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Snake Oil Salesman
aka: The Quack

"You're okay, baby. That stuff was just 90% water, 10% alcohol."
Dr. Matthew Freeman, Copper, to his wife Sarah, on the "miracle tonic" she drank to cure her morning sickness.

A specific type of itinerant Con Man who makes his living by selling products which could not possibly work as advertised. The classic version sells literal snake oil (i.e. a product with 'medicinal' properties and exotic, unknown ingredients.)

This shady dealer is somewhat similar to the Hustler in being both less financially stable and having a poorer group of victims as well, and also has some overlap with the Honest John as being a purveyor of shoddy goods, not always phony medicine.

The character is often played as a Loveable Rogue, frequently being extremely attractive to local women because he's "seen the world" (or at least can convincingly pretend that he has). He's often inexplicably sympathetic, given his career as a seller of fake medicine to legitimately sick persons.

Definitely Truth in Television, hearkening back to the late-19th/early-20th century, when there were no standards for practicing medicine or selling goods and "caveat emptor" was the rule. The rise of "alternative medicine" and other forms of All-Natural Snake Oil provides lots of modern examples as well. A Snake Oil Salesman is also known as a "quack", short for "quacksalver", though the term "quack" also covers fraudulent doctors who are nowhere near as skilled as they claim to be, such as the worst Back Alley Doctors.

In an interesting subversion, actual snake oil contains plenty of Omega-3, so it can be beneficial to the health. However, in a Double Subversion, the actual benefits of Omega-3 are so mysterious-to-laymen-but-vaguely-positive that the modern version of this could be the Fish Oil or Omega-3 Salesman. Also, oil from the Chinese Water Snake has been used for a very long time in Chinese medicine, though not as the extreme panacea advertised by this sort of character (indeed, this connotation is largely unknown in China). Rather, it's merely used as an ordinary anti-inflammatory agent.

Expect to find actual Snake Oil Salesmen at the local Medicine Show. The Beat Bag is his hat.

NB: To count as an example, the Snake Oil Salesman has to be knowingly hawking snake oil. Well-intentioned ignorance fits better under Worst Aid.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • Nuopu's grandmother in The Tibetan Dog
  • Daphne, a Filler Villain from Fairy Tail, peddles "Metamo-chan", a kind of kabob she says helps weight loss. When the heroes meet her, she outright admits it's all bogus. Particularly because she's less interested in scamming them and more interested in catching Natsu to power her giant mechanical dragon.

    Comic Books 
  • Dr. Doxey in the Lucky Luke comic series. He is portrayed more unsympathetic than it is usual for the trope.
    • In "Sarah Bernhardt", the theatre company breaks out in hives after eating whale meat for too long. They encounter a traveling salesman that can cure everything ("Ehm... and especially hives!")... with his whale oil elixir.
  • Jose Carioca once helped his cousin Joe sell candy to his neighbours, knowing full well that the candy was too impossibly hard for anyone to actually eat. Despite his attempts to put as much responsibility for the candy on his cousin, they both get beaten up by an angry mob.
  • One issue of The Muppet Show Comic Book reinvents Dr Bob of Veterinarian's Hospital as a frontier medicine man. At one point he asks Nurse Piggy if they can get any more "medicinal compound" out of the cat.
  • Swindle is one of these in Transformers Ongoing. He sells custom Cybertronian guns to the human populace to protect against an invading Decepticons using artificial humans. The guns also allow Decepticons to take control of human buyers.

    Film 
  • Glengarry Glen Ross follows the lives of shady real estate salesmen.
  • Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz movie, played by the same actor as the wizard himself. He was more the Lovable Rogue type, and after finding out Dorothy ran away, tricks her into going back home by using his fortunetelling act to make her think her aunt is ill.
  • Doc Terminus from Petes Dragon is a villainous version - and indeed, his song, "Passamaquaddy" is practically a Snake Oil Salesman theme song. He's also comically incompetent; he's been run out of every town he's ever visited, and he anticipates — and gets — an unfriendly reception when he winds up in one of those towns a second time. Oddly enough, the primary character who believes his products aren't useless quack remedies is... Doc Terminus himself. At the very least, he trusts his recipe book's claims about the merits of dragon parts.
  • Danny Kaye's character Georgi in The Inspector General (1949) starts the film as the assistant of Snake Oil Salesman Yakov, but turns out to be too honest for the job.
  • Mr. Merriweather, in Little Big Man. Protagonist Jack Crabb also becomes one of these as his assistant.
  • In The Kid Brother, Harold Lloyd as the son of the sheriff is supposed to run off the Medicine Show but falls for the Snake Oil Salesman's lovely daughter instead.
  • Lilah encounters a snake oil salesman on a stagecoach in a deleted scene from Jonah Hex.
  • In Seraphim Falls, the leading characters meet Madam Louise C. Fair.
  • Priest. Honest John is trying to sell a potion that wards off vampires when the sheriff shoots the bottle out of his hand.
  • The Stooges in Snow White and the Three Stooges were this until they rescued Prince Charming from an assassination attempt.
  • One of these serves as Bumbling Sidekick to The Outlaw Josey Wales.
  • Tin Men is about shady aluminum siding salesmen.

    Literature 
  • Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer is clearly a victim of charlatans like this, even though we never see who they are, buying quack remedies to give to Tom.
  • In the children's Christmas book Emmett Otter and the Jug-Band Christmas, Emmett's late father was literally a snake oil salesman. He boated up and down the river selling snake oil. (A Running Gag in the book was that he was unsuccessful because "nobody wanted to oil any snakes."
  • The title character in The Good Soldier Švejk sells dogs; as the book describes, they're "ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged." He once talked a woman, who wanted to buy a parrot, into buying a bulldog.
  • Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry is a religious version, although his occasional moments of sincere belief in what he's preaching (especially in the film version) cross him over somewhat into more complicated Hypocrite territory.
  • In Time Scout, a number of these guys infest the time terminal commons. Skeeter Jackson gets a start on this scam, but gets interrupted by an angry gladiator.
  • In Winds of Fury Firesong's cover when sneaking into Hardorn was as a stage magician/snake oil salesman. His magical cure-all was brandy mixed with some medicinal herbs, which made it theoretically healthy and of considerably higher quality than most things sold by such people.
  • While no specific people fit this in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Arthur Weasely is put in charge of the newly created Office of the Detection and Confiscation of Counterfeit Defensive Spells and Protective Objects. Its sole directive is to weed out those trying to sell illegal counterfeit and faux protective items and spells.
    • The only real mention of someone is a wizard who tries to sell Ginny a such a item, a necklace 'to protect her pretty neck'. Arthur threatens him, saying if he were only on duty.
    • Judging by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, some of Hogwarts' sixth and seventh year students turn into these around O.W.L. exam time, selling dubious brain stimulants such as Baruffio's Brain Elixir and alleged powdered dragon claw (which was actually dried Doxy droppings; genuine dragon claw actually does help but a student would be unlikely to get it).
  • C.M.O.T. Dibbler of Discworld fame might be best known for selling pig-sausages in a bun, but he'll turn to this if there's a profit to made. For example, when a dragon was rampaging the city, he was remarkably quick to procure and sell "dragon lotion".
  • In the children's book "The Great American Elephant Chase", Michael Keenan makes a living running a traveling elephant show. However, he has a sideline selling bottles of "elephant tonic", proving its healing powers by publicly curing a crippled girl. Unbeknownst to the audience, the girl is his daughter and perfectly healthy.

    Live-Action TV 
  • An episode of Kung Fu featured a woman named Theodora (played by Diana Muldaur) whose "magic elixir" was stream water mixed with leaves.
  • Dr. Stringfellow in the Night Gallery episode "Dr. Stringfellow's Rejuvenator", who is a rare example of a phony doctor being treated as unsympathetically as deserved.
  • In one episode of Quantum Leap, Sam leaps into a "rainmaker" who claims to be able to end droughts.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" concerns a man who cons a town by claiming he can raise the dead. The problem is that all the graves but one in the town cemetery are populated by victims of violence (and that one died of a heart attack...after breaking her husband's arm for the sixth time), and nobody wants the dead to rise. So they pay the man not to raise the dead. He leaves town, we learn how his scheme worked... but it turns out that, without knowing it, the man did raise the dead, and they're pretty eager to get back to town.
  • "Miss Jeanette" from True Blood does exorcisms in the woods for people who are "demon possessed". She really works in a drugstore.
    • There's a bit of evidence she may have had legitimate abilities as an exorcist, with the dress up just being for show. After all, so far only the supernatural have had their hearts devoured by Maryann.
      • This was confirmed in the episode "Frenzy". Maryann explains to Tara that "ritual is a powerful thing," and that Miss Jeanette was able to, unwittingly, tap into supernatural forces. In fact, was Tara's "fake" exorcism that summoned Maryann to Bon Temps in the first place.
    • Bonus for that the lady was a trained pharmacist and knew what drugs would both induce a proper hallucinatory state and probably have beneficial effects to the problem at hand.
  • The Goodies in "Hospital for Hire" (especially Graeme):
    Graeme: My friends, this here bottle contains a guaranteed all-purpose remedy for prostration, inflation and frustration! Pneumonia and old monia! Distemper, dat temper and bad temper! Sunburn, heartburn, and Tony Blackburn!
  • Doctors Dean and Dana Deville in Hustle, who sell bottles and tins of garbage as cures for everything from arthritis to swine flu, are decidedly unsympathetic Smug Snakes. Their latest scheme, when the Hustle gang target them, is "Eat Yourself Slender", which puts a friend of the gang into hospital.
  • Parodied on The Chaser's War On Everything, with Chas peddling such products as Oil of Snake, Bollocks and Feng Shite. If you believe their audio commentary, the scene was not a case of Selective Stupidity - everyone they talked to fell for it.
  • Invoked for a quick gag in Jim Henson's adaptation of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas , where Emmet's father is said to have been an unsuccessful snake oil salesman: "There just weren't that many people that wanted to oil a snake!"
  • Gunsmoke had Professor Lute Bone, whose "Miracle Tonic's" active ingredient was opium. As a twist on the usual, he was firmly against alcohol abuse.
  • Harry the Hat on Cheers. Usually he only appeared in the opening sequence to scam a few bucks out of the bar patrons or staff (usually, Sam was the only one who didn't fall for it) but the one episode where he played a central role, he was a Lovable Rogue type, helping Sam and the others outwit an even bigger crook.
  • One named Zerbo was a recurring character on Cowboy G-Men, often using a Paper-Thin Disguise and running afoul of the hero's sidekick Stoney Crockett. He also tried other scams, but evaded prosecution by helping the heroes out of jams.
  • In Muppets Fairy Tale Theater's adaptation of "The Emperor's New Clothes", Rizzo the rat gets arrested for selling "Rizzo's Miracle Elixir" as a cure-all. He talks his way out of trouble by distracting the emperor with the "new clothes" scam.
  • In Copper, as per the page quote, Sarah Freeman is sold a "miracle cure" by a traveling salesman. It turns out to just be a mix of water and alcohol, and Sarah's physician husband, Matthew, proceeds to beat the shit out of said salesman in front of a crowd of potential scam victims.

    Music 
  • Paul McCartney plays a snake oil salesman in the "Say Say Say" music video while Michael Jackson plays his accomplice.
  • "Tarred and Feathered" by Stormwitch is about the town-to-town salesmen of the wild west era.
  • The subject of "Cosmik Debris' from Frank Zappa.
  • The subject of Steve Earle's "Snake Oil", though the "salesmen" he sings about are crooked politicians.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In the Hurricane of Puns comic strip Sir Bagby, there was a story arc where Sir Bagby encountered a snake oil salesman; his first reaction was a bemused "I hadn't realised so many people had squeaky snakes."

    Theater 
  • Dr. Dulcamara from the opera L'elisir d'amore.
  • Harold Hill from The Music Man.
    • Parodied in an episode of The Simpsons where a nearly identical character selling defective monorails convinces Springfield to buy one, and it is revealed that these monorails have had accidents killing several people in the past. At the end, his flight out of town is forced to stop over in one of those towns, and he gets lynched by an angry mob.
    • The most famous player of that character, Robert Preston, played an alien variant of the character as a shady military recruiter in The Last Starfighter.
  • Ali Hakim from the musical Oklahoma!!.
  • Adolfo Pirelli, a.k.a. Daniel Higgins in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who sold a "Miracle Elixir" that was primarily concocted of piss and ink. He becomes Sweeney's first kill after twigging to Sweeney's true identity as Benjamin Barker and attempting to blackmail him out of half his earnings.
  • Bill Starbuck from The Rainmaker and its musical adaptation 110 in the Shade.
  • Eustace P. McGargle, from the 1923 musical comedy Poppy. W.C. Fields originated the character on stage and later played him in two film adaptations, the silent Sally of the Sawdust (1925) and the "talkie" Poppy (1936).
  • In Men In Hats, Sam goes into business selling a miracle cure which is rebottled laundry detergent.
    Beriah: Try it Gamal! It feels great until you realize you can't walk!

    Video Games 
  • Assassin's Creed III features these as vagrant traders, who'll advertise their magic cures as they ride around town with their wares. You can't actually buy any snake oil from them though, only generic supplies such as arrows or firearm cartridges.
  • The Broken Steel DLC for Fallout 3 features "The Amazing Aqua Cura" sidequest, in which you investigate a ghoul's snake oil operation. You end up being able to expose, blackmail, or force him to go legit if you uncover his secret. He is a troperiffic example of the character, putting on a show and claiming that his "Aqua Cura" will give the customer strength, happiness, better sleep, restore a ghoul's lost skin and hair, make your heart's desire fall in love with you and even clean your laundry.
  • Funnily enough, in Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, a conversation between Shinon and Gatrie actually reveals the latter to have bought snake oil after being conned into thinking it was a speed potion.
  • There's a Planet of Hats of these in Star Control 2.
    In the future, Captain, I would be careful what I bought from the Druuge.
  • Guild Wars 2 has one in Lion's Arch, constantly advertising his junk next to the Mystic Forge, one of the highest-traffic areas of the city.
  • Red Dead Redemption has one of these in the form of Nigel West Dickens, a major character, even mentioning the trope by name. Drinking his medicine refills your Dead Eye meter.
    • Even better, in the Undead Nightmare DLC storyline, it turns out that his "vitality elixir" actually attracts the undead ("It's like catnip to them!", the protagonist observes). Of course, this becomes a good thing, since you can throw bottles of the stuff to lure the zombies away, and later you even "upgrade" it by stuffing a stick of dynamite into the bottle, making it a time bomb that actually attracts enemies before it explodes.
  • Mystia Lorelei of the Touhou series. As revealed in Bohemian Archive in Japanese Red, she's started a business of selling grilled lamprey, which is rumored to cure night-blindness. Business is booming since her area has an inexplicably high amount of people suffering from night-blindness, and when people eat the food she serves, they find themselves miraculously cured! Of course, the fact that Mystia has the ability to induce night-blindness on others and can cancel it at anytime she wants may have something to do with it as well.
  • In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the Thieves Guild has fallen on such hard times that their recruiter, Brynjolf, is forced to run a sideline selling "genuine Falmer blood elixir" to the citizens of Riften.
  • In Cute Knight Kingdom, one story path has a pink-haired girl named Jenny who sells various "health products" and wants you to test them. If you visit her multiple times manage to collect the ingredients she wants, she'll eventually take you on as an apprentice. The title of this ending, along with the text explaining your character's reaction to it, reveal the sad truth about Jenny's "business".
  • Stan in Monkey Island.
  • Charlieton in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, but only when you meet him in Rogueport; when you meet him in the Pit of 100 Trials, he's an Intrepid Merchant who probably took lessons from Adam Smith. But in both cases, he's a sleazy merchant. (However, if you're very lucky when you talk to him in Rogueport, he might be selling Jammin' Jellies or Ultra Shrooms, very useful items, for only 120 coins, which is the cheapest they sell for in the game.)
    • Rip Cheato in the first game is another salesman you should be wary of. You can buy a Life Shroom from him and a few Star Pieces, but before you can buy any of his good stuff, you have to buy a lot of junk. And his prices are incredibly inflated.
    • Also, Chet Rippo, who appears in both games. For 39 coins, he will upgrade one of Mario or his partners' stats by two levels, but downgrade all the others one level. (In the second game, he's more honest about the side effect; in fact, it's possible that it's two different people, as they look different in each game.)
  • Killing Floor's Summer Sideshow event turns the fireball-shooting Husk into a steampunk robot who acts like a Snake Oil Salesman trying to sell you fire.
  • King's Quest VII has such a salesman who markets various unlikely wares, including a tonic which will make you gullible. He provides you with were beast salve in exchange for a magic statuette.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • The aptly named Flim Flam from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo.
    • Though, to be fair, his "Lotsa Luck Joy Juice" does work as a cure for lycanthropy, making him a tidy profit in the pilot episode.
  • Whoever made and sold to Dr. Zoidberg "Dr. Flimflam's Miracle Cream" probably qualifies, though they're never seen. Though the cream really did give Fry and Leela superpowers...
  • Betty, Koko, and Bimbo in Betty Boop, M.D. sell bottles of "Jippo" (we see the bottles getting filled from a fire hydrant).
  • A huckster sells weakling Daffy Duck a bottle of muscle tonic (ingredients: 10% tap water, 90% hot mustard).
  • Dr. Charlatan, whom The Smurfs dealt with in "The Miracle Smurfer".
  • In Jackie Chan Adventures, Uncle's Identical Grandfather sells bottles of "Chun Gai Surprise" in The Wild West. Near the end of the episode he uses its contents to melt down a rifle.
    Uncle: Chun Gai Surprise: good for digestion, bad for everything else.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has a rather odd case with Flim and Flam, a pair of unicorn brothers who appear in the season 2 episode The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000. Travelling across Equestria with an automated cider press, they put up a big catchy musical number about how they can produce gallons of great-tasting cider in no time at all... but the thing is? They're actually being honest about it, proving to make cider just as good as locals The Apple Family, and far quicker and greater quantities than the Apples can. However, they act more like Snake Oil Salesponies by first demanding an absurd amount of the profits in exchange for using their machine to help the Apples produce cider quicker, and then set up a competition to try and run the Apples out of business so they can use up all of the farm's apples for cider, sell it all, and then take off with the profits.
    • They fit this trope much better when they return in season 4's Leap of Faith, where they're actually running a Medicine Show hawking their latest creation of a miracle cure-all tonic.
  • An episode of Fievel's American Tails features Dr. Travis T. Hippocrates, who commissions an unknowing Fievel to pass out candy to everyone in town that gives them hiccups so that the doctor can sell them a placebo cure.
  • An episode of ThunderCats (2011) features one of these, from whom Lion-O purchases some of his "miracle elixir". Even though it has... unpredictable effects on whoever drinks it, the thing proves really good to ward off demon-dinosaur Mumm-Ra.
  • In the Ben 10: Omniverse episode, Professor Blarney T. Hokestar sells a "miracle elixir" that grows plant-like hair on the user's head. The elixir only works for a limited time though, as the alien it was demonstrated on (who just so happens to be the Prof's underling) is shown to be bald again a short time later.
  • One of Granny May's many crimes in WordGirl. She sells it by cocooning Mr. Botsford in easily-breakable yarn (as opposed to her usual Nigh Invulnerable yarn), and using the fact he can break free as proof of her claims about it, but is revealed when WordGirl switches it with some of her normal yarn during a demonstration.
  • The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin: Tweeg once cheated people out of their money by selling them fake medicine. The heroes tricked him into buying it back by making him believe there's a machine that turns the fake medicine into precious stones.
  • On The Simpsons, Abe showed Homer the merits of his homemade love tonic. It's so successful that they take it on the road in an old west charlatan style show. At one point, Dr. Hibbert mentions that the tonic's effects are actually due to intoxication caused by the filthy bathtub it is made in, before drinking some himself.
  • Jim Kaplan in Family Guy.



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alternative title(s): The Quack
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