Whether it be via old westerns or a classic episode of The Simpsons, we’ll probably all be familiar with the term “snake oil”, and with its dodgy salesmen.
Now an expression that refers to any product of questionable quality or with questionable claims attached to it, the origins of the phrase are as intriguing as they are hazy. But they are certainly worth revisiting as a lesson in what not to do as a marketer today.
There are two theories of how the term sprouted. The first involves the Seneca people – native American Indians whose lands had originally spread throughout the New York and Pennsylvania regions of the US. They used petroleum oil that seeped up through the ground as a treatment for cuts and scratches, and early European settlers caught on to the practice.
Soon the newcomers were looking for ways to monetise the ‘medicine’, and began bottling it and flogging it off as a cure-all wonder tonic. The name was gleaned from the fact that the quick talking Americans slowly broke down ‘Seneca oil’ into ‘snake oil’.
The other slightly more boring (but slightly more probable) theory, is that Chinese labourers were the ones who introduced snake oil to the US. Brought in as cheap labour to work on the first Transcontinental Railroad, they sold it to the locals as a cure for joint pain.
Rival medicine salesmen weren’t super happy with the loss of business, so they started a smear campaign that was so effective, and got the connotations of snake oil so embedded in the psyche of Americans, that the term is still recognised 150-odd years later.
There were more than a few salesmen that didn’t jump into the discrediting of the claims though, and were keen to get a slice of the snake oil pie.
One such character was Clark Stanley, the self-styled “rattlesnake king” that essentially gave snake oil salesmen the fantastically dodgy rep that they enjoy today.
Stanley is what the kids would call an interesting cat. The little that we know about him really reinforces the stereotype that he helped to build. Without a record of his birth, people had to rely on Stanley to fill in the blanks. He said that he was born in Abilene, Texas, in 1854. Unfortunately, the town wasn’t established until 1881. From this point on we take anything he says with a quite a large grain of salt.
He said that after 11 years roaming the Wild West as a cowboy, in 1879 he met a native Hopi medicine man at Walpi, Arizona, and studied under him for 2 long years. This training apparently centred around the medicinal use of rattlesnake oil, and, with the help of a Pharmacist, Stanley began to spruik his wonder drug to Western audiences.
Sales were solid, mostly thanks to the smooth-talking Stanley telling anyone who would listen that the tonic was good for ‘frost bites, chill blains, bruises, sore throat, and bites of animals, insects and reptiles, rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains and swellings’. I’ll take 10.
The height of his fame came at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where, dramatically dressed and in full Thespian mode, Stanley slaughtered hundreds of rattlesnakes in front of packed crowds, squeezing their juices out to show how his wonder tonic was produced.
This sort of theatre was very 19th century though. As the 1900s rolled around, scepticism began to overtake awe and excitement in the snake oil trade. In 1906, the US passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, to stamp down on unsubstantiated claims. Ten years later, a shipment of Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment was seized and tested, and found to be what we would now essentially see as Vicks vapour rub. A whole lot of mineral oil, chillies for the warmth, turpentine for the nostril clearing and about 1% of what was most likely beef fat.
In a landmark case that initiated a huge crackdown on medicinal products, Stanley was taken to court and fined $20 (about $400 today) for the breaches. And while the fine wasn’t bankruptcy inducing, the damage of reputation certainly was.
So health marketing and communication has changed a lot since the days of buying wonder drugs from the back of a cart, or cocaine and heroin for a child’s flu. The fact that Stanley got away with hocking rubbish for so long is more of a sign of those times, but the upshot still resonates today.
If you’re not backing your health marketing up with super-solid facts, you’re going to go far further backwards than you are forwards.