Snake oil  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The phrase snake oil is as a derogatory term used to describe quackery, the promotion of fraudulent or unproven medical practices. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, the term "snake oil salesman" may be applied to someone who sells fraudulent goods, or who is a fraud himself.

The phrase originates with a topical preparation made from the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis) used by Chinese labourers to treat joint pain. The preparation was promoted in North America by travelling salesmen who often used accomplices in the audience to proclaim the benefits of the preparation.


In popular culture

  • Poppy: W. C. Fields's film about a Western frontier American snake oil salesman complete with a surreptitious crowd accomplice. His demonstration from the back of a buckboard (transparently fraudulent to the movie audience) of a miraculous cure for hoarseness ignited a comic purchasing frenzy.
  • Disney's Pete's Dragon : The greedy "Doc" Terminus, played by Jim Dale, gave a testament to the persuasive power of the snake oil salesman. Dealing with a crowd of people he had conned on a prior visit, Terminus turns them from angry vengeance seekers to believers once more, paying top dollar for Terminus's products despite their previous ineffectiveness.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer : Mark Twain presents Aunt Polly as a true believer in various sorts of snake oil, though not always in the form of an alleged medicine. She also adopted cold showers as a cure-all at one point in Tom's childhood. For a time, she insisted that Tom Sawyer take a painkiller every day, simply because she thought it would be good for him; Tom finally gave some to Peter the housecat, who reacted to the dose with extreme and comic agitation. After seeing the cat vanish in a frenzy out the window, Aunt Polly no longer forced Tom to take the painkiller.
  • Little Big Man: The main character, Jack Crabb, works as the apprentice of a travelling snake oil salesman for a while.
  • Say Say Say's music video: In a more modern appearance of grifting in pop culture, the collaboration of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson in 1983 produced a music video for Say Say Say, which depicts McCartney as the salesman selling a dubious strength elixir from the back of a truck and Jackson as his accomplice amongst the audience.
  • Beachcomber: Many of J. B. Morton's books and radio programs included short spoof advertisements for Snibbo, a fictional treatment allegedly tackling various unlikely human conditions.
  • Flåklypa Grand Prix: In this animated movie, Snake Oil is used as a name for a shady oil company.
  • Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas: In this Muppet Christmas special, Emmet and Ma periodically reminisced about his deceased Pa, the unsuccessful snake oil salesman, because "Pa couldn't find anyone who would want to oil a snake."
  • Every Time I Die: The New Junk Aesthetic CD uses a line in the song "Host Disorder" containing the term. "Open your heart to the snake oil peddlers."
  • Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves: The lyrics describe that, Papa would do whatever he could / Preach a little gospel, sell a couple bottles of Doctor Good. "Doctor Good" is most often interpreted to be a kind of snake-oil elixir.
  • Steve Earle's "Snake Oil": Singer-songwriter Steve Earle recorded a song critical of the Ronald Reagan administration entitled "Snake Oil" for the album Copperhead Road, released in 1988: "Well ain't your President good to you/ Knocked 'em dead in Libya, Grenada too/ Now he's taking his show a little further down the line/ Well, 'tween me and him people, you're gonna get along just fine."
  • Red Dead Redemption: A number of missions involves John Marston working with a snake oil salesman, Nigel West Dickens, as a shill, so he can sell his tonics to ignorant farmhands, despite them not doing anything.
  • The Scaffold - Lily the Pink: A light-hearted look at the efficacious medicinal compound.
  • The Simpsons Season 6, episode 10: Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy. Marge and Homer's sex life is struggling, but Grampa perks things up with a homemade revitalizing tonic. He and Homer go on the road to sell their elixir with Homer appearing in the crowd advocating the benefits of the product with nobody aware he is Grampa's accomplice until they notice his face on the bottle. They are then chased out of town.

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Snake oil" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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