Medical scams executed on the internet aim to convince respondents that a medical condition is best treated by a non-prescription remedy that only the scamster can provide. In other words, you should ignore your physician, ignore whatever you may have read about your problem in mainstream sources, and buy a cure from a non-credentialed source about whom you know nothing.
On the face of it, this seems like a hard sell, but they have mastered the medium and do it very well. While I have no information on their finances, a week does not go by without my receiving an email about a newly discovered remedy for a long-standing disability. A continuing flow of new remedies for old ailments is a sure-fire indication that their marketing model works enough of the time to make these ventures profitable.
You may have already guessed my secret. Yes, they sold me on one a year or so ago that I found irresistible, and undoubtedly that placed me on a master list of prospects – which is why I receive a continuing stream of purported remedies. While I only succumbed once, I have listened to many of the pitches in an effort to understand the sources of their appeal. I found that all or most of these sales pitches have the same major features:
A Widely-Distributed But Hard-to-Cure Ailment: Because the ailment defines the size of the target market, it will always be widespread. High blood pressure is a good example. It afflicts a sizeable portion of the population over 60, and the drugs prescribed for it all have adverse side effects.
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I was recently surprised at being solicited for a cure to tinnitus, ringing in the ears, which is much less common than high blood pressure. However, the alleged cure not only stops noises in the ear, it also claims to restore memory and prevent Alzheimers, which broadens the potential market substantially.
Spokesperson: The spokesperson is highly articulate, reeks of sincerity, and plays a key role in engaging the listener. If not a true believer, she is an accomplished actress, describing her transition from desperate sufferer to cured client to missionary spreading the gospel of the cure. The only time the spokesperson is not center stage is when she steps aside briefly to present testimonials from others who have been cured.
The Villains: An important part of the pitch is that powerful forces are at work to prevent the consumer from accessing the benign and low-cost cure that is being offered. Big Pharma is perfect for this role because it is the source of the existing high-priced but ineffective drugs that the new cure would replace. Sometimes big Government is also a villain, either in cahoots with Big Pharma or for some other odious reason.
The role of villains is to provide potential buyers with a second reason to buy. Not only do they get a cure for their ailment but their purchase delivers a comeuppance to the villains. Buyer and seller share a community of interest in defying the villains.
Unsung Heroes: Usually there is a hero responsible for the development of the cure. Often it is a maverick physician who was smart enough to find the cure, and brave enough to face the hostility of Big Pharma and perhaps Government or other physicians.
Heroes provide potential buyers with a third reason to buy. In addition to the cure and the rebuke to villains, they also get to reward the hero.
Exotic Origins of the Remedy: The most imaginative part of the internet-based medical scam is the origin of the remedy being sold. It might be something used for centuries in religious ceremonies of an isolated tribe only recently discovered in the Amazon. It may have been concocted by a maverick physician, who tested it on his own patients. Information about it might have appeared in an obscure technical journal published in Finland or Bulgaria. Or it may be a common household item that only recently has been found to have special therapeutic powers by a prestigious research organization. The exotic origin explains why the customer hasn't heard about the "cure" before, and also enhances its appeal as something special.
The Remedy Is Only Available Here: Whatever the origin of the cure, the consumer must be persuaded that right now it is available only from the scamster. This is tricky because the components of the cure cannot be drugs, which would subject them to Government surveillance. This means that the ingredients must be freely available to anyone, which raises the awkward question of why a buyer can't buy it elsewhere at a lower price?
The scamster's answer is that although the ingredients may be available in the local supermarket, a version with special qualities is needed for the cure. If the required ingredient turns out to be cinnamon, for example, which was the case for a recent pitch I heard, the cinnamon had to come from Sri Lanka. If the cure is a combination of well-known and readily available ingredients, then either the quality of the ingredients must be extraordinarily high, which only the scamster's version can meet, or the ingredients must be combined in exactly the right proportions, or both.
Concluding Comment: My look at medical scams was partly motivated by a search for better ways to market mortgages. In this market, however, the potential for use of villains, heroes, or committed spokespersons is quite limited.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jack Guttentag is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Comments and questions can be left at http://www.mtgprofessor.com.