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Thursday, September 30, 2010

8 Products That Don't Actually Do Anything

There’s no denying that America is a nation that loves to consume and we have the waistlines to prove it.  We consume energy, food, soap and mindless entertainment at a pace that dwarfs virtually every other civilized nation.  So great is our love for buying stuff that we don’t even demand that it does anything.  Very often the fact that a product or service exists is plenty of proof to us that we need it.

Yeah, the alcohol.  That's what made vodka suck...

Now, I could go the easy route and talk about the nonsense you see on television late at night but I think most rational consumers know better than to trust the guy behind the “Magic Bullet”.  Instead I’m going to go the more controversial route and talk about some extraordinarily ubiquitous things that produce millions of dollars of profit every year.

Before we get started, let me offer the caveat that nobody likes being told they’re flushing their money down the toilet.  Armed with the information below you will no doubt be tempted to point out to a friend or coworker that they are buying into a scam.  Don’t be surprised if they neglect to thank you… or even trust you.  Many people will defend their poor buying choices even once confronted with scientific proof that the product is more worthless than Lady Gaga’s stylist.  Add to that the fact that the companies behind these products have an obvious interest in keeping you in the dark and you have a recipe for rampant and self-perpetuating fraud.

But I’m sure you are too smart to fall for things like…

 #1: Airborne

Anybody who travels or lingers in drug stores knows about this one.  This little orange tablet promises to keep the germs away (or, rather, carefully avoids directly inferring that while making it clear that that’s what they want you to think it does) just by dissolving it in water and taking a drink when you feel the germs coming on.  Heck, you can even take it before you get a cold and it will bolster your immune system just in case.
Person who lingers in drug stores.

And never mind the fact that on the bottom of the package in miniscule print it says that it is not intended to treat, diagnose, prevent or cure any disease.  That’s just the legal stuff, right?  Well, yeah.  They are legally required to put that on the package because it doesn’t actually cure, treat or prevent anything

Airborne has recently undergone a legally imposed packaging design that makes the intended purpose of the product even more vague.  The package does say that their claims have not been evaluated by the FDA but they neglect to mention that those parties that did look into it found consistently that it had no measurable effect at all.

Even when confronted with this fact, many people swear by it.  “I took it once when I wasn’t sick,” they’ll tell you, “And I didn’t get sick!”  People can fool themselves into believing all sorts of snake oil remedies are actually working.  It’s called the placebo effect and we learn about it in junior high or when we read Stephen King’s “It”, whichever comes first.

You remember that part, right?  With the inhaler?

Even if they break down and accept that it can’t cure or prevent anything, they’ll still insist it has to be good for your immune system because it has stuff like Echinacea and Vitamin C.  Well, as it turns out, taking Echinacea and vitamin C also don’t positively affect your immune system either, but they won’t believe that, trust me.

As a last ditch effort, they will turn to what the package tells them.  The box proudly proclaims that the product was invented by a schoolteacher.  Not to disparage schoolteachers or anything, but are they the ones usually making the medical breakthroughs?

 #2: Freecreditreport (dot) com

That’s right… I offer them no back link.  They’ll get no Pagerank from me and that’s because their whole corporate model is a fraud from the start.  Well, actually it’s because I still have the damn pirate song stuck in my head, but that’s beside the point.

This company offers you something that is free (your credit report) to begin with.  They tell you they’ll give it to you for free, which you accept because you probably know that the law requires that you have free annual access to your credit report.  Of course, they actually give you only one-third of your credit report, they make no guarantee that the information is current and it isn’t free.

But they do have really catchy jingles.
Catchy jingle or no, I still want to punch him.

The fact that they have a deceptive business model is not enough to get on this list.  Technically speaking they do what the fine print says they’ll do.  But what makes Free Credit Report dot Com’s business model so (criminally) deceptive is the fact that they sell the service as though it somehow protects you against identity theft.  It won’t of course, even if you buy the deluxe package.

But the friendly dude with the guitar and the disarming smile warned us that we were a hair’s breadth away from being forced into involuntary seafood servitude and renaissance devil-sticking if we didn’t check their website immediately.  Interesting that they choose to treat these professions as though they are somehow otherwise reserved for lepers considering that their core demographic of potential customer is very likely to be waiters or waitresses.

Now, you’ll note that even though those irritating jingles are still echoing in your ears, the commercials are gone.  They’ve been forced to shut their doors, refund scads of money and discontinue business altogether.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one complaining.  Of course, all they did was change their name, rewrite slightly less deceptive copy and start again, but hey, that’s why you hired me.

 #3: Anti-Bacterial Cleansers

You see them everywhere now.  Antibacterial everythings.  It’s gotten to the point that a mother feels neglectful if she isn’t wiping antibacterial tissues over the container the antibacterial tissues came in.  It seems that you couldn’t find a bacterium if you wanted to in many homes.

Or could you?  There is ample evidence to suggest that the majority of people don’t let the antibacterial agents stay in place long enough (two minutes) for them to have any real effect before wiping them back off.  Studies are mixed on the actual bacteria killing properties of these wipes.  But that misses the point altogether.

There is no reason in the world to believe that living in a bacteria free environment is healthy.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.  The overwhelming majority of bacteria we encounter everyday are benign or helpful.  Wiping away all the bacteria is akin to burning down the house because there was a mouse in it.  Maybe.
I bet you didn't even know bacteria could smile, did you?

Now, many will argue that the antibacterial wipes are simply easier to use.  They come presoaked in cleaners so you can just swipe one of the disposable wipes out of the disposable package and save yourself the trouble of spritzing a few molecules of Windex or the equally effective soapy water first. 

Never mind the environmental no-nos that occur here, the fact is that you are actually buying an inferior product for a radically inflated price.  The wipes and the cleaner are literally one-fifth the cost if you buy them separately.  There’s also less waste since nothing has to come in a massive plastic tub to make the purchase price seem sensible. 

 #4: Chiropractors

So am I ruffling any feathers yet?  But Aaron, you say, I’ve been to a chiropractor, he did wonders for my back pain.  My mother swears by her chiropractor.  My uncle/aunt/cousin/milkman/neighbor’s weasel removal specialist tells me it’s worth every penny.

I will say it loudly and proudly, “chiropractors are a scam”.  Every credible scientific study that has ever looked into this has concluded that the whole chiropractic “art” is nothing more than an uncomfortable massage.
Evidence that Chiropractors are full of it.

Like the products before this one, this is a service that relies on the “perceived threat reduction” scam.  Airborne tells you if you take it, you won’t get sick.  You take it, you don’t get sick.  Of course, you also ate three tic-tacs and petted two Pomeranians and didn’t get sick, but you don’t connect the two because tic-tacs and Pomeranians weren’t invented by schoolteachers.  The crooning credit phony tells you if you subscribe to his “free” service you won’t be a victim of identity theft.  You oblige and “bam”, no identity theft.  Of course, the chance that you would be a victim of identity theft was vanishingly small to begin with, but you don’t connect the two because random happenstance doesn’t have a catchy jingle with inconsistent rhymes.  You slather your home with lemony smelling antibiotics and suddenly your child continues to not have diphtheria.

Chiropractors are the worst offenders on my list so far because they bilk the insurance system from time to time, forcing those of us who know their operation is a scam to indirectly fund it.

As a general rule, be suspicious of any service that tells you that once you start coming you have to keep coming back for the rest of your life.  This might be true of some chronic, life altering ailments, but it is very rarely the case with achy backs.

 #5: Herbal Supplements

It’s pretty simple, really.  As long as you include the words “these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.  This product is not intended to prevent, cure, diagnose or treat any disease” on the outside of a package, you can pretty much use the rest of the package to say whatever the hell you want.

No surprise then that there’s an herbal supplement for every condition known to humankind, especially the ones that have baffled science for centuries.  Alcoholism, sexual arousal, baldness, fatness, shortness, attention span, memory, penis enlargement… all no match for naturally occurring plants and minerals that science refuses to accept the overwhelming power of.
Just look at this thing and tell me it doesn't
cure melanoma.

Of course, we’re meant to believe that the medical industry suppresses these natural cure-alls because they would go out of business if only we knew that we could cure our spinal meningitis with aloe and orchids.

As tempting as this fantasy is, think about the size of this purported conspiracy.  Every medical researcher in the world would essentially have to be in on it.  Even if you buy into the myth that everybody who works for a pharmaceutical company is devil-spawn (notice I couldn’t find a link to refute that one), it’s hard to believe that all the University sponsored medical researchers are in on it as well.  We’re talking about brilliant scientists that devote their lives and futures to finding cures and treatments instead of taking higher paying jobs in the medical field.  Would all of them be willing to sell their souls to the Illuminati?

Oh wait... yeah, that's all of them.  Never mind.

Strangely enough, the only scientists that side with the herbal supplements work for the herbal supplement industry.  I guess by yelling “conspiracy” loud enough they hope they can make us forget that they’re the ones conspiring.

 #6: Debt Consolidation Services

This fraud is so blatant it should be illegal and thankfully, it is slowly becoming so in some parts of the country.  These are the commercials that seem to fall somewhere between the aforementioned “identity theft protection” commercials and the bankruptcy attorneys.

They promise to “stop the harassing calls”, “consolidate your debts into one low monthly payment” and “settle for pennies on the dollar”.  And technically, they (might) do all of those things.  Of course, you could do the same thing by shutting off your phone and forgetting about your debts without doing any more damage to your credit rating.
An alternative way to stop the annoying calls.

While the industry will obviously defend itself against claims of fraud, it is clear that they’re implying somewhere in their advertisements that they will help you get your financial house in order.  I’m sure it’s somewhere in the fine print there, but I’ll save you the eye strain: they won’t.

You see, step one in their process is to stop paying your bills altogether.  Obviously you can’t afford a bunch of recurring monthly debts, so they’ll tell you not to send the little pittance you might have already been sending.  Oh wait, I’m sorry, step one is that you start paying them a recurring monthly fee.  Then stop paying all of your other bills.  After all, they want you to keep you priorities straight.

While you’re busy paying them and nobody else, they’re supposedly hard at work talking with your creditors and trying to convince them to reduce your debt load.  There’s no magical formula to this, of course.  You could do the same thing and you’d probably meet with better results since collection agents hate these companies.  There’s also no guarantee that the creditor will reduce your debt at all.  They’re under no legal obligation to do so.  You’ll notice that in the microsecond of fine print at the bottom of the commercial in the blurry font.

Meanwhile, your unpaid debt is mounting.  Your credit rate is being decimated which is probably the opposite of what you had in mind.  You’re accumulating interest and late fees that weren’t piling up before.  By the time your debt collection agency is done working their magic, you might have paid them more than they saved you.

And, of course, your credit would have been better if you’d declared bankruptcy… or invested all your money in recreational guillotine rentals.

 #7: Radar Detectors

You know all about these guys, right?  They sit on the dash of fast cars with fast drivers and beep annoyingly to tell you that there might be a cop up ahead.  Or there might not be.  It might just be a Wal-Mart.  But it might be a cop.  And you might never know what it was.  Assuming it was anything at all, that is.

So what could possibly be wrong with this license to fly?

First, let me tell you what’s not wrong with it.  There’s a persistent rumor that by the time a car reaches the range of the radar detector it is already in the range of the radar.  That suggests that the cop will already have you pegged before you know he’s around.  Now this is actually usually true, but for a different reason altogether.
Might I suggest a distraction tactic?

Hold on to your seats here, folks.  Turns out that the cops have actually seen these radar detector things before.  In fact, they even have radar detector detectors.  I think they even call them that.  The technology has been around for a while and when it came out it was actually pretty effective.  The longer it exists, the less functional they are.

See, modern radar guns (or the increasingly common Lidar guns) don’t emit any signal at all until they select a target and fire.  This means that there is, at most, a few milliseconds between the time you get your heads up and the time the cop gets enough info to give you that ticket.  That means that the only times a radar detector has any real utility is when the cop is hitting the guys in front of you.  Your radar detector might pick up on the band’s intermittent signal and give you enough forewarning to avoid the ticket.

That might seem like justification to buy one until you give it some real thought.  People ahead of you are generally not going slower than you.  They’ll be going faster or the same speed, which means you probably would have noticed the cop when he pulled over the other guy. 

To make matters worse, in some municipalities these things are illegal.  You might be as likely to get a ticket as to avoid one.

On top of that is the underreported fact that speeding is literally one of the leading causes of accidental death in this country.  Not to make a bummer out of this blog, but the radar detector can’t help you much with the tangled wreckage of a hairpin curve at sixty miles per hour.

Radar detector or no, this dude is getting a ticket.

 #8: Organic Food

So I saved the best for last.  I’m sure this one will ruffle some feathers but it has to be included on the list.  Organic food is a pretty incredible scam.  It is an inferior product that cost more money and it is spreading like wild fire.

You can hardly blame people for being taken in by this.  It just seems like natural should be healthier than synthetic.  So we buy produce with no pesticides, meat grown with no hormones and milk made with no… whatever it is the other guys put in their milk.  After all, if it’s natural, it must be healthier right?  That’s why people in prehistoric times lived so much longer than us right?

Let’s clear this one up right now.  Natural does not equal healthy.  Arsenic is natural.  Sodium is natural.  The cold vacuum of space is natural.  None of them will make your milk drinking experience any healthier.

Fully organic or no, I'm not eating it.

There is a huge amount of data on this subject and it can be overwhelming to get a clear answer on the question of organics.  There is an enormous amount of misinformation out there and it is hard for the layperson to sift through what is woo and what is science.  Rest assured, though, that mountains of unbiased data confirm again and again that there is no nutritional superiority to organic foods.

Not all people who buy organic do it only for the lack of artificial sweeteners and hormones, of course.  Many choose free-range eggs and cruelty free meats and dairy products and generally those will also be organic.  This isn’t because there is any correlation between organic and being nice to the animals, it’s a simple matter of an overlapping market.

But the vast majority of people buy into the naturalistic fallacy that suggests that the pesticides, hormones, preservatives and additives are just bad.  Never mind that most of these things are added because they make the product healthier, they have really hard to pronounce names so they can’t be good.

The common thread to all of these products and services is the lingering element of fear that goes along with them.  Whether they fan the fear of germs, identity thieves, chronic untreatable pain, inferior phallic size, speeding tickets, debt collectors, preservatives or jobs at pirate themed restaurants, the key is that they’ve made us afraid of something we don’t completely understand.

GNC has just the thing for that.

Once they’ve framed our fear in a confusing enough way, they present the magic bullet that will cure the problem.  The prices are pretty low on everything except the chiropractors so we largely decide that we’re better safe than sorry.  We spend a few extra bucks on the organic milk instead of the regular stuff.  We pay the seven bucks a month for our increasingly misrepresented free credit report and we take a myriad of colorful placebos that do little more than alter the color of our urine.

If people weren’t raking in billions of dollars on this it would just be kind of funny, like a superstitious grandpa and his lucky socks.  As it stands, sales of Airborne alone totaled in excess of a hundred million dollars last year.  And this was after it was forced to remove the word ‘cold’ from its packaging.

So how can you know what is real and what isn’t?  How can you tell what products do what they promise?  There are several very good websites that will offer you impartial facts.  Never Google “does [name of product] really work?” because the company will own the hell out of that question.  It’s better to start assuming the worst and Google “[name of product] is a scam”.  Or you could just place your unwavering trust in me, which is equally effective.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject, passing this blog along to all your facebook friends will make you thin, unbald, sexy, smart and better able to do complex arithmetic*.

*This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.  This blog is not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any disease.

Aaron Davies


  1. I have a feeling I'll be doing another blog on this same theme in the near future. If you'd like to nominate a useless product for the next go-round, please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

  2. Snake oil salesmen have been bilking the gullible for generations. They even have aphorisms for it, "A fool and his money are soon parted"; "Caveat emptor"; etc. Thanks for raising awareness about some more modern examples of an ancient practice. You write very well. Humorous and informative.