Let’s conduct a little thought experiment. First, for the sake of this thought experiment let’s assume that you have no morals, ethics, or conscience. You are comfortable lying to people, even if they are sick, and even if it will harm their health.

Your task is to get as many people as possible to believe that small bits of plastic can improve their health and treat their symptoms. This is not as difficult as it may at first appear, and the payout can be huge. Small plastic stickers can be mass produced for pennies. The primary investment will be creating and maintaining a website. Then, if you can get people to believe that the plastic stickers are magical, the money will come rolling in.

What claims should we make for the stickers? Let’s stay away from anything that has an objective outcome, so we won’t claim that they can be used as an antibiotic to treat pneumonia, or as a way to treat heart attacks. I also understand that in the US and other countries, they take a close look at claims made to treat specific diseases, but you can make vague “structure function” claims with abandon, so let’s go with those. We can always imply that they are effective for diseases, even serious ones like cancer.

These types of claims can include weight loss, improved energy and mental clarity, improved sleep (but be careful not to use disease terms like “insomnia”), and relief from common cold symptoms and everyday aches and pains. These health claims have the additional advantage of being very common, so our potential market will be huge.

For subjective improvement in common complaints we can rely upon a couple of factors. First there are placebo effects – all of the various things that conspire to convince people that useless treatments are effective. Also, the symptoms we will claim to help are often variable or self-limiting – so they will often get better on their own, and we can reap the credit.

So we have a solid business plan in place – now all we have to do is convince people of the impossible. This may seem like the most challenging part of our task, but there is a tried and true formula. Just pick from among the following strategies. Pick a few, and it doesn’t matter which ones. Don’t worry about compatibility, we’ll just sprinkle these claims on our website like fairy dust and watch the magic happen.

  • Ancient wisdom: Anything that was used thousands of years ago must work.
  • Cutting edge knowledge: This is a win-win. People are still impressed with science, even when they don’t understand it. The newer the science we reference the better – it will seem cutting edge, and it will still be mysterious to most of the public. Don’t worry, the science does not have to make actual sense. Here are some terms you can use pretty much at random: quantum, nano, vibration, frequency, cellular, energy, field, electromagnetic.
  • All natural: Whatever else we claim, we’ll sell our magical stickers as “all natural.” People have been primed to prefer everything “natural.” We don’t have to worry about how to define the term, it’s not regulated. And to boost this effect we can scare monger about drugs and chemicals. We can tell people they don’t want chemicals in their bodies, even though they are made of chemicals – trust me, this will work.
  • Clinically tested: Of course our products will all be “clinically tested” (the competition will certainly make this claim so we have to). We can just make the claim and leave it at that, but if you want to do a little extra work, you can link to “studies” for support. Don’t worry – you can link to anything. Most people won’t actually follow the links or read the papers, they will just be impressed by the list itself. They will naively assume that we can’t lie. You can link to our own promotional material, or to published studies that have nothing to do with our products or even claims, but that simply mention something that superficially relates to our claims. Another great source of studies is the alternative literature. This is full of scientifically-worthless studies that show amazing results – it really is a gold mine. Worst case scenario – we’ll pay a company to rig up a study to show whatever we want.
  • Endorsements: There are a few strategies we can use here. We can make some performance claims for our product, then give them to sports stars to use and pay them to promote our products. Athletes are notoriously superstitious, so we can easily find some athletes who will believe our stickers work (especially if we pay them to believe it).

    Or we can find some celebrity endorsements. For some reason the public will listen to celebrities, even when they have absolutely no training or background relevant to their endorsement. In fact – they are famous for being successful in an industry based upon fantasy and pretending. Don’t try to make sense of it – just know that it works.

    We could also get a doctor or scientist to endorse our product. We may need to cut them in on the action, but it will be worth it because we can have a picture of them in their white coat on our website.

  • Testimonials: People are more likely to believe other people than scientific data. This one is not optional – we need to have plenty of testimonials with “real” people saying how wonderful our product is.
  • Conspiracy: Some people may wonder that if our product is so fantastic, why don’t doctors use it? This is any easy one – we just refer (again, this can be very vague) to Big Pharma, or imply that doctors don’t want you to know this secret, or that the “medical industrial complex” will suppress our product, or something similar. A little fear of big government, corporations, or institutions is easy to instill, and will work wonders.
  • Parlor tricks: People love demonstrations, and this is a great way to convince them that something real is happening. It’s like a magic trick, except we will convince them the magic is real. There are plenty to choose from. You could test balance, strength, or flexibility, with and without the stickers. It will always work, as long as the subject knows whether or not they have the sticker. Be sure to avoid any truly blinded testing. Of course, in our promotional videos we can make anything happen. With live demonstrations just make sure the showpeople are experienced enough to fend off the occasional pesky skeptic.
  • For the advanced purveyor of snake oil, there is a synergy between several of these strategies. We can make vague claims that our product supports some function, then have our doctor endorsement claim that they use our product, and combine this with testimonials with people saying they used our product to treat their cancer, or whatever. You see the brilliance in this – we are not claiming that our product can cure cancer, but people will infer from the three claims above that our product cures cancer.

That’s more than enough to get us started. Don’t be afraid to have fun with it – be a little creative.

Now all we need is to brand our product line. Choose something sexy that reflects whichever of the strategies above you want to emphasize.

In the end we will actually get people to spend incredible amounts of money on small bits of plastic that cost just pennies to make and are completely worthless. And we can do this all without breaking the law – amazing.

An example

Still not convinced? Or perhaps you’re not sure how to bring this all together. There are plenty of examples to illustrate the above principles of a successful snake-oil business. Here’s one – Quantum Health. See, they have the word “quantum” right in their name. They made it part of their branding.

All the features are there – vague claims, ancient wisdom combined with new science, and all natural and fear mongering about chemicals. Take a look at their list of supporting studies. Most are not even studies, just certificates. There is even an article written by Dr. Oz – nice way to get an implied endorsement. They also make excellent use of fringe alternative journals.


With just a little bit of poking around the internet you will find countless examples of how effective these strategies can be. I think I can declare our little thought experiment a success – it is possible to sell bits of plastic with health claims.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.