Why we believe ridiculous health marketing
Caitlin Welsh writes.
I recently installed AdBlock for Chrome, and good God, it’s a revelation. Gone are all the things that peeved me the most: the autoplay ads in tabs that don’t exist, the terrifying composite women (anime-girl features+giant boobs+Oakland booty) that have apparently overrun a number of dating sites, and worst of the lot, the coquettish clickbait miracle-product ads. You know the ones: “Dermatologists hate her! One Sydney Mum Discovers $4 Home Facelift…” or “Cut belly fat using this one WEIRD tip!” or, if you’re one of the tiny fraction of the populace who use the internet for watching sex, “I grew my monster cock in just four weeks!”
I always wonder who clicks on those. Who’s fooled by that ridiculous spam? Who’s sitting there going “But WHAT? WHAT is the tip and what’s so weird about it? Is it nine tiny meals a day? Bear placenta? Calisthenics? I MUST KNOW!” I scoff at those poor rubes, bless their cotton socks, and then request kale be added to my fresh juice for the antioxidants at lunch, and load up my brown-rice burrito with chipotle Tabasco to boost my metabolism*, quickly picking up an extra BB cream on my way home. After all, magazines and ads and package copy told me to.
As we (women in particular) blindly spend small fortunes on coconut water, activated almonds, skincare that’s packaged like Schedule 1 pharmaceuticals, and “all-natural” fat-blasting supplements, we feel virtuous, smug and certainly better than grown men who believe it’s medically possible to make their normal-size junk beef up like a pissed-off Hulk. Of course, we’re not, because we snatch every new miracle product off the shelves in droves the moment we read a breezy snippet about them in the mag of our choice, ignoring the full-page colour ad the company bought on the opposite page. Your bathroom cupboard, your handbag, your pantry – they are stocked with pretty falsehoods, and if you spend five minutes speaking with a professional snake oil detector, you’ll want to torch a Priceline**. You’ll also hear eons of weariness in their voices as they debunk the same bullshit they get asked about every day. “Any product or diet that guarantees weight loss in a couple of weeks, especially without any exercise or changing what you eat [and] any diet that seems too good to be true, that makes unrealistic claims or promises, promotes cutting out specific foods or food groups, is difficult to follow for the long term, is expensive to follow, or requires you to buy supplements or special products to be successful should raise a red flag," says dietician Natasha Murray.
Sydney dermatologist Dr Phillip Artemi rattles off a laundry list of common misconceptions – moisturiser can’t fix wrinkles, drinking eight glasses of water a day will just make you pee a lot, no face cream is worth $300 no matter how rare its kelp is – that most patients believe without question. “It makes you want to throw things at them,” he says dryly, adding that the success of most popular brands is tied much more closely to their marketing budget than their active ingredients. But marketers (and bored ladymag staffers on deadline) play on everything to make a cocktail of credulousness: your faith in science and your will to believe in miracles, your scepticism and your gullibility, and your unassailable, media-enhanced conviction that you need fixing, that your pores are huge and your hairline is so weird.
For one thing, some of the selling points just feel legit. The old lemon-cayenne detox drink tastes both citrusy-cleansing and just unpleasant enough to seem medicinal, so it must be doing you good! Water makes things moist, so drinking lots of water must make your skin more moisturised! And there’s cheeky language like “cosmeceuticals” and “activated” nuts. Activated almonds sound like the flashy, new-hotness Buzz Lightyear to regular almonds’ old and busted Woody, as if they’re going to enter your body with determination and purpose and start cruising your system like Dennis Quaid in Innerspace, punching your cellulite in the face. (Poor beleaguered Pete Evans informed me he prefers them for digestive reasons; Murray reiterates that “there is not enough research to recommend that people soak/activate their almonds for greater health benefits”, but they’re at least harmless, if expensive to buy pre-activated. If soggy nuts improve your guts, enjoy.)
Try and examine what you’re actually paying for – parse the fancy marketing language into words a toddler could understand, and see if it stands up. “Language is everything, and can lend plausibility to an otherwise dodgy product,” says clinical psychologist Louise Adams, who specialises in body image, weight and health issues. “Getting someone to drink watered down lemon juice as a weight loss measure sounds crazy. Call it a 'detox' and attach it to an authoritative (but still irritatingly vague) explanation as to how it works - and it's a winner!”
If you’re not quite that easy, they can blind you with science. “They give you a product, then say things like, ‘Studies have shown 6 out of 9 people…’, or ‘5 out of 10’, or something,” says Artemi. “Now, these studies are not your true, rock-solid studies – which are normally conducted by independent laboratories, involving hundreds of people and often replicated around the world. Unfortunately these studies are mostly in-house. And they could be as simple as someone rubbing something on your face, they’ll ask, ‘Was that good?’, you say, ‘Yes’, then they say, ‘Yes, it was good’.” He also adds that products of real, important scientific research are often thrown willy-nilly into perfectly ordinary creams where they deteriorate in the tub or sit uselessly on the skin. “People know that there is a lot of research in to stem cells, particularly embryonic stem cells, and there’s a belief that these cells can divide into the things that we need. So, for spinal patients they can divide into nerve cells, for Alzheimer’s’ patients they can divide into the particular cells that are going wrong in their brain. And so we now have people putting them in to cosmetics and saying, ‘Contains stem cells’. And it’s just laughable.”