Have you even seen or heard a commercial for something and thought, “there’s no way that can actually work”? Maybe for a magic weight loss tea or a hair growth cream or a crystal face cleansing remedy that somehow erases fine lines and wrinkles. Anyone current with celebrity wellness brand news will remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade egg fiasco and the criticism her lifestyle company Goop received from the medical community for falsely claiming that these intimate accessories could help women with bladder control and hormone regulation. Paltrow was fined $145,000 for “unsubstantiated marketing claims,” but her empire continues to grow, pushing vitamin concoctions that cure fatigue, quartz-infused water bottles, boxed alkaline spring water and something called “psychic vampire repellent” which I can only guess has something to do with warding off embarrassing memories of your intense Twilight fan fiction phase.
The truth is, advertising has roots in selling a false promise with unsubstantiated marketing claims. The rise of radio advertising begins with one quack doctor, his miracle procedure and his ability to exploit the power of the air waves for massive personal profit. History is riddled with oddities, outlandish schemes and suspect characters, and John R. Brinkley, master of malpractice and radio advertising pioneer, is a perfect example.
It’s 1916 in Milford Kansas. Our anti-hero is a young Colonel Sanders look-alike, goatee and all. He has settled in Milford after dropping out of Eclectic Medical College (real name) in Kansas City and practicing for a period of time in Arkansas with an undergraduate license. Ever the resourceful man, Brinkley also acquires several questionable (read: sham) degrees from known diploma mills.
In Milford, Brinkley makes a name for himself promising to cure aging men of impotence with one life-changing operation—a goat gonad transplant. Because impotence is often all in the head, Brinkley’s quack procedure has a very strong placebo effect—and his patients see results. His practice is financially viable, with patients traveling long distances to have their virility restored with “Dr.” Brinkley’s miracle remedy, which has now attracted national attention.
Brinkley literally amplifies his success when he buys a powerful radio transmitter and launches one of Kansas’ first ever radio stations, KFKB, which stands for “Kansas First, Kansas Best” and is almost all John Brinkley, all the time. In between entertainment segments, Brinkley advertises his miracle procedure and hosts a program called “Medical Question Box,” during which he, a man on a mission to make a farce of the medical profession, diagnoses and offers solutions to ailments afflicting callers from around the country.
The power of radio allows Brinkley to grow his practice and expand to other states. Sure, his techniques are frowned upon and discredited by the medical community, but that doesn’t stop wishful patients desperate for the promise of a panacea from forking over their hard-earned cash for a pair of shiny new goat testicles. Nearly two decades pass before the Kansas Medical Board and the Federal Radio Commission make efforts to put a stop to Brinkley’s chicanery.
The Kansas Medical Board holds a hearing to debate whether his undergraduate license should be revoked and, shocker, they rule that he’s been misleading (and endangering) patients with a bogus procedure and false advertising for years. Shortly after, the Federal Radio Commission refuses to renew KFKB’s license for similar reasons. They also find his content to be too obscene for the virgin airwaves. Probably something to do with the focus on intimate goat anatomy.
But Brinkley is not to be deterred. He launches a write-in campaign for governor, and his pre-existing popularity and name recognition earns him 30% of the vote. He tries to run for office twice more to no avail, but the setbacks don’t stifle his ambition. Determined to be heard, he establishes a radio station barely out of reach of the jurisdiction of the Federal Radio Commission in Villa Acuna, Coahuila, Mexico—where he can taunt those lousy bureaucrats from just across the border. This station is so powerful that he’s able to spread his eccentric gospel to audiences as far as Alaska.
At the peak of his operation, Brinkley was raking in millions, but a series of lawsuits later in his life bankrupt him for good. He practices in Texas until attempting to sue the Journal of the American Medical Association, incidentally exposing his own spurious qualifications and complete lack of credible medical training in the process. Perhaps for the best, his practice falls apart. He’s later sued for malpractice, indicted for mail fraud and investigated for tax evasion by the IRS. Mr. Brinkley finally meets his end in 1942, following two heart attacks and a leg amputation, with nary a dollar to his name.
Before his downfall, John R. Brinkley masterfully exploited what was basically the Wild West of radio advertising for personal gain. Today, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a radio advertisement for an invasive surgery involving inter-species organ donation. Plus, there are standards that fine agencies like yours truly choose to follow. Good marketing is all about solving consumers’ and clients’ problems, and though the false promises of miracle snake oil “solutions” will always exist (the line from goat glands to Goop isn’t straight, but it’s there), the brands that succeed and win audience trust are the ones that can back up their promises with a rock solid service or product.
In 2019, trust is more important than ever. Brands are selling more than just a look or a trend—the intense socio-political pressures of the hyper-polarized world we live in forces many of them to take a stand on certain issues. Their values are just as important as the quality of their product or service. Consumers want brands to align with their beliefs, and they’re more likely to trust (see: spend their money with) brands that support the causes that matter to them. Plus, in the era of “fake news”, deep-fakes and photoshop, consumers put an extra emphasis on authenticity and honesty, which means building brand trustworthiness and rapport is crucial.
In other words, we’ve come a long way since our ancestors flocked to the heartland to go under the knife of a man with a whole lot of goat glands, absolutely no legitimate medical certifications and an empire of deception made possible by the power of early radio advertising. They say truth is stranger than fiction. Wonder what historians will make of Gwyneth Paltrow’s jade egg in 80 years.
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