Snake oil, Geritol, and Enzyte
Whenever I watch TV during a visit home, it always blows my mind how many commercials there are for prescription drugs, especially the lifestyle drugs. Improve your energy level! Improve your stamina! Improve your sex life! And energy drinks are popular with everybody from intellectuals to teenage video game addicts.
Back in the '80s, the only commercials I remember seeing were for over-the-counter medicine used to treat acute symptoms like headache, cough, heartburn, etc. They did not try to lure you into a steady diet of their drug as a way to treat enduring problems like not having as much energy as you'd like. As a result, they didn't try to prey on your desperation, or try to make you feel desperate in the first place. And because they weren't trying to pitch a long-term treatment regimen, they had no need to appear like a bunch of degreed experts who are trying to plan out your future. No expert would want to be followed by a catchy jingle that would cancel out the sobriety of his lecture.
The fact that the mid-1990s gave birth to this direct-to-consumer marketing of lifestyle prescription drugs made me suspect that it would be found in other falling-crime periods. In those times, people are more trusting of experts because they see the world around them getting safer, and attribute that (wrongly) to whatever policies the authorities have been implementing. A rising-crime period cures people of that misattribution, as they see with their own eyes how puzzled, impotent, and even corrupt the authorities are to check a soaring crime rate.
Perhaps people also have lower energy levels and other lifestyle problems during falling-crime periods. When you perceive a safer and safer world, your body responds by investing more in maintenance (AKA procrastination) than in actually getting things done. Why be in an excitable state if there's so little to get excited about?
Whatever the reason, sure enough the earlier falling-crime periods were plagued by their own versions of Amberen and Viagra. During the mid-20th century, it was Geritol, a "tonic" designed to cure chronically low energy levels by giving you a megadose of iron. They were advertised right on TV, not only during an in-show break, but also during standalone commercials like these:
The earnest, paternalistic tone, the thinly veiled attempt to make the viewer feel like they should be more active and energetic than they are, the framing of it as a long-term problem rather than an acute symptom, and the pitch that a miracle of science has the answer, as proven by multiple testimonials from These Real Customers -- it's uncanny how familiar the era of Geritol feels.
Was it a fringe phenomenon? Not if we're to judge by the episode-length lampooning of the trend by the I Love Lucy show in 1952. Lucy auditions for a job as a spokeswoman for Vitameatavegamin, another in a long line of phony health tonics, but that also contains 23% alcohol. Hijinks ensue as she gets drunker and drunkerer over the several takes that she shoots.
And before that, there was the heyday of the patent medicine, which we would today just call snake oil, using one of the most well known "medicines" to stand for the whole enterprise. It flourished during the Victorian era in Europe and the Gilded Age in America. The basic story is the same as during the Geritol and Enzyte crazes.
What's important is that snake oil hucksterism has not been a constant over time. It only shows up during falling-crime times, when audiences are more credulous about claims made by experts. The patent medicine racket unwound during the rising-crime period of ca. 1900 to the early '30s, and the Geritol racket unwound starting in the '60s. Again, by the '80s you didn't see any of that kind of advertising on TV, in print, or wherever.
Except for the rising crime rate itself, so much else goes right during a rising-crime period. Becoming more skeptical of experts who pretend to have simple solutions to complex problems, even those that toy with the human body, is just one more.