How One Weird Trick Conquered the Internet

Commentary about business and finance.
July 30 2013 3:00 PM

Prepare to Be Shocked!

What happens when you actually click on one of those “One Weird Trick” ads?

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So ... do the "1 trick" ads really work?

Ad screengrab

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!”

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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.

What really puzzled me about this formula—as I sat through video after video, alternately bored and enraged—is that there’s no way to shut the guy up and just buy the dick pills already. The videos were all 15 to 30 minutes long, and you had to sit through the whole thing before you can hand over your credit card. I’d thought the point of all this teasing was to inspire impatience—provoking customers to pay up to end the suspense. I was wrong.

“Research on persuasion shows the more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more that people tend to believe it,” Norton says. “Mainstream ads sometimes use long lists of bullet points—people don’t read them, but it’s persuasive to know there are so many reasons to buy.” OK, but if more is better, then why only one trick? “People want a simple solution that has a ton of support.”

What about all the weirdness? “A word like ‘weird’ is not so negative, and kind of intriguing,” says Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “There’s this foot-in-the-door model. If you lead with a strong, unbelievable claim it may turn people off. But if you start with ‘isn’t this kind of weird?’ it lowers the stakes.” The model also explains why some ads ask you to click on your age first. “Giving your age is low-stakes but it begins the dialogue. The hard sell comes later.”

Poorly drawn graphics are a deliberate choice as well. “People notice when you put something in the space that’s different, even if it’s ugly,” Urminsky says. “This might hurt the brand of established companies, but the companies here have non-existent or negative brand associations, so it may be worth it for the extra attention.”

Plus, “if the ad were too professional, it might undermine the illusion that it’s one man against the system,” Norton says. Slick ads suggest profit-hungry companies, not stay-at-home moms or rogue truth-tellers trying to help the little guy.

There may be another reason for the length and shoddiness of the ads. “The point is not always to get the customer to buy the product,” Urminsky says. “It may be to vet the customer. Long videos can act as a sorting mechanism, a way to ‘qualify your prospects.’ Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.”

“Those Nigerian prince scams are not very convincing,” he adds, “but they’re meant not to be. If you’re a skeptical person, the scammers want to spend as little time with you as possible. These videos may screen people in a similar way.”

Though “one weird trick” ads may not be aimed at the average consumer, they show how deftly marketers have learned to manipulate our beliefs. There may be little daylight between the temptation of learning a weird trick at the behest of a sketchy mail-order outfit and the provocative headlines of mainstream news outlets like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, or—indeed!—Slate. The science of grabbing and directing your attention advances each time you click a link on your Facebook feed.

Arguably, this very article has behaved like a one-weird-trick ad in delaying gratification this long. So what does happen when you grit your teeth and watch to the end of the videos? Well, your dick gets bigger with MaleFormulaXL, an herbal blend that runs you $89.95 per auto-renewed bottle. You can survive the Obama-calypse with a booklet on bunker-building and water purification. Eliminate belly fat using the thoroughly disproven extracts of garcinia cambogia and acai. And diabetes—just add cinnamon. The weirdest trick of all, of course, was getting anyone to click in the first place.

Alex Kaufman is an economist living in Washington, D.C.

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