Before marketing reached its current status of terrifying super-meta-science, there were many ad campaigns that were, well, a little on the heavy-handed side. The tobacco industry has been responsible for more than its share of outlandish claims, but we’ve already dealt with that mess. Here are a few other ad campaigns and products that ended up just being too outlandish for people to handle.
COCOA KRISPIES: THE WONDER CURE FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
Kick that no-account box of Cocoa Pebbles to the curb, breakfast fans, because Kellogg’s Cocoa Krispies is the only chocolatey cereal that cares about the health of your children. That’s right, the cereal that looks the most unsettlingly like mouse turds is now jam-packed with a full 25% of recommended vitamins A, B, C, & E.
Why, you could practically call it medicine! Unless you talked to virtually any nutritionist, dietician, or mildly well-educated human being, who might point out that adding a few vitamins to what is essentially a huge bowl of sugary chocolate milk is not going to significantly affect the immune system—especially given that more and more evidence is coming to light that shows excess sugar can actually suppress the immune response. One critic declared that “By [Kellogg’s] logic, you can spray vitamins on a pile of leaves, and it will boost immunity.” After briefly considering the viability of Cocoa Frosted Pile of Leaves, Kellogg’s quietly withdrew their immunity claim.
THE NEO-GEO: BETTER THAN SEX?
SNK’S Neo-Geo was the most powerful game console you never heard of, an advanced “24-bit” system that brought full-quality arcade graphics to your living room for… yikes, $650, which was more than three times as much as the initial retail cost of a Sega Genesis or a Super Nintendo. ROM cartridges for the Neo-Geo could put an even worse dent in your wallet, as they could go for as much as $200 apiece. Clearly an aggressive ad push was needed in order to overcome sticker shock. Something memorable, something sexy… oh hey, what about a giant penis with a face?
This Neo-Geo ad, featuring the distinctive-looking first boss from oddly-named run-and-gun shooter “Cyber-Lip,” appeared in Premiere magazine in 1991 and was unique for several reasons: it was aimed at the adult market, who presumably had more disposable income for video games; it was loaded with goofy double-entendre ("He used to play all night with me. Hot action, fantasy games... you name it. Now he says his NEO-GEO gives him more”), and it wanted us to believe that a grown man given the choice between shooting rockets at a terrifying penis monster and having sex with a supermodel is going to choose penis monster every time.
IS THERE ANYTHING LISTERINE CAN'T CURE?
Originally an antiseptic for oral surgery (the name “Listerine” is in fact a reference to pioneering antiseptic surgeon Joseph Lister), Listerine was first marketed to the public as a desperately needed remedy to the dreaded condition of “chronic halitosis.” Halitosis (or as anybody outside of the Listerine marketing department or a few dusty old medical textbooks refers to it, “bad breath”) could also be cured by regularly brushing your teeth, but the new and medical sounding word made an impression on thousands of customers who now added a glug of mouthwash to their usual dental-hygiene regimen.
Emboldened by their success, parent company Lambert Pharmaceutical went on to claim that it was just as effective if not more so than flossing, that it could prevent colds and sore throats, that Listerine dabbed on the head could prevent dandruff, and even briefly attempted to sell Listerine-brand cigarettes. The party came to an end in 1976 when the Federal Trade Commission determined that Listerine wasn’t really that much better than brushing teeth and certainly couldn’t fight a cold or baldness, forcing Lambert to include disclaimers in their next $10.2 million worth of advertising.
PATENTLY ABSURD: PATENT MEDICINE THEN AND NOW
The term patent medicine (which incidentally has nothing to do with patent law) covers a wide range of curative tonics, solutions, ointments, powders, and pills that have one thing in common: none of them cure anything. A few early patent medicines could in fact injure or kill you, but typically the worst thing that would happen is that you’d think you were treating a medical condition when you were actually getting sicker. Among the most famous of the old patent medicines was Dr. Koch’s Cure-All, a miracle potion that could cure everything from tuberculosis to cancer and was a strong seller until the FDA finally got a chance to test a bottle and found it was nothing more than distilled water.
Before that was Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, an herbal mixture marketed as a cure for “womanly complaints” (19th-century euphemism for menstrual and menopausal cramps and pains) that basically consisted of a semi-random selection of herbs blended with 20% alcohol by volume; needless to say the herbs did almost nothing for the actual complaint, but women who had been taking healthy belts of 40-proof “vegetable compound” were at least in a much better mood to deal with their “womanly complaints.”
It would seem like the tighter restrictions on pharmaceuticals and advertising that came into effect in the middle of the 20th century would have put a damper on the patent medicine industry, but that’s underestimating the ingenuity and resourcefulness of your average quack doctor. Airborne (which if you hadn’t heard, was invented by a school teacher) continues to be marketed as a semi-magical cold and flu cure despite a total lack of scientific evidence proving it’s any better than just eating a vitamin-C pill, and despite being a “dietary supplement” (meaning it isn’t subject to FDA regulations as long as it doesn’t actually kill you) is often sold alongside actual medicines.
Colloidal silver is popularly sold as an “alternative” medicine to people skeptical of “Big Pharma” and claims to be able to prevent or treat cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and herpes, when all it has been proven to do is permanently turn your skin and hair a weird silver-blue color in large enough doses. Even Dr. Koch’s Cure-All has found a successor in the form of homeopathic “medicine,” a wide range of nonsensical and pseudo-magical treatments which consist almost entirely of distilled water.
GET ZAP-HAPPY WITH DR. CLARK
Ever wonder if all your so-called “diseases” are actually the result of horrible parasites that are crawling all over you beneath your skin? It turns out you’re right and totally not crazy at all, but don’t try to scrape those little buggers out with your fingernails just yet—Dr. (of zoology) Hulda Regehr Clark has the cure for what ails you with her wide selection of “zappers,” low-voltage electric chargers that pulse current through the body at certain frequencies that not only kill parasites but gallstones, malignant tumors, and even HIV.
You may not have heard much about the Zapper product line because of the killjoys at the FTC, who in 2004 required the Dr. Clark Research Foundation to offer refunds to any customer who asked for them and to stop claiming that their products did any number of wonderful things. The Foundation does seem to have backed away a bit from claims that the Zappers were a functional substitute for chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, possibly due to Dr. Clark’s death in 2009 of multiple myeloma.
AMOCO’S CLEAR ADVANTAGE
If you wanted to sell anything in the mid-90s you had to make sure people could see through it. Bottled water was taking off, Crystal Pepsi was rocking us to the strains of Van Halen’s “Right Now,” and Amoco introduced Crystal Clear Amoco Ultimate, certainly the most deliciously transparent and caffeine-free premium gasoline brand to power a car.
You might be forgiven for saying to yourself “wait, isn’t all gasoline pretty much transparent except for a few dyes that are added in as a marker?” and dismissing the concept of tasty crystal-clear fuel entirely, but Amoco Ultimate truly was very slightly more transparent than competing fuel brands due to an added filtration process.
Unfortunately for Amoco, the FTC determined that this extra few percentage points of transparency was the only real difference between Crystal Clear Amoco Ultimate and other 93-octane gas brands, and Amoco had to settle out of court and stop making claims that Ultimate was better for the planet or your car than anything else. Strangely enough, while Amoco was long since swallowed up by British Petroleum, a number of BP stations still use the Amoco Ultimate branding for their 93-octane premium gas.
THE “Q” STANDS FOR QUACK
The Q-Ray Ionized Bracelet is perhaps the most powerful item of medical jewelry one can own, combining the cutting edge of Western scientific research (the bracelets are “ionized” with a secret “ionization process” that is believed to use “ions”) and the ancient wisdom of the Oriental medical traditions (the guy who sells you these bracelets is Asian). By manipulating the body’s chi flow (presumably with ions) wearers are freed from the debilitating pain of arthritis and muscle cramps, just like acupuncture without all the hundreds of tiny needles.
Unfortunately for QT Incorporated, the Q-Ray bracelet was determined to be like acupuncture in another important way when the Mayo Clinic proved in 2002 that the bracelets provided no significant advantage in pain relief over the usual placebo effect. This led to an FTC injunction against further Q-Ray infomercials and culminated in a 2006 federal decision that QT Inc. had to pay back between $22.5 and $87 million depending on how many Q-Ray customers sought a refund. That’s going to hurt no matter which way your chi is flowing.
I SEE A LITTLE SILHOUETTE-O OF A SCAM
When people aren’t electrocuting themselves in order to kill the cancer-causing bugs inside them, or harnessing the power of ions to better manage their chi, they’re often worried about their figure, and a busy schedule of electrocution and chi-balancing leaves little time for exercise. For these (gullible) people, body-care megabrand Nivea introduced My Silhouette! Skin Cream featuring the mysterious and powerful Bio-slim Complex, regular use of which would significantly reduce body size… somehow.
My Silhouette! (which also happens to be one of those annoying product names with a punctuation mark included in it) was a fairly average skin lotion that could supposedly tighten the skin to reduce flab, because that’s the real problem with fat people—their skin isn’t tight enough. An FTC investigation revealed parent company Beiersdorf AG had no research to back these claims and Nivea was required to settle for $900,000 and to never promote the “Bio-slim Complex” (revealed to just be anise and white tea) again. Without this miracle product, how can America ever hope to defeat the multi-million-dollar obesity health crisis? Oh yeah, exercise.
IMAGINARY EXPLOSIVE DETECTORS
Completely ridiculous pseudo-scientific claims aren’t just for civilian medicines and skin creams anymore—just look at the (commercially) successful ADE 651 line of bomb/gun/drug/counterfeit/truffle detectors from British firm ATSC, a deceptively simple device powered by the user’s own static electricity and gullibility. Consisting of a swiveling radio antenna connected to a hip pack carrying “programmed substance detection cards” that can be swapped out in order to detect different materials and/or truffles, the ADE 651 and various copycat detectors have been hot sellers among the world’s dumbest governments.
Iraq is believed to have spent roughly $85 million equipping its police and military with ADE 651s, which have come to replace actual physical bomb searches despite the device’s odd tendency to swivel towards people wearing a lot of perfume or with freshly shampooed hair. While the manufacturer claims that the technology is based on nuclear magnetic resonance, ATSC’s managing director Jim McCormick told the BBC that “the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is actually very similar.” The chief difference seems to be that a dowsing rod can be made out of a conveniently shaped stick, whereas the ADE 651 is made out of cheap plastics and can cost up to $60,000 per unit.
While ATSC has been barred from further exports of the ADE 651 and McCormick himself has been charged with six counts of fraud, the device still has its defenders among officials who are generally unusually stubborn, afraid of looking stupid, or taking ATSC payments on the sly. Major General Jehad al-Jabiri of Iraq’s counter-explosive task force was particularly vehement in his defense of the ADE 651, stating “I don’t care what they say. I know more about bombs than the Americans do.
In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.” Similar statements have been made by other Iraqi officers and officials in militaries where similar devices have been used, often claiming that McCormick was arrested for refusing to give up the ADE 651’s valuable secrets to the British government. The proliferation of these devices, ironically, is now making it much harder to pretend they do any good, as the more agencies use the “magic wands,” the likelihood of a terrorist bomb slipping through undetected becomes considerably higher.
Next: Hilariously Ironic Signs
ROCK THE HOUSE
The world of high-definition audio and video is already rich in absurd claims and big-ticket accessories. Anyone whose bought an HDTV or Blu-Ray player at a big-box retail store can probably tell you about being offered three feet of HDMI cable for $59.99 (a minute’s search at TigerDirect can net you 15 feet of HDMI cable for ten bucks), and the marketing of deluxe gold-plated reinforced super-fancy audio, video, and even power cables has made companies like Monster Cable millions of dollars, but the real absurdity happens when you start looking into advertisements aimed at the self-described “audiophile” community, stereo nerds obsessed with reaching levels of clarity and definition in their audio equipment that the human ear and mind literally can’t even detect.
How does $30 for a special “audiophile-grade” electrical socket cover strike you? Produced by infamously huckstery audio company Machina Dynamica, the Tru-Tone Duplex Covers are said (by mysteriously anonymous reviewers) to increase sound quality even when not actually connected to a stereo system. If you’re feeling particularly irresponsible with your money, maybe try a selection from their Brilliant Pebbles line—pleasingly shaped and colored rocks or possibly crystals which stabilize the harmonic vibration frequencies of inherent atomic mechanisms leading to blah blah blah please pay $129 for a large plastic bag full of rocks, then place those rocks on or even just near your stereo equipment to experience a subtle yet profound difference in sound quality.
At this point anyone would have to believe that Machina Dynamica and its rattletrap early-90s-looking website are part of a bizarre joke, but some of their less obviously insane products have in fact been reviewed by serious hi-fi sites and it would appear people have managed to navigate the weird PayPal form he uses to actually exchange money for products.
Besides, they’re not the only place you can buy a magic stereo rock. Shakti Innovations arguably does Machina Dynamica one better with their Electromagnetic Stabilizer (aka “The Stone”) as not only does this slab of rock improve signal strength, clarity, and overall goodness in video and audio cable, but mounting said slab of rock on or near your car’s engine CPU can reduce your car’s 0-60 time by as much as a half of second.
Not only that, but it’ll improve the quality of your car stereo at the same time—no more messing around with multiple magical rocks! The Stone is a steal at $200, and available at any stereo equipment distributor with the chutzpah to charge somebody a three-digit-figure for a magical rock.