The Mind of a Snake Oil Salesman

Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam by Brock Pope is a tremendous story – amazing really – that has lessons to teach all of us regarding our unending obsession with youth, fitness, health, aging, virility, and our own mortality. Every day it seems that a new “revolutionary” product is launched that promises to keep us young, slim, viral and wrinkle-free.

CharlatanCurrently, an $80 billion dollar industry, anything related to anti-aging will experience explosive growth over the next decade as baby boomers enter retirement. There is an entire legion of companies, entrepreneurs, doctors, surgeons and assorted others who are hustling to create products and procedures to feed our collective desire to remain “forever young.”

This is where it gets dangerous, and where we can learn a great deal from Charlatan. This is the story of John Brinkley, a con-man who portrayed himself as a doctor and offered men a “cure” for the diminished virility and “manliness” they experienced due to aging: he would transplant their testicles with those of a goat.

While the very idea seems ridiculous, it is important that we consider the times, and, in doing so, think about our own. Every new supplement, lotion, potion or procedure comes with the words “revolutionary,” “scientific-breakthrough,” or “newly discovered” attached to it. We are made to believe that they have discovered the fountain of youth and will solve our problem (aging).

The irony is, if you pay attention, these products often come with a very heavy dose of advertising and marketing – they push HARD – to separate you from your money – and often disappear within a couple years. Why? Because enough people figure out that they are bogus and simply quit buying them, and the manufacturer, knowing they are bogus, has often already moved on to the next gimmick.

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9

Think about all the products you’ve seen (or bought) over the years, such as the thigh-master, metabolite, bow-flex, the shake weight, slimquick, alli, the gazelle (really anything by Tony Little), 6-minute abs and so on. Or just watch TV after 10 pm and you will see the latest and greatest – all available for $19.95 (call now and they will double your order!). This onslaught of fitness and health products is big business and has no end, and it preys on our vanity and insecurity to feed its bottom line.

Almost all of these scams promote the same idea: you don’t have to change anything in your life, just buy this product and the years and pounds will melt away. It is difficult to remember, in the face of the all-out marketing assault, that the real goal is to get you to buy something, not do something. We cannot stop aging, but we can age well – but no product will do that for us. There are some supplements and other products that can help – moisturizers, sunscreens, a multiple vitamin and the like. But there is no revolutionary gadget, gizmo, drink, shot, lotion, potion or pill that will radically transform your body – there just isn’t.

The newest product promising to restore our youth is directed at men – TRT (Testosterone Replacement Therapy). Seemingly out of the blue, we are being bombarded with radio, print and television ads promising us that TRT will give us the body and virility we had at 20. This has one HUGE problem. TRT involves synthetic hormones. Once these are taken into the body, it will CEASE to produce testosterone naturally, meaning that you now MUST continue with this treatment. (The Atlantic published a great article called “Should the Modern Man be Taking Testosterone?” that addresses a lot of the questions about TRT) Sounds like a big money maker for manufacturers, doctors, treatment centers, etc – now we know why they are pushing so hard.

If you feel just a little uneasy about the vast number of programs, products and gadgets that are available to “help you get in shape,” Charlatan is a revealing history that sheds light on the mindset and motivation of those who offer these wonder cures. Yes, I believe that there are some good products and well-intentioned practitioners – but they swim in an ocean of scam-artists and con men. So, buyer-beware – if it is too good to be true – it is. If the answer costs $15,000 – RUN!

Always ask yourself, “Cui bono,” which means who benefits? If the information you get is from the people selling the product, you are most likely not getting the whole story. The seller does not benefit from giving you all the facts. John Brinkley lives among us – be vigilant, be careful and don’t give in to the hard sell.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.