These 7 ridiculous snake oil products prove Americans will buy anything — including Donald Trump
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” is how the quotation from H.L. Mencken has come down to us. It’s a paraphrase of a paragraph from an article in the Chicago Tribune, but the part of the quotation that is almost always left off is the most relevant for understanding this year: “No one has ever lost public office thereby.”
Donald Trump’s campaign, which has combined the art of the huckster with the willingness of the American public to buy what he is selling is, so far, a confirmation of Mencken’s assumption. Pundits have churned tons of butter in an effort to explain Trump’s appeal. One of the most common explanations offered by those experts who took Trump’s declaration that he “loves the poorly educated,” was to see in that some kind of “new” dumbing-down of the electorate.
The analysts have uncovered a connection between education levels and the willingness to vote for Trump, but it would be classist to insist that those without a college education are not intelligent. College is financially impossible for a lot of people, and it’s not always the “best and the brightest” who fill the halls of academia.
Perhaps the appeal of Trump lies in his ability to convince Americans that he is a product that they need to buy. Proof that Americans will make rash, unintelligent impulse buys lie in the back pages of magazines, in late-night television infomercials, and radio ads that promise “cash now” or “poor credit? no problem!” solutions. Here at Raw Story, we took a look at past commercial success for products whose popularity is head-scratching. Donald Trump’s candidacy can be added to this list of products that break credulity.
Snake Oil has become synonymous with the patent medicine, and some argue that using “snake oil” to describe “patent medicines” is a bit of verbal snake oil itself. Regardless of whether the original snake oil brought to America by Chinese workers was efficacious in treating ailments, what were largely ineffective were the patent medicines that were sold to people looking for a pre-modern-medicine cure. Looking through the pages of late 19th century and early 20th century magazines reveals hundreds of ads which promised to cure everything from coughs to crabs, diarrhea to diptheria. “Snake oil” became synonymous with these ersatz medicines when it was revealed in one particular case that a salesman was claiming to sell the oil of a snake and tests revealed that it didn’t contain a single drop of serpent fat. Snake oil also gave us the word “mountebank.”
Hair Growing Tonics/Products
Given the amount of time that humans spend getting rid of hair from their faces, chests, armpits, and legs, it’s astonishing to realize the amount of anxiety generated by thinning hair on top of a head. In addition to the ads for patent medicines, another staple of the back pages were tonics for hair growth or thickening baby-fine hair. There were hats that could cause hair to sprout advertised in the pages of Popular Mechanics. Even now, a Google search for “hair growing tonics” leads you to pages and pages of various pomades and other products that promise to grow hair on even the most glabrous scalps.
When I was a kid, the comic books I read always had ads addressed to the “98-pound weakling.” Charles Atlas tapped into adolescent male anxieties that someone, somewhere wanted to take your girl. The ads were full of images of bodybuilder hulk-men kicking sand in the faces of scrawny guys who were just trying to hang out on a blanket at the beach with their babes. Atlas offered to take you from a “Before” you of toothpick arms and drinking-straw legs, and in just a few short weeks, turn each man who bought his “secrets” into the “After” muscle-bound, ballsling-wearing behemoth that was Atlas.
If adolescent boys were told that they needed to muscle up, girls learned the chant, “We must. We must. We must increase the bust. The firmer the better, the tighter the sweater. The boys depend on us!” Or some such thing. While there were “exercises” that a girl could do in the privacy of her own bedroom that promised to make bustlines bigger, increasing breast size could be accomplished by rubbing special creams onto even the “flattest” of chests. And while advertising regulations may prevent bust cream makers from promising larger boobs, the promise of “firmer” breasts still induces rational women to write articles about their supposed benefits.
While the products so far have promised solutions to body issues, the range of products that people have spent their hard-earned money on includes mind-boggling gimmicks that have made fortunes for modern-day mountebanks.
When I wasn’t being educated about the deficiencies of the human body in comic book ads, I was being urged to add some exotic new pets to replace the family goldfish in our aquarium. At one point, I believe nearly every kid in my neighborhood had sent away for sea monkeys. It was easier to convince a parent buy a “bowl of happiness” than to get the puppy you really wanted, so a lot of parents caved to the requests. Sea Monkeys arrived by mail. The instructions were to “prep” the water with special powder, wait 24 hours and then drop in the Sea Monkey eggs. Soon thereafter, the water would be full of squirming, tiny creatures. Turns out that sea monkeys were brine shrimp, and they weren’t all that interesting. The lifespan for the creatures wasn’t very long, so new sea monkeys would have to be ordered to replace them.
A copywriter having a drink in a bar came up with the idea of putting rocks in a box and selling them to the public as pets. That idea made him a millionaire. People went into stores and purchased ordinary stones that had been put into little cardboard boxes, and they purchased them by the millions. I came from a family that did not have money to pay for driveway stones, so I adopted my own pet rocks by gathering them from the edge of my backyard. Gary Dahl, the inventor of Pet Rocks, once told a journalist that he wondered if his life wouldn’t have been easier if he had never “invented” the product. For decades after the 1975 must-have item, Dahl was besieged by a “lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living”–the legion of would-be inventors who felt Dahl should help them market their own gimmicks. (The most recent version of pet rocks may be the bottled “fresh” air that is being sold to the Chinese for $120 per jar.)
Naming a Star
I admit: the idea of someone buying naming rights to a star in my or a loved one’s honors sounds romantic. Turns out, however, that there is no official way to name a star. While those who pay anywhere from $14.95 to $99.95 for official-looking papers that announce that a star at specific coordinates has been registered under your name, the International Astronomical Union lists stars by numbers and coordinates–not names. And the IAU is the “official” registry. While the revenue generated by selling star names doesn’t appear to be available, it’s clear that one person or more are making money from selling the idea of having one’s own personal star.
Other products that people have been convinced to buy would fill an old Sears catalogue, but the ability to sell a product to a portion of the population is a potential fortune that inspires many dreams. So, why do people buy products that they don’t need? I asked someone in advertising.
“You hear it all the time in marketing,” says advertising creative director, Rob Stiene. [Advice that tells you to] “Find your unique selling proposition.” “Discover (or even create) the need, and then fill it.” “Awareness, interest, trial and repeat.”
“In my experience, whether it’s a pet rock, the macarena, or Donald Trump, the reason people buy (or buy into) something is because someone else did, and they don’t want to be left out. Stockbrokers got a handle on that ages ago,” Stiene says.
Part of the psychology implicit in marketing is the creation of a “need.” But along with need is that stress that parents have been cautioning kids since the first time one kid dared another to do something stupid: Peer pressure and the need to belong. The desire to belong to a community manifests itself in many ways in society. The concept of “nationalism” and “church” are built upon the notion that one gains one’s identity from being a member of a community. And along with that is a rejection of those who don’t belong to that community.
Donald Trump has combined his years of hucksterism, where he has convinced seemingly rational adults to buy his steaks, go to his ‘university,’ gamble in his casinos, or live in one of his properties, with the creation of a community of believers who want to feel a part of an America that never existed.
The good news is that sea monkeys and pet rocks are not the must-have items they once were. Perhaps by November, Donald Trump will take his place in America’s bargain bins and remainder shelves.