January 8, 2013

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.


  1. Do you believe that falling-crime times are the result of a conspiracy or power grab?


  2. I've only seen isolated events spring from a conspiracy. If it's an enduring, broad-based phenomenon, then it's coming from the grass-roots.

  3. Until fairly recent years it wasn't legal to advertise prescription drugs to consumers.


  4. Speak of the devil, but today I saw the movie "Silver Linings". In one scene, the two love interests give a long list of all the prescription drugs they've done, and compare notes: Trazodone, xanax, clonipil, etc. The characters were both supposed to be mental cases, but still. It reminded me how striking is the variety of drugs offered to the public.


  5. I would have thought an aging population resulted in more drug commercials. They are especially prevalent for news programs.

    This paper claims that penicillin treating syphilis caused the sexual revolution to start in the mid-to-late 50s, rather than contraception. Gonorreah, the illegitimate birth rate and teen birth rate are all argued to sync better with the decline of syphilis.

  6. Well there were lots of old people in the '80s, but there were no lifestyle drug commercials aimed at them. It's not just a matter of degree, it's a case of presence/absence.

  7. "
    This paper claims that penicillin treating syphilis caused the sexual revolution to start in the mid-to-late 50s, rather than contraception"

    I doubt it. I don't think STDs are a serious limit to sexual behavior. For instance, the AIDs epidemic broke out in the early 80s - yet people got more and more promiscuous as the decade dragged on, reaching an apex in the late 80s/early 90s. Furthermore, AIDs is not nearly as prevalent nowadays, yet people also report less sexual partners(average of 4, last time I checked).

    Also, contraception use is more acceptable and widespread now than in the 60s-80s. Its encouraged in schools and federally funded. yet, once again, promiscuity has gone down.


  8. Another example from the 1950s pop culture: In A Face in the Crowd, the huckster Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) makes his bones on TV by promoting "Vitagex," a pep pill.

  9. Have you seen "Shutter Island" which is set in the 1950s?

    The protagonist thinks the government experiments on the mentally ill, that the men in white are not to be trusted. That the drugs that they give you are bad.

    In the conclusion of the movie, it's revealed that the protagonist is paranoid and mentally ill, that the doctors are the good guys.

    When the protagonist's wife exhibited signs of mental illness by setting fire to their city apartment, he just moved her to the country, and then she drowned the children. He didn't seek professional help immediately and so holds himself responsible for the death of his children.

    The iron-clad confidence of the Ben Kinsley character and the patronizing attitude of the Mark Ruffalo character at the end of the movie is actually really off-putting.


    The ironic thing is, the drug that's mentioned in the movie that the protagonist been taking is pretty dangerous. And anti-psychotic drugs can make people kill themselves.


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