I felt like Dana Scully debunking werewolf legends in a cold, dark forest. But it was a sunny day in Walla Walla, Washington when I walked by a store claiming it wasn’t a pot shop. (In Washington that’s always a possibility with anything decorated a medical shade of green.)

Curious, I made a right turn and found myself in a particular kind of forest. One filled with crystals and bracelets and water bottles and flip-flops.

The place smelled of lavender and pine and the two store reps (a man and wife duo) pounced as soon as my wife and I entered.

Not a Pot Shop

After the requisite small talk, the man began his spiel. He avoided terms like vibrational energy and new age. Instead, he asked if we’d experienced any pain, anxiety, or depression lately.

He seemed disappointed when this ultrarunner lied and said no. But he continued anyway, telling the story of how he was once a skeptic. But then he drank water out of a water bottle a friend had given him and it seemed sweeter than usual. An experimental taste test later and he was convinced the rocks glued to the bottom of the bottle were what caused the water to taste sweeter.

According to him, it had something to do with electric energy from the crystals causing the electrons to be inert. If I didn’t understand physics, I might have believed him. His rhetoric was convincing.


He then led my wife and I past all of the trinkets filled with crushed crystals (maybe the sex toys were in the back?) and told us about a process they called “Cocooning.” I couldn’t resist an image of Don Ameche dancing like a teenager with Maureen Stapleton.

He showed us black sheets of rubber flecked with crystals. You simply lay down and place these crystal filled mats below and above your body. You trap yourself in an “electric” energy field.

As we lay down and allowed strangers to place strange bits of rubber on our bodies, I immediately thought of lead x-ray shields. The mats were weighty and I immediately felt a sense of calm not unlike that which I felt last year when getting my ankle x-ray photographed.

The sensation I felt wasn’t much different than a welcome hug on a cool autumn evening. And the mats smelled of conifer forests.

Electric Energy? Or Simply a Hug?

As we left the store with our sample goodies — a couple of rubber bracelets for pain — my wife and I shared our thoughts. We’d both felt the same thing when “cocooning.” Comfort and calm.

Did you know that the skin on your body is your largest organ? And that when you get a welcome hug, it sends a signal to your brain and your brain tells your body to release oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same chemical that helps mothers bond with their babies and people bond during sex. We’ve even found that non-rehearsed singing with other people releases the same hormone.

It’s also easy to trick the body into thinking it’s getting a hug. It’s why thunder shirts work for dogs and why my wife and I both felt a sense of comfort and calm when the sales rep laid those heavy mats all over our bodies.

Combine this effect with a pleasant scent and you’ve got calm and comfort and the temptation to nap (this wasn’t long after I’d attempted to run 100-miles).

The History of Snake Oil

Real snake oil isn’t the fraudulent product we all refer to when we call something “snake oil.” The Chinese have long used an oil made from the Chinese water snake that’s high in Omega-3 fatty acids and helps with inflammation.

It was a man by the name of Clark Stanley who sold “Rattlesnake Oil” in 1897 that was later found to contain no snake oil or fat. It was a pure scam that hundreds bought into.

Today, we call pretty much any product that doesn’t actually do what it claims “snake oil.” In marketing, I’d say snake oil is a fascinating concept.

How do you get people to buy things they don’t need? Maybe put a little snake oil in it or maybe just claim it inactivates ions in your water.

My father and I joke all the time about searching for the perfect snake oil. We live in an era where snake oil products proliferate. The internet has made it absurdly simple to spread false information.

I personally don’t condone lying. And honestly, some salesmen don’t even realize they’re selling snake oil. But there are some things we can learn from snake oil salesmen.

Vibes Up: Psychology and Biology

Vibes Up doesn’t actually use physics to produce an effect in their customers (whether they believe they are or not). They use biology and psychology.

Humans want the quick-fix. We buy into this all the time. Even as children, our mothers understood this — kiss it and make it all better.

We want to believe that the piece of rubber around our wrist will vibrate our pain away. We want our hard-earned money to produce change NOW. And when the real answer is the tincture of time, we tend to seek easier and more comforting answers to our detriment.

The best snake oil takes advantage of these tendencies. We’ll buy pads to attach to our feet that “detox our bodies” (“look at all those toxins [skin, dirt, sweat?] after a day on my feet!”). We’ll buy overpriced tea coasters believing the crystals in the coaster will change the “harmful” properties in our water-based drink.

If you’re a marketer even if you sell SEO services, learn from the snake oil salesmen. While your product might be legit, you can tap into the same human weaknesses. Use biology and psychology to your advantage.


By Ben Mattice

Benjamin Mattice is a freelance writer/editor, horror and sci-fi writer, SEO and affiliate marketing newbie, dog wrestler, cat wrangler, capoeirista, and long distance runner. He lives in the Palouse with his wife, three dogs, two cats, and two rats. Yes, that would probably be considered a mini-zoo.