those kinds of trials are difficult and expensive. Just do a simple “in house” study that is small and poorly controlled and the placebo effect and experimenter bias will be sure to get you the results your marketing team requires. Even better you can outsource to an independent company that will do all that for you. Just let them know what results you want.

Another option is to give an MD or PhD a share of the company for their endorsement. Be careful that they don’t make any actual claims. They will be good for citing irrelevant research. If an MD they can say that they recommend this kind of treatment for their patients with…whatever your marketing the product for.

Now here’s the best news – the internet makes is cheap and easy to get up and running. A slick website can bring together all of these pieces – flashy claims, celebrity endorsements, lists of irrelevant studies or ginned-up clinical tests – and you can sell right from the website. Remember to hide the FDA required warning in small print at the bottom.

Let’s see how Neurosafe stacks up. The website claims:

NeuroSafe NeuroProtective Drink – “Seatbelt for Your Brain”. World’s Only NeuroProtective Drink for Athletes that may Reduce Brain Injury and help you Recover Quicker from Concussions.

It has a good name and catchphrase. They know their target demographic and have a compelling structure function claim, complete with the weasel word “may.” However, I do not see their mandated FDA disclaimer.

They have an endorsement from NFL wide receiver Wes Welker (ach!  – from my own Patriots). It looks to me like their marketers wrote his endorsement for him – good move.

How about the science? Well, they don’t list any studies or even specific ingredients. They just say “scientifically proven neuroprotective compounds.” That’s nicely vague. “Neuroprotective” is also a fabulous buzzword, and seems to be the center piece of their marketing strategy.

What’s the evidence? Since they don’t cite specific studies or ingredients, it’s hard to be very specific. But in terms of neuroprotective supplements in general, nothing has been proven in appropriate clinical trials. There are a few agents that are interesting, like Coensyme Q10, for example. They have promise in some animal models, but have not panned out for the most part in neurological diseases. For concussion and traumatic brain injury there is some preliminary evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful.

I’m surprised the website doesn’t specifically exploit this preliminary evidence. Maybe they will get to it, or maybe their product doesn’t contain either of these ingredients.

It isn’t a crazy idea that certain nutrients might help the brain recover from injury. In times of metabolic stress certain nutrients may be in higher demand than usual, and supplementing may be useful. This is why specific nutritional supplements are given post surgery, or to pregnant women.

The problem here is that “neuroprotection” is being used in a vague way as a marketing term, without specific scientific evidence to substantiate specific claims for specific ingredients. Also – we do not yet have well-controlled clinical trials to substantiate any specific claims for neuroprotection, or improved outcome in head injury.

Most effects that seem promising at the basic science or preliminary level do not pan out when tested in rigorous clinical trials. So it is highly deceptive to base clinical claims on such preliminary evidence. Unfortunately, the laws allow for just that.

The makers of Neurosafe do not have to do any research, or defend their pseudo-claims with evidence. All they need is a slick website and a celebrity endorsement. That they have.


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