The “Breaking News” appeared on the top of Page A5 in the May 24 edition of The Columbian:
“In November 1963, a shocking turn of events changed the course of medical history…
“Shortly after JFK’s assassination, his younger brother, the Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, broke into the National Archives and stole the president’s brain.”
Now, I was only 3 years old when President Kennedy was killed, but I have read several books about the events of that year, and I am pretty sure the president’s brain never went to the National Archives, let alone got stolen by Bobby. As an executor of the estate, he would already have had custody of the body.
If you read more of the “breaking news,” you found out that somehow the Pentagon harvested some great stuff from the stolen brain that apparently is now available to the general public as a product called Focus IQ that helped “Maggie G.” go from lazy to ultra-productive and “Ben E.” to quit loafing and beat his deadlines. Oh, and in a box of smaller type at the bottom it also said this: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Results may vary.”
So what was up with this “news” that looked like an article but was clearly labeled as a “paid advertisement”? I got an email from a reader wondering if this was an example of the “fake news” that we are hearing so much about lately.
Maybe, but I think it’s a better example of the ballyhoo that has always surrounded patent medicine and nutritional supplements.
You’ve heard the term “snake oil,” but you may not realize that it refers to patent medicines. With the help of Google, I found out that snake oil was sold in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and America to people seeking a cure for cancer, arthritis, etc. It’s likely that around the time The Columbian was founded, a self-proclaimed doctor could be found at the Vancouver ferry landing, selling bottles of snake oil or some similar preparation from a suitcase. Oftentimes these salesman would work with a shill — a real-life “Maggie G.” or “Ben E.” — who would say the product had cured what ailed them. When the market was saturated or the cops applied the heat, the good doctor would be on that ferry headed across the river.
Of course, snake oil wasn’t really made from snakes. A lot of times, it was mineral oil or even some sort of petroleum, mixed with spices or aromatics to give it a certain color, flavor or aroma that made it “superior to all others.”
Now move the calendar forward to today. No one calls their product snake oil anymore, but there are still a lot of potions and supplements on the market. And newspapers are still a great way to reach audiences. So the “remainder ad” was born.
These remainder ads are sent out to newspapers to use as fillers on a space-available basis. TV runs them, too. We earn a few bucks, but, as the name suggests, the rate is much lower than our regular price.
On the day we touted Focus IQ, we had a particularly large A section. A legitimate local advertiser had purchased a premium-priced ad called a spadea. That’s our word for one of those half sheets that folds over the front cover. To make one, we have to increase the size of the entire section, and that leaves some unusual holes to plug. Thus, we went looking for remainder ads, and our readers learned about the daring theft of the late president’s brain and how it contained the secret that the Russians and Chinese are dying to know.
Who knows? Maybe these products help some people. You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect, where people think they feel better and therefore they do. Hey, I am not here to judge these elixirs, whether they are cloned from JFK’s stolen brain. Or not.