Step Right Up
Step Right Up

Lessons From the Snake Oil Peddler's Handbook

You can step right up, step right up
That's right, it fillets, it chops, it dices, slices,
Never stops, lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn
And it mows your lawn and it picks up the kids from school
It gets rid of unwanted facial hair, it gets rid of embarrassing age spots,
It delivers a pizza, and it lengthens, and it strengthens
And it finds that slipper that's been at large
Under the chaise lounge for several weeks
And it plays a mean Rhythm Master
It makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar
And it's only a dollar, step right up, it's only a dollar, step right up
    Tom Waits, “Step Right Up” (1995)

We are all familiar with the “snake oil peddler” trope. We would never be fooled by a mustached man in a top hat perched on the steps of a truck-sized caboodle, demonstrating the miraculous wonders of various tonics and contraptions. We would never believe the faded face cream ads in the back of a newspaper (provided we ever see a newspaper again) that promise to make 70 year olds look 20, thicken hair, cure cancer and walk the dog for you. We know that Anne Shirley’s hair turned green when she bought dye from such a crook. We know Caractacus Pott’s invention burned a man bald. We would never fall for such tricks.

That is… unless LeBron James is doing it.

Modern snake oil is hard to recognize because it isn’t sold out of the back of someone’s truck. It’s glamorous. It’s moderately expensive (but still accessible). And it’s common. Most of us do not even think of the experimental treatments we keep hearing about – whole body cryotherapy, cupping, stretch labs, Brain Balance, float tanks, acupuncture, CBD oil (to name a few) – are anything like snake oil. And yet most of them do not have science behind them, the FDA scrutinizing them or any real reason anyone should pay money for them except that several trusted people swear by them.

All that being said, people are spending plenty of money on them, and just because they haven’t been proven doesn’t mean they don’t work. Even the original snake oil was legit. According to Business Wire, the global cryotherapy market is projected to reach $274.8 million by 2022. Brain Balance, an experimental therapy for children with learning disorders, reports $50 million in annual revenue. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s “wellness” empire Goop is worth $250M.

So what can we learn from our obsession with snake oil? Well, step right up!

You don’t have to take our word for it!

We have repeatedly established that both celebrity endorsements and personal stories and testimonials are extremely effective with younger generations who gravitate toward influencers over brands. But specifically with health and wellness therapies, we have been conditioned not to trust the guy promising the world in a bottle. We are more interested in the man who limps up to the podium, drinks the potion, throws away his cane and does a somersault before our very eyes.

In this article examining Brain Balance, the science of the therapy and the qualifications of its founder are mostly debunked by established doctors:

“It doesn’t make sense,” says Mark Mahone, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. “In virtually every activity that one does … both hemispheres of the brain are very, very active. … It’s not as simple as just being a left- or a right-hemisphere problem. Nothing is that simple.”

And Brain Balance isn’t alone. Most fad therapies have been ridiculed by experts in traditional medicine.

On whole body cryotherapy:

A September 2015 Cochrane Review on WBC concluded, “There is insufficient evidence to determine whether whole-body cryotherapy reduces self-reported muscle soreness, or improves subjective recovery after exercise compared with passive rest or no WBC in physically active young adult males.” This Review also noted that the “lack of evidence on adverse events is important given that the exposure to extreme temperature presents a potential hazard.”

On stretch labs:

Some experts argue that you should be the only one stretching your body on a regular basis—you know your own ranges of motion best, they say.

And while stretch studios argue that many people aren’t stretching correctly or that you can get more out of a stretch by having someone help you, many experts argue that (a) you’re probably doing better than you think, and (b) if you notice pain you think is attributed to something you’re doing wrong, you should see a physical therapist (PT). Even fitness professionals themselves debate the topic of whether or not a personal trainer should be assisting clients with stretching (and whether or not it’s beneficial).

On IV therapy:

“The whole thing is really nonsense,” said Dr. Stanley Goldfarb, a professor of medicine with the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “It’s just catering to people’s sense that they’re taking their health into their own hands.”

So why are we giving them money? Well, first, as mentioned above, we have stopped trusting “experts” trying to “sell” us a treatment (or sell us against it). According to the New York Times, only 34% of Americans trust medical leaders, down from 75% in 1966.

The founder of Brain Balance is quoted by NPR:

"Families are out there struggling and suffering, and they don't really give a crap about the data or the research, to be quite honest," he says. "When they go through it and they see the difference in their child ... that's what matters to them."

In the same article on Brain Balance, the success of the company is largely attributed to “happy customers”:

The ratings square with comments in online forums and in interviews NPR conducted with 18 parents who enrolled their children. Across the country, about three dozen centers are run by parents who began as happy customers.

Brain Balance's website is where caretakers encounter the company's strongest pitch: dozens upon dozens of parent testimonials.

And especially when celebrities endorse these treatments, are you really going to question whether Kobe Bryant is wasting his time on something that doesn’t help his performance? And if it’s good enough for Michael Phelps, it’s good enough for you, right?



It’s everything and anything you need!

Depending on what you read, CBD oil can treat acne, alleviate symptoms of depression, fight cancer, relieve pain, cure insomnia, ease seizures, reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and help addicts break their addictions. All with only “mild side effects.” And even though many of these articles are careful to say “may help,” the power of suggestion is strong regardless of proof; just look at the ongoing debate about vaccines.

From Forbes:

CBD oil’s been making a splash on the wellness scene this year. It makes sense—cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive compound in cannabis, offers a myriad of potential health effects. Research shows that CBD helps ease anxiety, reduces inflammation, and might be an effective treatment for acne, among dozens of other promised benefits. No wonder people think of it as the next wonder drug.

Known for offering a mildly relaxing effect, CBD oil’s now turning up at the very places where people go to bliss out: Spas. Wellness centers around the country have taken treatments to new highs by infusing spa treatments, like massages and manicures, with CBD oil. Here are 10 places where you can try a CBD oil spa treatment.

And also since it isn’t heavily regulated, it can be infused in things like ice cream and cold brew just for fun! That’s how benign it is! It’s just a natural supplement. Not like harsh, chemical psychotropic drugs that can cause weight gain and sexual dysfunction among other unfortunate side effects. No, according to this study of 20 ice cream eaters, it’s just a little nausea, just some of the time!

When patients are desperate to feel better, walking into a spa or an ice cream shop or a drug store or a cryo chamber, or making an acupuncture or cupping appointment, or just drinking coffee is so much easier than the many hoops they have to jump through for a doctor to prescribe helpful medication.



If patients walks into a doctor’s office with back pain, they will get an exam. Then an x-ray. A prescription for steroids. If those don’t work, maybe an MRI. Perhaps a brief diagnostic procedure will be conducted under general anesthesia. Each of these will be separate appointments away from work or kids, and they will all cost money.

And if doctors, after all those expensive and time-consuming tests, cannot figure out the problem, patients might be dismissed without receiving any treatment. Especially in cases of chronic pain:

For patients, acknowledgment of the problem from the prestigious Institute of Medicine is a seminal event. Chronic pain often goes untreated because most doctors haven’t been trained to understand it. And it is isolating: Family members and friends may lose patience with the constant complaints of pain sufferers. Doctors tend to throw up their hands, referring patients for psychotherapy or dismissing them as drug seekers trying to get opioids.

“Most people with chronic pain are still being treated as if pain is a symptom of an underlying problem,” said Melanie Thernstrom, a chronic pain sufferer from Vancouver, Wash., who wrote “The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing and the Science of Suffering” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) and was a patient representative on the committee.

“If the doctor can’t figure out what the underlying problem is,” she went on, “then the pain is not treated, it’s dismissed and the patient falls down the rabbit hole.”

But why fall down a rabbit hole when you can step right up?

And it’s only a dollar!

Gwyneth Paltrow notoriously recommended a $38 cannister of “sex dust” on Goop. Whole body cryotherapy spas typically charge around $35 for an initial session and offer membership plans, IV lounges can be pricier at $85+ per treatment. Routine acupuncture treatments cost around $50-75. Stretch lab sessions are around $50-100. CBD Oil can run upwards of $150.

Insurance doesn’t cover any of this, of course, but with out-of-pocket costs rising by 54% from 2006 to 2016 and continuing to rise since, the cost of alternative therapies is a drop in the bucket. Even on a good insurance plan, after a deductible is met, MRIs and x-rays can rack up copays of hundreds of dollars, and surgeries, thousands. Not to mention the cost of prescriptions, ongoing visits and checkups after the treatment.

According to Cardiovascular Business:

Patients are responsible for a growing portion of healthcare costs. In some cases, that responsibility has become untenable, leading patients to delay or avoid care, or to leave their providers with unpaid bills. In their search for solutions, hospitals and practices are trying a variety of interventions.

Call it cost sharing or cost shifting, or explain it as exposing patients to the true cost of care. Regardless of how it’s framed, the outcome is that patients and their families have become responsible for a larger portion of medical costs. At the same time, prescription drug prices are continuing to rise, sometimes astronomically. As a result, some patients don’t seek the care they need when they need it. Others do obtain the medical care but, unable to pay the bills, leave physicians, practices and health systems with increasing levels of uncompensated care.

Buy it now, and we’ll throw in these takeaways for free!

Many doctors spend a lot of energy decrying and debunking the “snake oil” out there instead of realizing that the success of this industry is built on traditional medicine’s shortcomings:

  • Snake oil is about showmanship. Most doctors tell patients what to do. The snake oil peddlers show their customers “miracles.” Testimonials go much further than facts when it comes to influencing audiences.
  • Snake oil is whatever you need it to be. While many doctors run through a medical playbook to treat symptoms, snake oils can each treat a variety of ailments, giving the impression that they are generally geared toward wellness. They are “healthy,” compared to “drugs” which are “chemicals.”
  • Snake oil is right at your fingertips. Anyone with $50 can walk into a spa and get a treatment or two, bing, bang, boom! The costs aren’t out of reach and they are transparent. The time spent is generally 30 minutes to an hour. No taking several hours a week off work for more tests. No surprise medical costs.
  • Snake oil is optimistic. The medical industry often stops at proven fact while desperate patients wonder what might not be discovered yet. Snake oil offers the possibility that more can be done. And why not try (as long as it’s safe)?

The truth is, the people who are signing on for experimental wellness and medical treatments are not small-town dupes or hapless teenagers or even idiots, they are this couple, one of whom has a Ph.D., who are trying to find help for their autistic child without medicating him with powerful psychotropic drugs. They are this woman, who was dismissed by doctors as having psychosomatic symptoms because they could not prove the cause underlying her chronic pain. They are celebrity athletes and media moguls and general kale enthusiasts.

In short, they are people looking for hope when doctors can only give them facts. They are people who trust testimonials from their peers over an industry they have learned to distrust. They are people who want to feel better – not just be cured – and without impossible costs.

Get YDP in your email as soon as it's published.