Josh’s fascinating post yesterday about fear-based spending, shelling out for things we probably don’t need on the assumption that we’re “better safe than sorry,” made me think about aspirational spending, shelling out for things we almost certainly don’t need on the assumption that it’s always worth it if we might end up a more attractive, enticing version of ourselves. Do you spend more on the lotion that will reduce your odds of getting skin cancer, or on the cream that promises “firmer skin in five days,” reduced wrinkles, and cheeks that glow like a sixteen-year-old in love?
What are we more susceptible to, really? Fear or hope? The product that might protect us, or the one that might make us the people we wish we were? And do you feel more like you’ve been cheated if your fear-based purchase is a fake, vs. your aspirational purchase? The fear, at least, is real, so if you find out your sunblock is snake oil, that’s worse than discovering that your Olay Rejuvenate is. Right?
Speaking of which, the term snake oil has a colorful history. NPR’s blog Code Switch explains:
Among the items the Chinese railroad workers brought with them to the States were various medicines — including snake oil. Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.
So how did “snake oil” become synonymous with fraud? Because hucksters started peddling their own versions made with rattlesnake oil, or with a mix of oily ingredients like turpentine, which did nothing.