In 1879, Clark “Rattlesnake King” Stanley supposedly learned the secrets of snake oil from a Moki medicine man. Then, after successfully peddling his own concoction on the streets of Chicago, Stanley partnered with a Boston druggist and targeted a national audience. He plastered his ads across the eastern seaboard and set up production facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Before Stanley’s scam suckered the entire nation, the US government sued the Rattlesnake King in 1917 for misrepresenting his product. His famous cure all medicine turned out to be mineral oil and turpentine.
Throughout the 20th century, street hucksters like Stanley leveraged the evolving mass communication channels to reach larger audiences. Taglines replaced lies and advertisements replaced roadshows. Despite the catchy jingles and sleek logos, a con is always still a con.
Next time you are flipping through a magazine or watching a late night infomercial, remember snake oil salesmen don’t always sell snake oil.