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All-Natural Snake Oil
"Remember: People still sell snake oil. They just put pictures of leaves on the bottle now."

Do you want to instantly gain more consumers while keeping up a squeaky-clean image of environmental friendliness and care for the Earth? Need a quick, snappy buzzword? Simple! Use 'natural' in your product.

In business, the practice of pushing all-natural products for PR purposes is known as "greenwashing." If a major company has been accused of gross disregard for the environment, then they may find it cheaper to whitewash their image by donating to the Sierra Club, introducing a new, "all-natural" product line that is supposed to be more eco-friendly, and running a series of ads telling consumers that, yes, We Care, than it would be to actually fix their problems. Because Consumers Are Morons, people will buy into the company's new "green" campaign, even though they are still getting away with environmental destruction. This technique is so well-known that it even has a fancy philosophical name - the "naturalistic fallacy".

Not entirely synonymous with the product peddled by the Snake Oil Salesman, but there are plenty of cases where they are one and the same. See also Spice Rack Panacea. The Granola Girl often swears by this stuff.

Keep in mind that although words like "natural", "organic", and "wholesome" may be misleading as to quality, they may not be misleading as to any difference in the product. For instance, the yogurt industry uses "natural" to describe yogurts that don't contain gums, starches, added acids, or stabilizers even though those ingredients are technically natural. Also, the "natural market" of a supermarket is often the only place people with lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, or severe food allergies can find processed food they can eat without getting sick, especially in smaller communities that don't have a Whole Foods.

In the United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries, the use of the word "natural" tends not to come with strict legal requirements restricting its use. On the other hand, the use of the word "organic" is often legally restricted to products that are made without chemical fertilizer, antibiotics, irradiation, or genetically modified organisms and meet other requirements. Indeed, in chemistry, "organic" just means chemicals with carbon in it- which includes an awful lot of highly poisonous chemicals. As a result, the word "natural" tends to get used in advertising more often since it doesn't actually require much and can be used in basically any way.

It may be interesting to note that, as a commercial trope, this is mostly a fairly recent invention, growing through the 1960s and 1970s. (Though if you look through really old newspaper ads from the early 1800s, you can find examples of this.) For most of the rest of human history, "nature" was widely considered to be filthy, disgusting, and chock full of things that want to kill and/or eat you. Had marketing forces stayed on-track, modern products would be touting their complete absence of anything found in nature, and extolling the health benefits (and exciting taste sensations) found from making food and health products with Pure Science.

This trope is not in play if natural is being used in the sense found in ideas like "natural law", where it means closer to "proper" and "fitting" rather than simply "not artificial". "Crime against nature", for instance, is (usually) using "nature" in that sense, not merely "crap humans didn't make" or "crap that happens on its own", otherwise every human action involving a tool would be one. The fact that the term has those two, related but different, senses, is probably where this trope originates; using terms ambiguously is a classic ploy in advertising and propaganda. (If you are interested, C. S. Lewis's Studies in Words has a chapter on "Nature" that goes into the relationship in depth.)

Examples

  • The term organic is perhaps the most egregious version of this. While it does have a meaning, technically speaking, it provides absolutely no benefits whatsoever - numerous studies have proven it is not healthier, it is not more nutritious, it isn't tastier, and it is actually worse for the environment due to the use of inferior pesticides (which have to be applied more often, and are not specially designed to break down quickly) and because of lower yield, requiring more land to grow the same amount of food - and the number one cause of damage to the environment by farming is habitat loss. Ironically, one of the most commonly used organic pesticides is BT - the exact same toxin which is produced by some strains of genetically modified plants in order to deter insects. Organic food also can't be irradiated (by far the most effective and safe method for sanitizing food), so organic food often caries diseases and pests with it.
  • There are whole wheat doughnuts, and even whole wheat pop tarts (the latter usually being sold at health food stores rather than Pop Tarts, and the former sold by Dunkin' Doughnuts).
  • Given the name, if you thought the Natural Confectionery Company was a notably bad offender, you would be right. One egregious example had a man reassure his daughter that the (jelly) snakes they were going to eat had no artificial colours or preservatives, and so were non-venomous. Because, as everybody knows, snake venom is completely artificial.
  • Yogurt companies such as Actimel and Yakult are fond of boasting about how the 'good bacteria' in their products help reinforce your body's natural defences. The touted health benefits have not yet been proven, so the advertisers have to be careful not to include too specific claims in their TV spots (many have been banned already as a result of this). There is no discernible difference between drinking "probiotic yogurt drinks" and eating regular yogurt; in addition, the concentration of sugar is unusually high at around 18-20%. As a result, nutritional authorities (notably the one within the European Union) are attempting to prevent the manufacturers boasting the health benefits, which are seemingly outweighed by the unhealthy ingredients. Yogurt is made by fermenting lactose into lactic acid, and this process is done by bacteria. So the probiotic yogurt is just those that did not kill the bacteria after fermentation.
  • Bottled water companies have been getting flak for claiming that their water is sourced from a unique spring in the Andes/Maine/France/wherever, when in fact, it is just tap water. This one was mercilessly debunked on Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
  • Speaking of water, check your shampoo bottle. Odds are, one of the ingredients listed will be "aqua", which is just another name for water. Of course, on a lot of shampoo bottles, the intended market is multinational; you'll notice that the many North American shampoo bottles have at a minimum English and French on them, and usually Spanish as well. Since so many of the ingredients of shampoo have chemical names that barely change from language to language (if your language's term for lye is "hydroxyde de sodium", "sodium hydroxide" will be understood), they often just have one ingredient list, adding parenthetical translations when necessary, and using terms like "aqua" that at once serve the faux-refinement purposes and will be understood by pretty much anyone who speaks a European language.
  • Ads for NRG claim that the drink contains "natural caffeine," which as everybody knows is completely different from the artificial caffeine in so many other energy drinks...except that it isn't, since virtually all caffeine used in energy drinks and soda-pop comes from decaffeinated coffee beans (and most of the rest comes from decaffeinated tea leaves). Caffeine total synthesis is possible, but producing usable amounts of usable product is so expensive that it's just cheaper to use the natural sources—and besides, the market for decaffeinated coffee and tea is so large that to do anything else is tantamount to turning down free money.
  • An ad for British Smarties tried to portray the sugar-coated lumps of chocolate as healthy because they don't have any artificial colours. There's a good reason for this, mind you, as certain artificial colourings turned out to have some unpleasant side-effects when ingested and ended up being banned in most of Europe.
  • Herbal supplements for "natural male enhancement", which for legal reasons, don't actually say what qualities they enhance.
  • The Irish government has commissioned an ad campaign about investment in renewable fuel, which tries to portray solar and wind power as better than coal and oil because it's natural. In fact, such renewable power is exactly as natural as non-renewable power; sunlight, wind, oil, coal and nuclear fission all occur in nature, and all require artificial power plants to generate electricity.
  • An ad campaign in the US tries to portray high fructose corn syrup as "All Natural" because it comes from corn, despite going through nearly as much processing as most bioplastics. On the other hand, many of its opponents try to present refined sugar as better for you because it's "more natural," which is true insofar as the chemical being sold hasn't been changed on a molecular level from its natural state, but it's still a lot of work to isolate it.
  • Inverted example: Some of the engine oil ads sing the virtues of synthetic oils over the "natural" oils, since "natural" oils has things in it that cause wear in engine parts. Both varieties of engine oil are synthetic in some sense — engine oil has to be refined from crude oil, while synthetic oil is made from other sources of lubricants. Interestingly, synthetic engine oil has been made from banana oil in the past (such as in South Africa during the Apartheid years), allowing for a fake "natural" claim here too.
  • The chemical used to approximate the taste of almonds comes in both natural and artificial. The natural-extract version is more expensive than the artificial one. The trick? The natural extract comes from the pits of peaches and apricots (which, truth be told, are the closest relatives of the almond; the main difference between a peach and an almond is that you can't eat an almond rind and you can't eat a peach pit.) and contains trace amounts of cyanide that the artificially-created version does not.
  • The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company. The healthiest, most ecologically responsible coffin nails you can buy. The vast majority of carcinogens in tobacco occur naturally in the leaf as it's cured, no additives necessary.
  • A UK supermarket promoted their vanilla extract (or it might have been vanilla ice cream) as being good and natural, containing no 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. Which, if taken at face value, means that their vanilla product has no vanillin, the naturally occuring molecule responsible for vanilla's taste.
  • One should also be careful, because "natural flavor" does not mean "made with what it sounds like it's made with". As this Cracked article sarcastically but correctly points out, if it says "natural flavor" on your orange candy, it wasn't made with oranges; if it had been, that would be a selling point. It also points out that natural flavor could be anything provided it wasn't made in a lab.
  • The advertising for many "natural" products makes a big deal about not using "refined sugar"; but are instead "fruit juice sweetened". The problem with this claim is that the "fruit juice" used is actually deionized fruit juice. This is essentially bland-tasting juice — apple, white grape, or pear — filtered to strip out all remaining flavour, colour, and nutritional content; leaving only the sugar and water content. That's right, it's nothing but sugar water under a different name. It's the exact same form of sugar as the supposedly "unnatural" refined version, just pre-diluted, and costing several times as much. The only reason that deionized fruit juice exists is to legally allow the product to advertise itself as "all natural".
  • Many manufacturers of snack chips (we're looking at you, Frito-Lay) like to point out that their products are "all natural." They do have a better claim than much of this list - most chips are just potato slices/batter or cornmeal, fried in plant oil and salted. The problem is that there's more than enough oil to be fattening - Fritos in particular are so soaked in it that they quick-burn.
  • In Australia there is an ad for Raid (bug spray) that claims that mums will like it 'cause it's all natural. As if that makes the poison any better.
  • Played shamelessly straight in a commercial for Herbashine hair care products. "The only one made with bamboo extract. Bamboo, like naturally strong." Yeah, I'm fairly certain that's not how it works.
  • Providing the quote for this page is Cracked's list of "8 Health Foods That Are Bad For Your Health", which puts herbal supplements squarely at Number One. The article points out that, unlike pharmaceutical medicines, alternative and herbal remedies aren't regulated by the FDA, which means that some of them can be downright dangerous.
  • Back in the days when they sold radioactive water to kill off germs and "restore your youthful vigor", the ads reassured potential customers that it wasn't dangerous to their health because "Radium is not a synthetic drug or medicine but an entirely natural element, present in many hot springs famous for their recuperative properties."

Parodies

  • Spoofed in a sketch on A Bit of Fry and Laurie in which a brand of cocoa is advertised as containing "nature's own barbiturates and heroin". Another sketch features a white-coated man masquerading as a doctor prescribing cigarettes, reassuring his patient that tobacco is after all a natural herbal ingredient.
  • The same idea is used in an episode of House in which the eponymous character—an actual doctor and not wearing a white coat—(jokingly?) makes a similar argument for cigarettes.note  The actor playing House is Hugh Laurie of A Bit of Fry and Laurie.
  • Parodied in the first episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures with BubbleShock! The advertisements all say, "Contains Bane. It's organic!" Nobody ever asks what Bane is. It's an alien mind-control parasite; organic, sure, but also very much alive, and pure evil to boot. Lampshaded when Maria criticizes that just because it says organic, that automatically makes it alright.
  • Parodied in an episode of King of the Hill, when trans fats are banned in Arlen ala 1920s Prohibition. Bill Dauterive believes that if the food he's eating is organic (or at least free of particularly demonized chemicals), he can eat as much as he wants. He proceeds to get even fatter as a result.
  • An episode of the Dilbert animated series had his company killing people with herbal lozenges. "Anthrax is a bacterium, not a herb." Also spoofed in this Dilbert comic strip about "all-natural tech support". Scott Adams's commentary in one of the books: "It frightens me to think how many people believe 'natural' is the same as 'good for you.'"
  • Spoofed a number of times in Discworld:
    • In Witches Abroad, Magrat assumes that absinthe is good for you because it's made with herbs. She ends up with a good-sized hangover afterwards.
    • In Carpe Jugulum, the Nac Mac Feegle convince King Verence to drink a bowl of "brose" by telling him it's got milk and herbs in it. What they don't tell him is that the Feegles, who can drink their weight in lamp oil with no ill effects, drink their "brose" to get their spirits up before going into battle, and Verence ends up briefly turning into a Screaming Warrior.
    • Jingo gently winds up the tendency of shampoos to use "herbs" when the Watch investigates Snowy Slopes, the Man With the Steel-Toothed Comb, who has tried virtually every hair care product available in Ankh-Morpork to treat his horrendous dandruff, mostly on the virtue that they have herbs. Angua (who has some hair problems herself), muses that you stuff a bunch of weeds in a shampoo bottle, and you have herbs.
    • In Going Postal, Tolliver Groat makes all his own medicines using natural ingredients... like, say, arsenic and sulfur. His throat lozenges dissolve walls.
      • Groat also puts sulfur and charcoal in his socks, and soaks his trousers in saltpetre. After he's rescued from a fire, this leads to a doctor informing Moist von Lipwig "His trousers were the subject of a controlled detonation after one of his socks exploded."
      • He also has a chest warmer made of goose grease and bread pudding. Apparently he stuffs that down his shirt instead of down his throat but it keeps him going so whatever works.
    • Numerous of his books refer to a drink called Scumble, which, as is innocently said, is made of apples - well, mostly apples. However, it is one of the most strongly alcoholic liquors known on the Disc.
    • And Making Money features Splot, a hot drink made from herbs and natural ingredients. "But belladonna is a herb, and arsenic is natural".
    • The Discworld Companion has an entry on Jimkin Bearhugger's Homeopathic Sipping Whisky. Jim failed to understand why the slogan 'Every Drop Diluted 1 Million Times' failed to attract customers even though, in theory, even being in the same room as an uncorked bottle should have gotten you riotously drunk.
  • An episode of Eureka revealed that all the victims had eaten the chicken which came from a chicken farmer (who actually cloned the birds because it was less cruel that way) who fed the poultry a certain nutrient solution. She had no problem using the nutrient because it was natural, and therefore safe to use. At least until a doctor pointed out it was known to degrade people's brains. This was an organic chicken farmer who cloned only parts of the chickens for human consumption. Yes, organically cloned chicken parts.
  • One episode of Futurama offered a vending machine full of "Farm Fresh" crack.
  • An almost-case: on the DVD interview for The Mitchell and Webb Situation, David Mitchell and Robert Webb discuss a sketch which was intended to parody this kind of mindset by being set in an 'all-natural' abortion clinic, which advocates a more 'earthy' and 'natural' method of abortion as opposed to the too 'clinical' methods available (the alternative methods as described essentially being, in the words of Mitchell, 'drinking a bottle of gin and throwing yourself down the stairs'). They removed it when they realized that the sketch instead made it look as if they thought abortion and miscarriage was itself funny, which wasn't the impression they wanted to give.
  • They did have a sketch parodying this mindset on That Mitchell and Webb Look. A man comes in dying from a car crash; the homeopathic doctors suggest such amazing cures like getting a bit of car that hit him, diluting it in water and shaking it, pink quartz, and drawing some life line on his palm in pen. It doesn't work.
  • The Chaser's War On Everything has a stunt where they tried to see what people would try if they said it was "all natural" or a "new age remedy." They managed to get people to try such things as "Oil of Snake" and all natural "Bull Droppings." If you believe the commentaries, everyone they talked to was fooled.
  • From Troll 2 "It's made with sap. From the forest. It is a concentration of all the vegetal [sic] properties."
  • Parodied in the play and movie Proof
    "It's organic."
    "What do you mean?"
    "You know, it doesn't have any chemicals in it."
    "Something can be organic and still be a chemical. Ever heard of organic chemistry?"
  • In the original version of Kath and Kim:
    It's alright dear, I've used fat-free fat.
  • Dr. Atkins' Cholera Revolution!
  • The whole bottled water thing was mocked in the "Mother Nature's Son" episode of Only Fools and Horses, with the bottled water coming from the tap and being bottled in a production line through their kitchen.
  • In this article, a man puts the idea that 'all natural' is the same as 'good for you' to the test- by eating all natural soap, toiletries, pet treats and aphrodisiacs.
  • In Grand Theft Auto IV, one of the guests on the PLR radio show Intelligent Agenda is Waylon Mason, who uses the show to promote his "home remedies" and attack the other two guests (a pharmaceutical company spokeswoman and an HMO spokesman) as shills of Big Pharma. The show ends with him giving involuntary trepanations to the other two guests in order to remove the "demons that are controlling them."
  • An episode of South Park has a New Age "healer" who buys various trinkets and concoctions from Cheech And Chong and passes them off as Native American remedies, including "tampons made from the hair of Cherokee." When Stan tries to tell the healer that the treatments don't work, he gets labeled a smart-ass and receives a bunk lecture on how Native American remedies are more in tune with nature than Western medicine. The healer tells Stan that Western medicine is all about making money and not about healing, immediately turning to a customer, "That'll be $200."
  • Parks and Recreation: When Leslie is trying to push a tax on soft drinks through the Pawnee City Councilnote  in part because high-fructose corn syrup is unhealthy and fattening:
    Idiot citizen: What's so bad about corn syrup? It's natural. Corn's a fruit. And syrup comes from a bush.
  • A Far Side cartoon features an Igor-like character walking into a shop selling "unnatural foods".
  • Whatever the hell Nigel West Dickens is selling in Red Dead Redemption, it doesn't do a damn thing. Your introduction to him involves John having to take him to a doctor as he bleeds out from wounds inflicted by angry customers. On the other hand, store-bought Snake Oil is a useful item. Must only be useful to someone who can use Bullet Time.
    • Dickens's snake oil does actually have a gameplay effect — it upgrades your Bullet Time, but also makes it so it acquires targets automatically, meaning you might accidentally shoot a civilian or innocent animal while trying to fight a bandit. In other words, it's not hazardous to your health, but to everyone else's.


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