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The New Snake Oil Demonstrations

A follow up to last Friday’s post.

I was back at the mall yesterday, and I made a point to walk by the Energy Armor kiosk again. This time there was a young gal and one young guy standing duty. The girl made eye contact with me and sized me up as interested.

She greeted me and asked if I was interested in increasing my energy and balance. I bit, and she went into the spiel.

“This,” she said, holding up the wrist band, “is full of negative ions. When you wear it, the negative ions in your body join with the ones in the band and produce positive ions. The result is more physical energy, better balance, and increased strength.”

I was stunned. I mean, anyone who passed high school science knows that claim about ions is not just wrong, it’s pure gibberish. When I later repeated the description to someone else, they exclaimed, “Oh my God, they actually said that?”

It’s like if I said placing a negatively charged magnet on your car attracts the negative charges in the frame and gives the vehicle better gas mileage. It misuses the terms of science and gives a completely nonsensical explanation.

Anyway, back to the snake oil: The girl asked me if I wanted to take a demonstration. I agreed.

She had me stand on one leg, with my arms outstretched to my sides. She used two fingers and pressed down on my arm, (same side as my held-up leg), and within a couple of seconds I started to topple. She then gave me the wrist band to hold, and we tried the test again. My balance held stronger this time, and failed only when she gave a lot more effort.

Something was odd about the demonstration, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The demonstration did seem to support the idea that the band gave me more balance, but something seemed amiss. I had made sure to note the details of the demonstration: where she pushed down on my arm, (same place both times), which hand held the band, how much she pushed on me, and what her positioning was. Everything seemed straight up, but there was something nagging at the back of my mind.

I’m not a person who’s really comfortable with interacting with strangers. (I’m terrible with small talk at parties.) So I thought I should probably watch a demonstration from the sidelines.

The girl tried to draw me into a sale, but I said I had to be moving on. I thanked her, and then walked off. I went up the nearby escalator, to the second floor of the mall, and walked back to stand over the kiosk. It was watching as a non-participant that revealed the tricks.

I watched seven or eight people go through the demonstrations with the girl and guy. Another test they showed was to stand with feet together, point an arm out to the side, and then turn backward, twisting at the waist. A salesperson or a friend then marked in the air how far the test subject could turn and point. Then they did the test again while wearing the band. Of course, they could twist farther the second time.

Here are the tricks:

First of all, the salespeople always did the test first without the band. Then they did the test with the band. Never with the band first. Here’s the thing about this: you will always do better the second time you perform a physical test like this. Try it yourself.

The first time you stand on one foot, you’re easy to topple. The second time, you and your body know what’s coming and so better balance for it. The first time you twist, your body is tight. The second time, you are slightly loosened up (from the first stretch) and so can reach farther. Again, try this for yourself.

And to top it off, none of the customers/test subjects tried the test a third or fourth time, with or without the band, and of course the salespeople didn’t suggest trying it. Trying it again, especially without the band, would have ruined the illusion — the customer would do just as well, or better, a third time even without the band.

Watching also showed me why my test seemed amiss. I watched the girl do the test to other people and I noticed how she really played up her effort on the second push. That’s when it struck me: she didn’t really push harder to topple me the second time, she just leaned her body into a posture that visually suggested more effort on her part. Watching her do it to someone else and thinking about how it felt to me, I realized the “something amiss” was that the pressure she applied to my arm the second time didn’t actually feel any stronger, it just looked like she was trying harder. It was the incongruity between what my arm was feeling and what my eyes were seeing that nagged at my brain.

So basically, the demonstrations are just stage magic acts.

While looking for information about this bracelet online, I discovered another brand: iRenew. Here’s the TV commercial for this other brand:

Now, this company uses different demonstrations — pulling down on the people’s arm to topple them. Without the bracelet, the customer falls over, but with the bracelet, they hold firm. But if you look carefully, you can see exactly and easily how they pull off the stage magic.

When they pull on the subject’s arm, (when without the bracelet), they pull not just down, but slightly away — away from the sucker’s center of gravity. When they pull on the subjects arm the second time, (when with the bracelet), they pull straight down and close to the person’s body — on/into their center of gravity.

Note how far away from her leg he pulls in the “Before” image, and how close to her leg he pulls in the “iRenew” image:

Try this yourself. It’s easy to do it.

You know, I enjoy watching stage and street “magic” as much as anyone. And even though we usually can’t figure out exactly how the magician pulls off his illusions, we all know he’s not actually reaching through loopholes in the fabric of space and physics — it’s all tricks. And most of us are willing to pay an entertainer to entertain us with these tricks. So maybe it shouldn’t bother me that some illusionists take the concept to another level and use the same stage tricks to sell completely bogus products.


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