3 Ways to Identify Snake Oil Salesmen and Fake Experts
Updated: Feb 14
The term snake oil is used to describe deceptive marketing, health care fraud, or a scam. Similarly, snake oil salesman is a common expression used to describe someone who sells, promotes, or is a general proponent of some valueless or fraudulent cure, remedy, or solution (according to Wikipedia).
Clark Stanley, The First Snake Oil Salesman
What are the motives of the snake oil salesman of today?
If you didn’t already know, the term originates from the first snake oil salesman, Clark Stanley, who claimed to have used rattlesnakes to create the first “cure-all” miracle product. From the list of ailments on the label (see the below image) ... it sounds pretty amazing. It was a complete scam and didn't work of course. He went town-to-town fleecing new customers each time. He stole the original concept from Chinese railroad workers who used medicine made from the Chinese water snake. It turns out that the self-proclaimed “Rattlesnake King” didn’t even include snakes in his cure-all ... instead, he combined mineral and fatty oils with some additives.
In a nutshell, he stole the idea ... re-branded it ... and professed that it would cure all ailments and problems ... plus lied about the product's ingredients. As you can probably imagine, it didn’t fix anything, and he was found guilty of misrepresenting his product. Today the term snake oil salesman brings up images of a sleazy profiteer that deceives people to make a quick buck.
Today's Snake Oil Salesmen: Fake Experts & Influencers
Today, although they don’t sell actual snake oil, these con men are still thriving. They come in many forms. The influencer that creates sponsored content with a particular beauty product that they never end up trying ... can you say, Kardashian. The businessman who swears that he can help you make six figures within the next month as long as you spend $10K on his new coaching service, buy his book or attend his seminar. The YouTuber who posts a video with a huge cliffhanger only to reveal that nothing happened at the end of his video.
The Rise of Bro-Marketing
This is where bro-marking comes in.
If you haven’t heard of it ... bro marketing is aspiration marketing using inflated imagery or statements to present a desirable future or unmissable value. And it can be very very effective.
This marketing style manipulates psychological triggers like scarcity, likeability, authority, trust, and reciprocity. This network of experts, thought-leaders, and coaches are trying to monetize our collective desire for security and belonging. They use trust to get us to click on ads or videos, scarcity to get us to buy their latest products; authority to sell us pointless things, and reciprocity to convince us that they are on our side ... don’t worry, you're part of my community and I’ve got your back.
[Reproduction of a label from Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment, circa 1905]
Making Big Claims and Offering No Value
The problem is the lack of real value in 99% of all the offerings.
I have no problem with the tactic as long as the offering being sold has actual value ... it almost always doesn't. The videos on YouTube are not interesting; the products don’t work; the coaching sessions are lackluster, and that downloadable ebook is filled with content that you can find on the internet. There is so much plagiarized, regurgitated, and agenda-driven content that, in the end, we get duped into consuming and paying for information that is ultimate trash.
1. Popularity and Volume are Not Indicators of Expertise
Today anyone is an expert. The internet has given way to thousands of different marketers, thought-leaders, and coaches, many of whom have no clue what they are doing. But, remember that popularity is not an indicator of expertise; the most famous people on social media are not necessarily the ones that hold the most knowledge. More often than not, they are the people who can bullshit the best. If you look at the social media accounts of some of the best coaches and marketers that head up the most prominent agencies, you’ll probably notice that they often don’t have a social media account. That’s because they are building their client’s online presence instead of their own. These fake experts have often never built a business and rather sell tips and tricks about something they know nothing about.
2. Choose Credibility, Authenticity, Experience and Content Quality
In this sense, quality is more important than quantity. In the world of the snake oil salesman, credibility and results are not an issue. They thrive on numbers ... the goal is to sell more, amass more views and get more clicks. Whether or not people enjoy the content they put out is an afterthought. As a result, everything that they produce is rushed and unfinished. It sounds inauthentic and salesy. The true experts often take the utmost care to craft the right message, even if that means that they only put out one piece of content per month instead of five.
Focus on the quality of the content. Many of these fake experts out there tend to recycle standard information without presenting any new information. This is the time to be critical. Don’t take everything at face value and instead look at what is being said. Is it something new? Or is it the same ol’ tips and tricks that all the “experts” seem to be saying? Also, be critical of the too good to be true promise—that six-figure business in just 30 days type of promise.
Remember to focus on and spot genuine authenticity and vulnerability. Profiteers use authenticity and vulnerability to gain trust and authority. But it is not about talking about your weaknesses or confessing all your secrets; it’s about showing up. People want to see action. Not only taking the talk but walking the walk.
3. Understand the Motive
Last but not least, understand their motive. What drives them? What is their purpose? If their main purpose is to make lots of money, no matter what, then they probably don’t have your best interest in mind. Brands, businesses, and even experts that value money over all else, will never be able to provide valuable advice. Yes, money is important, but it can’t be the sole driver. Those that seek money above all else, will always try to cut corners or do the least amount of work for the biggest pay-off. Although it isn’t easy to spot, if the expert relies on bro-marketing, or manipulative tactics to get you to complete an action, then run.
The Need for Proven and Trustworthy Methods, Insights and Online Education
Today, businesses need sources of information that they can trust, along with modern and nimble methods from the trenches. The trick is to be able to spot the fake expert from a genuine one. Hopefully, this article has shed a little light on the topic and will help you navigate these rough business waters.