Snake oil decoded

By Neil Patrick

This could be pointing to a cliff edge...

All the time I go onto social media at the moment, I am assailed by ads that say: ‘Follow my fool proof plan to riches’, ‘Turn your passion to profit’, ‘Hack your way to success’, and any number of similar sales pitches.

I don’t know about you, but it’s clear to me they all use the same formula. Some of it is obvious, some of it is subtle. But I detest all of it because of one critical aspect:

They entice people who are often desperate and extract money from them without any obligation to deliver success for their clients.

Don’t get me wrong. I am passionate about entrepreneurship and business start-ups. We need more people succeeding in their entrepreneurial efforts and I spend a lot of time helping people do this.

I have no problem with XYZ Megacorp paying Tony Robbins or whoever many thousands of dollars to speak at their events. Or with people who genuinely help others to get better at whatever they do.

I do a lot of coaching myself. But there’s a key difference from what the snake oil salesmen do:

I do not resort to a one size fits all, silver bullet solution.

Every piece of coaching and consulting I do is unique to each client. If I think a client will not or cannot benefit from my involvement, I tell them and try to introduce them to someone else I know and trust who can help.

I’d rather make no sale than take money for something that will not work for that client.

The snake oil men and women take a different view however:

They want your money more than they want your success.

I despair every time I am presented with one of these programmes. Because these books, DVDs, coaching programmes and seminars are cynically selling false hope in the full knowledge that only a few buyers will ultimately benefit.

Yet usually, these packages are not scams. Many contain good advice – once you get through all the padding. And there’s A LOT of padding.

So I thought I’d decode their methods so you can see them for what they really are. Because I have spent my whole career in business and specifically marketing, I think I can see through these people better than most.

And I’ll admit that I have spent a lot of my own money to buy these things, not because I believed they would be of great value to me, but because my curiosity to see them from the inside proved too strong to resist.

They all use similar devices and once you know what they are, you are much better equipped to avoid being duped. So to help you see through the polished and persuasive pitches, here’s a quick summary of what to look out for. 

They are their own proof

This is not a reason to buy anything from anyone...

They ‘prove’ their method works by describing and showing pictures of how wealthy, happy and successful they have become. Look at me! This could be you…IF you buy this now. So be prepared for lots of pictures of expensive cars and houses, big bank statements and pictures of palm trees, white sand and blue skies. 

They use free enticements

They bait the trap with a free offer. This is a device to snare your personal details so they can upsell.

The way to secure thousands of prospects is to give away something for free. Except it’s not really free. You must give them your email address and quite possibly a lot more personal information. This might be sold on, but more typically is used to fill your mailbox forever with more offers and sales messages. To minimize the chance that you unsubscribe, these emails will typically ‘give’ you ‘incredibly valuable information’.
They imply scarcity when there is none

This is a common trick. ‘Last few places remaining – don’t miss out’. I cannot keep this offer open longer than the next 24 hours. Etc. This is another ruse which implies that it’s popular so it must be good. And we are at risk of missing out if we don’t buy now. Poppycock. Ignore the offer, and another one will arrive within a few days for sure. 

They all have a rags to riches story to tell

This is another device used to convince us that if they were once struggling and are now millionaires, then their brilliant ‘secret’ recipe must work. They used to be ordinary just like us, until they ‘discovered’ this amazing secret to fabulous wealth. If they can do it, anyone can.

They all use upsell

The freebie is a loss leader. Give away 1,000 books, DVDs or whatever and then harangue the hell out of the takers with more offers at massively inflated prices. Taking the freebie says to them, you are interested. And once they have their claws in you, they won’t let go. They all seek to amass huge mailing lists so they can grow their marketing machines. 

The fake offer

This is how the upsell works. First, the prices quoted as ‘normal’ are no such thing. ‘Normally this would cost $2,500. But for a limited time, you can have it for 'just' $499'.

‘And I’ll also provide you with all these amazing extras absolutely free.’

If you were a retailer, you’d have to meet very strict rules before you could make an offer like this. But online direct selling of services has no such rules to satisfy. Your ‘normal price’ is whatever you want it to be; you don’t fool me. 

The money back guarantee

This is another trick. If you sell 100 items at $499, you have just made $49,900 gross revenue. Maybe half the people that bought it didn’t like it very much. But only a few of these will actually ever get around to asking for their money back. It’s human nature. We can be quick to buy, but slow to ask for our money back, especially if the process is made unnecessarily lengthy and complex. So I refund 10 people let’s say. My revenue is reduced to ‘just’ $44,910, and I’ve refunded everyone who asked. My conscience is clear and my bank balance is still looking sweet. 

The universal solution

We are all prone to believe in experts. That because if someone else is doing well and we are not, we believe that if we copy them, we’ll do well too.

This is faulty logic because we are all unique. What works for one person is quite possibly a disaster for someone else. The real secret to our success lies inside each of us. By striving to become the best version of us we can possibly be, not a pale imitation of someone else.

Nonetheless, all these people are experts. They are experts at extracting cash from others for things which cost them very little. 

The excuse

This is the get out of jail free card. It runs like this. If you didn’t succeed, that’s because you didn’t do everything I told you. It’s a circular argument which serves snake oil vendors well, because it transfers the responsibility for our success from them to us.

If I hire you to do something for me, I will hold you accountable for delivering what you promise. Yet snake oil salesmen accept no such responsibility.

The really clever trick by the snake oil vendors is that because we are the only ones who can make this happen, they are completely off the hook. They take our money but have absolutely no accountability for our success.

If you want to create your own business, good for you. Work at it. Get the best advice you can from people who understand your business sector and are not peddling snake oil. Figure out how you can do something better, faster or cheaper than others in your marketplace. Recognize your uniqueness and build on it.

Just don’t pay for someone else’s magic formula. The only guarantee from that is that they will get richer and you won’t.


  1. And never forget... if something is FREE, then *** YOU *** are the product. TANSTAFL.

    1. Yup David. In between scams which are clearly illegal and ethical business practices is a vast grey area. Excessive profits betray unethical businesses as do large advertising spends as a % of turnover.