'Quacks' Not So Quacky

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Quack doctors -- the so-called snake oil salesmen often depicted with derision today -- not only plied their trade effectively, they left an indelible mark on marketing, reports Charles Osgood on CBS News This Morning.

An exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art chronicles four centuries of "quack" advertising, caricatures, and short-lived print and other items.

And experts say advertising hasn't really changed much since the golden age of quackery.

The exhibit, appropriately called "Quack Quack Quack," reminds us that colorful and flamboyant characters have been using the art of persuasion -- not to mention persuasive art -- to sell their mysterious medicines and wondrous elixirs since time immemorial.

As the displays make clear, just about the only thing you'll never hear from a quack is -- the admission that he's a quack himself.

"Quackery is always something that is the other person, not you: 'I am not a quack, you are a quack. I am an authentic practitioner.' So, the quack is always somebody else," explains William Helfand.

Hefland is just the man to field your queries about quacks, since it's part of his large collection of medical-related art that's on display at the museum.

Some think the term quack may have come from the German word "quacksalber," meaning "charlatan."

However, notes Hefland, "There is some thinking that it may have been coined because these people, often in sales pitches they made, imitated the sound of a duck."

Whatever their origin, the impact of quacks is nothing to sneeze at.

From a late 19th century print by Maxfield Parrish, promising a cure for tobacco habit, to an 18th century etching of the effects of an operation using Dr. Elisha Perkin's "Metallic Tractors," to a 17th century Dutch print of a dubious operation to remove rocks from a patient's head, the collection spans four centuries.

But the real prime time of quackery was without question during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when advances in printing, along with the discovery of electricity and radiation -- and breakthroughs in other sciences -- provided ample fodder for health-related hucksterism.

To wow their audiences, quacks often employed misunderstood technology -- exotic ingredients, official-sounding patents, and exotic foreign names, to create the illusion of credible products.

"With advertising," Hefland remarks, "these people were pioneers in developing new systems of promotion."

They poured money into ads and books and posters -- anything they could think of to get the word out. They traveled from town to town, staging shows with bands and comedians and clowns, then selling "medicine" during the intermissions.

"They did the same kind of thing that television programs or radio programs do today," Hefland says. "You have entertainment, then a commercial, then entertainment."

By the late 19th century, the outrageous advertising claims for products became, well, more than a little hard to swallow. A series of scathing magazine caricatures and exposes of bogus medicines fueled the demand for some sort of government regulation.

The passage of the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 brought an end to the golden age of quackery, but didn't kill it off entirely.

Quackery remains with us today, together with the advances in marketing it developed.

In fact, some argue that what quack advertisements promised explicitly then, has become implicit in many ads today.

Mikal Reich works at the Mad Injection, an offshoot of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, an advertising agency in New York. He says little has actually changed in advertising: "Really what that was is, you know, just going in there and saying, 'Oh, this will cure flat footedness and baldness. …And, you know, in advertising today they're doing the same thing. They're playing on all those things."

Take the precedent of Vin Mariani -- Bordeaux wine steeped in coca leaves -- introduced to Europe in 1871.

"It became extremely popular in Europe and the United States," Hefland says. "It spawned many imitators that would do the same thing, usually in the same kind of wine or different kinds of wine."

In the U.S., druggist John Pemberton came up with a variation of that -- a drink we call Coca-Cola.

Says Reich, "You see it with a soft drink. You know, a cola. People drink that, and suddenly they're skiing and they're snowboarding and they're doing things they've never done before.

"And really, what is a soft drink? It's kind of a snake oil. You know, it's just (he chuckles) some sugar water."

And so, though none of the products -- and few of the bogus pitches -- of the old time charlatans exist these days, the exhibit's astonishing images gleefully remind us that, even now, you're not always buying the steak, so much as the sizzle.
  • Brian Dakss

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