You’ve seen them. Peeking out from sidebars, jiggling and wiggling for your attention, popping up where you most expect them: those “One Weird Trick” ads. These crudely drawn Web advertisements promise easy tricks to reduce your belly fat, learn a new language, and boost your credit score by 217 points. They seem like obvious scams, but part of me has always wanted to follow the link. What, I wonder, makes the tricks so weird? How come only one trick (or sometimes "tip"), never more? Why are the illustrations done by small children using MS Paint? I’ve never pursued these questions, though, because a fear of computer viruses and identity theft has always stayed my hand. One curious click, I imagine, and I could wake up hogtied on an oil tanker headed to Nigeria.
Thankfully, Slate has allowed me to slake my curiosity, and yours. They gave me a loaner laptop, a prepaid debit card, and a quest: to investigate these weird tricks and report back to you. I also contacted a bevy of marketing experts to help me parse what I found. The individual tricks themselves are peculiar, but the larger trick—of why this bizarre and omnipresent marketing strategy works—tells us a lot about what makes us click, buy, and believe.
Newly emboldened, I clicked on my first ad, which promised a cure for diabetes. Specifically, I hoped to “discover how 1 weird spice reverses diabetes in 30 short days.” The ad showed a picture of cinnamon buns. Could the spice be... cinnamon? Maybe I would find out. The link brought up a video with no pause button or status bar. A kindly voice began: “Prepare to be shocked.” I prepared myself. As “Lon” spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. “This could be the most important video you ever watch,” he promised. “Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!”
Every time Lon seemed about to get to the spicy heart of the matter, he’d go off on a tangent. This video wouldn’t stay on the Internet for long, he said. The cure is for people “ready to put down the flaky answers.” Indeed, “if you’re looking for a miracle cure or new age fad, leave this page now.” Lon also took pains to trash the medical establishment. Big Pharma has been lying to you, he said. They profit every time you take their pills, or inject yourself with their needles. But the secret spice Lon discovered can free you of the lies and the needles. You will “look and feel like you were never sick.” Your doctor will confirm your cure, astounded.
What is Lon up to? “People tend to think something is important if it’s secret,” says Michael Norton, a marketing professor at Harvard Business School. “Studies find that we give greater credence to information if we’ve been told it was once ‘classified.’ Ads like this often purport to be the work of one man, telling you something ‘they’ don’t want you to know.” The knocks on Big Pharma not only offered a tempting needle-free fantasy; they also had a whiff of secret knowledge, bolstering the ad’s credibility.
It’s doubtful, though, that Lon has much in the way of insider info. He’s an actor hired by Barton Publishing, a firm based in South Dakota that puts out a wide variety of crankish health literature—there’s nary a foodstuff that isn’t the cure to some ailment in one of Barton’s booklets. Most “one weird trick” ads are hard to trace back to a specific marketing firm with flesh-and-blood employees, but Barton is open about the kind of publishing it does, with pictures and bios of their contributors on its website. (Notably, the first person listed is not a homeopath but a “split tester.”)
The Barton brain trust seemed surprisingly sincere, which I kept in mind as I turned to my next ad. I clicked to learn “the REAL reason why Obama is trying to take your guns away.” You’d think health quackery and gun paranoia would have little in common, but soon I was brought to a page with a self-playing, pauseless video and a male voice urging me to watch to the end. Apparently Obama has signed an executive order authorizing him to institute martial law and “steal your food supply,” but “Matt” has developed “a weird but incredibly effective system” to survive the coming storm.
In the interests of journalism, I also checked out the “1 Weird Secret That Pornstars Use to Get BIG DICKS.” Sure enough, this involved a dude talking at me while words flashed on the screen: “Stay until the end of this video... it will shock you.” But before he spilled the beans on “what’s holding you back from the big penis you deserve,” he needed to regale me with tales of his buddy Kyle, who added 2 inches and improved his confidence with the ladies.