In an earlier post I discussed the purveyors of “secret knowledge,” how they can relieve you of your money for “knowledge” that is worthless. In the 19th century, there was a similar and related phenomenon, the “Snake Oil Salesman.” Picture a mustachioed guy in a top hat and a long coat, pulling up to the town square in his covered wagon, and selling bottles of snake oil to the curious crowd. The Snake Oil salesman would pull out a bottle of some thick brown liquid and claim it was the elixir for all known diseases and conditions. It would cure whooping cough, restore lost hair, cure neuralgia, cure the vapors (whatever that is) and enhance overall health. It was, of course, a fraud. It wouldn’t cure anything. Snake Oil salesmen didn’t sell medicine. What they sold was hope. People will always shell out for hope. That’s why they buy so many lottery tickets.
Snake Oil salesmen are still around. Listen to any radio broadcast and you will hear someone peddling a miracle cure for some ailment. Impotence is a big item these days. Of course, the afflicted can buy Viagra, which actually works, or they can buy “the herbal version.” Herbal cures abound today, but remember that “herbal” is just another way of saying “it doesn’t work.”
Other modern Snake Oils include using facial exercises to do what a face lift is supposed to do; or some kind of cream that will erase wrinkles and crowsfeet. One product that I found particularly galling is an alleged cure for poor vision. The commercial always began with an irritating female voice that cooed, “Your glasses are just not helping your eyes.” Beg pardon? My glasses helped me for years TO SEE.
The ad went on to suggest that your glasses made your vision worse by encouraging dependency. You might as well say that using a crutch or a wheelchair encourages dependency and keeps you lame. How about pacemakers? What if the ad said, “Your pacemaker is just not helping your heart?” What brazen nonsense. These devices can’t cure your ailments, they just help you to overcome them. This vision ad was giving false hope, a great example of a modern form of Snake Oil.
The vision-improvement regimen that this ad referred to was eye exercises (I looked it up on the web). If you did the right eye exercises, your vision would improve. I could imagine myself face down on the floor, doing push-ups with my eyeballs. With well-devloped eyeballs, you could come out looking like Marty Feldman. No thanks.
People with poor vision are that way due to physical defects in their eyes. There is a layer of tissue in the eye that causes light entering the eye to be out of focus if the tissue layer is too thick or too thin. My tissue layer was quite thick, which was good news for me: it made me a candidate for Lasik surgery. I underwent Lasik that used a laser to whittle down the tissue layer, bringing my vision into focus. Today I no longer wear glasses because of Lasik.
Here’s a game for you: listen to radio advertisements and see if you can pick out the ones that are Snake Oil. Not all will be, certainly. But lots of them are, particularly those who claim a miraculous cure for some ailment. Be informed, be skeptical and beware.