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Unprompted: Bitten By Big Snake-Oil 

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A summer cold is a different kind of animal. No it’s not. It’s the same kind of animal we get in the winter. But several years ago one of the cold-pill companies claimed that because a summer cold was a different kind of animal we should buy its different kind of pill to deal with it.

I guess a lot of people did because the ad ran a long time. Lots of useless pills were sold. Useless pills have little benefit because, well, they’re useless. But you and I buy them anyway. It’s a well-known but usually ignored fact that colds, both summer and winter versions, are caused by viruses, and there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about viruses.

I think God gave us viruses to make sure we know who’s in charge. Antibiotics are as useless against a cold as some of those cold pills we buy. And that brings me to another point: If any of the cold remedies that occupies most of the shelves at our local drugstore were as good as their makers claim, all the others would be out of business. Stores could put something else on those shelves, wart remover or condoms. Products that actually work.

But here’s what happens. Apparently not knowing that colds ultimately go away on their own, we take something to speed up the process. I take this, you take that. Sooner or later both you and I are coldless and we swear that what we took really worked! But it worked only because we believed it did. It’s like we pray for something and if it happens we say our prayers were answered. If that something doesn’t happen, we come up with an explanation for that as well.

Cold pills are not alone. Thousands of merchants claim their products are superior when in fact they’re all selling the same thing. There’s not a lot of difference in various brands of gasoline. All aspirin is pretty much the same. Of course there are things that are different. Some urologists are better than others but by the time we find out who they are it’s too often too late.

There’s a massive media industry jerking us around. The function of advertising is to get us in the store, and using the truth to do it is rarely an option. There are merchants in our town who routinely tell us they’re selling mattresses for 15 cents on the dollar. They’ve been doing it for years and to my knowledge none of them have been arrested. The First Amendment says nothing about lying.

Every now and then we see a display in a store advertising something with the claim “As Seen on TV.” Credibility? I don’t think so. Some of the biggest lies in the world are told on TV. It’s kind of like saying something is true because we saw it on the internet. Or in print, for that matter.

Scams are everywhere. There are people who send in money to claim a lottery prize for a lottery they never entered in the first place. I get unwanted phone calls where the recorded voice opens the nonconversation by saying, Congratulations! I’ve won a free cruise to the Bahamas or somewhere like that, with no obligation. The reason these calls are made is because there are people who believe them. There are people among us who still believe in something for nothing.

Get-rich schemes appear on television in the fringe hours where only people who can’t sleep are watching, and time is cheap. That’s where most of the preachers are as well — send me your money and God will make you rich.

And so it goes, everywhere we turn there’s someone beckoning us to cough up our good sense and hand over our farthings. Most of us would never fall for it, we’re too sophisticated. But there are some who are born to be made fools. And then there’s us, the enlightened, clever sufferers of colds and other routine maladies who will rush to the closest drugstore to buy something that we know damn well won’t do a bit of good.

Even smart people are suckers for promising placebos. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor who recently retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.

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