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Snake Oil Salesman

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Just one drop of my medicine will cure all the side effects of my medicine!

"Do you suffer from rheumatism? Lumbago? Acute, chronic, sciatic, uh, neurologic, or inflammatory pain? Well, I represent the only company that makes the genuine article that cures, headaches, neuralgia, uh, earache, toothaches, backaches, swellings, sprains, sore chest, swelling of the throats, contracted chords and muscles, anxieties, and ravaged nerves, stiff joints, wrenches, dislocations, cuts and bruises! And, it adds vitality and vigor to the healthy man."
Dr. Nigel West Dickens, Red Dead Redemption, to a group of gullible country folk

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). A minor variation on this character is the Rainmaker, who takes people's money under the pretense that they will do something that they have no ability to do, such as making it rain.

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 that he makes his money by selling fake medicine to the genuinely ill.


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"note  was the rule. The rise of "alternative medicine" and other forms of All-Natural Snake Oil provides lots of modern examples as well, as do online scams (think of ads along the lines of "doctors hate this man who cured X with one weird trick!"). 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. Any effects the "medicine" has are almost certainly down to the Placebo Effect.


In an interesting subversion, actual snake oil contains plenty of Omega-3, which has known therapeutic effects. However, in a Double Subversion, the actual benefits are so vague to laymen that the modern version of this could be "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 Chinanote ). Rather, it's merely used as an ordinary anti-inflammatory agent, originally introduced into the United States by Chinese railroad workers. The modern definition originated with Clark Stanley, a Texas businessman who claimed to have received Hopi knowledge about the medicinal properties of rattlesnake oil — as it turns out, his medicine contained virtually no such oil, and in 1989 it was established that real rattlesnake oil contained only one-third of the Omega-3 content of their Chinese counterparts.

Similar to the Fake Faith Healer, but without the religious overtones.

Expect to find actual Snake Oil Salesmen at the local Medicine Show.

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


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    Anime and Manga 
  • 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.
  • In Welcome to the N.H.K., Megumi Kobayashi ends up becoming one when she gets roped into a Ponzi scheme in order to support herself and her Hikkikomori brother. She ropes in her old classmate Tatsuhiro Sato, and when he tries to get out of the scheme, keeps him in (and ropes his friends in) with a dietary supplement which, according to her, is suited for helping hikkikomori overcome their condition.
  • In Pokémon, there's the Magikarp Salesman, inspired by the one in the game. He first appeared on the St. Anne in Kanto where he conned James into buying a Magikarp, and since then has suckered James and Jesse into buying other worthless Pokémon, including another Magikarp and a Hoppip.
  • In One Piece, when the Straw Hats infiltrate the isolated country of Wano, Usopp poses as a toad oil salesman, claiming that the oil can heal any injury.

    Comic Books 
  • The Rainmaker of PS238 is an actual mutant with the fairly lame power of making it start or stop raining. He tries to make a living as a, well, rainmaker, but because of the countless frauds who have gone before him, nobody will pay him up front, and most of the time they turn out to be unwilling or unable to pay him afterwards - and as he puts it, he can hardly pull the rain back outta the ground.
  • Lucky Luke:
  • 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. According to Vector Prime, in Transtech he also sells an item called the "Placebotron 5000," which is 'guaranteed' to cure all manner of Cybertronian maladies (which of course doesn't work, not that he honors any guarantees), making him a more traditional version of this trope to his fellow Cybertronians.
  • According to the comic book adaptation of The Haunted Mansion, Hitchhiking Ghost Phineas was one of these, having died from taking a tumble off a cliff during one of his escapes from an angry mob. Trying to take his trade into the afterlife at the Mansion results in trouble with the resident ghosts, so he ends up futily hitchhiking to find better pastures.
  • In the Blacksad story "A Silent Hell", the Big Bad in his past sold an elixir he called "Life Everlasting" which was supposedly a cure for asthma and flu. In reality, it was a deadly poison which killed not only its users, but also their possible children, resulting in dozens of stillbirths and deformed infants. He got away with it because Life Everlasting was sold to an illiterate and uneducated town who didn't realize what was going on until it was too late, he bribed a corrupt judge to look the other way, and silenced anyone who tried to draw attention to this atrocity.

    Comic Strips 
  • In one strip of Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin decides to set up a stand selling drainage ditch water as "Calvin's Curative Elixir" at a dollar a glass. When Hobbes tells him nobody will pay to drink what is obviously just filthy water, Calvin changes his pitch to "Pitcher of Plague: Calvin's Debilitating Disease Drink! $1.00 not to have any."
  • The Far Side: One strip has a man fending off a werewolf, flashing back to earlier that day when the salesman assures him that the bullets he's buying are silver, as the caption notes how the man recognises the familiar-looking tie around the werewolf's neck...
  • 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."

    Fan Works 
  • The Great Alicorn Hunt has a unicorn calling himself "Professor" Cotton Mouth who sold a group of pregnant mares an elixir that caused severe birth defects, resulting in a number of stillbirths, and a few foals that died within a short time, and some maternal deaths as well. Ten odd years later only two foals that were exposed have survived, one of them by ascending to alicornhood in utero. Played with when he reappears later on in the story, as he genuinely thought that the Vitality Elixer would work as advertised, as negative side effects didn't show up in his initial test subject (himself) until after he'd already sold it to the mares, by which point it was too late. He's regretted it ever since.
  • As listed in the anime folder, the Magikarp Salesman has a small role in Pokémon Reset Bloodlines, by selling one of his Magikarp to Misty. While she saw through his scam quickly, she intentionally played dumb to get him to reveal his personal info, which she plans to use to get him arrested.

    Films — Animation 
  • Aloha, Scooby-Doo!: Jared Moon makes a bundle of money selling trinkets to ward off the wiki tikis. Obviously, they don't work. To be fair, the monster isn't real, but there''s no indication Moon had any reason to think that they did have magical protective abilities against genuine monsters.
  • Kronk's New Groove: Yzma becomes this when she has Kronk sell a fake youth potioin to the old folks.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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 Pete's Dragon (1977) 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.
  • In Seraphim Falls, the leading characters meet Madam Louise C. Fair.
  • Priest (2011). 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.
  • The Half-Breed: Dick Curson is a very shady example who pushes a useless patent medicine from the back of a wagon. He's also a sleazebag who patronizes prostitutes and dumps his companion Teresa after taking a fancy to one in particular.
  • In A Million Ways to Die in the West, Albert and Anna meet one at the fair who is cheerfully selling medical tonics and elixers that are clearly a crock of shit, going by the list of ingredients of one bottle.
    Anna: Cocaine, alcohol, morphine, mercury with chalk? What the hell is "mercury with chalk"?
    Salesman: Science!
    Albert: And "red flannel". Red flannel? There's a shirt in here?
    Salesman: Pieces of shirt.
  • Radomir from the Soviet movie Uchenik Lekarya (The Doctor's Apprentice) starts out as this, selling "medicine" for old age, stupidity etc. He becomes a real doctor to help his girlfriend's mother.
  • The Serpent and the Rainbow: Louis Mozart zigzags this. He makes a living selling zombie powder which simulates death (and which the pharmaceutical company the hero works for wants to secured use as a new anesthetic). Mozart can make the actual powder (and is quite good at it), but since it's generally used as a poison he generally just sells his clients actual poison (which is far less difficult to make) instead and lets them think it's zombie powder.
  • Contagion has a modern example. A novel virus pandemic is causing mass panic while scientists and governmental organizations are trying to play catch up. Krumwielde, a conspiracy blogger takes advantage of the hysteria to sell a fake cure called Forsythia while also spreading rumors to discredit upcoming vaccine.
  • Night Call Nurses: One random scene has a snake oil salesman who glories in the name of E. Eddie Edwards trying to sell the hospital bogus medications. When the doctor points out that one of the medications is known to cause Parkinson's, Eddie says that he has another medication that can cure that.
  • Rio Lobo: Sasha has a medicine wagon, and travelled with its properties before the bad guys killed him. Based on the way some characters talk about the snake oil medicine in question, it's essentially alcohol.
  • In Outlaw Women, Uncle Barney arrives in town with his Medicine Show, peddling his Blackfoot Balm which he claims can cure anything from baldness to cattle bloat. After he becomes the bartender at the Paradise, he continues to peddle it from below the bar.

  • 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.
  • Harry Potter:
    • 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.
  • This is Zigzagged with Sylvester McMonkey McBean In the Dr. Seuss' book The Sneeches and Other Stories. Technically, he's no peddling "snake oil", seeing as the services he sells actually work and does exactly what he claims. However, he cleverly uses his Star-On Machine and Star-Off Machine to milk the Sneeches for everything they've got, playing on their obsession over those dumb stars.
  • The Amy Virus: Cyan's parents, Dr. Nansi, and the others who promote the fraudulent Good Brain Diet to "cure" autism make most of their cash off of blogging about it. At the end, Cyan, her mother, and Eroica decide to write a blog post exposing the truth about the diet in order to shut the scam down.
  • Big Bad of the Dick Francis novel Banker is one who goes unsuspected for most of the novel.
  • The short story "Mr. Kennedy's Bones" by Johnny D. Boggs eventually has the Villain Protagonist traveling the west selling a worthless elixir that just makes people sick, while also carrying around the skeleton of his old partner and crime. He eventually gets tarred and feathered over it.
  • Professor Sarlatt in the J.A. Johnstone novel "Sidewinders: The Butcher of Bear Creek" runs a medicine wagon (with a Lovely Assistant and a simple-minded man he's raised as a son to help him out) claiming that it restores vitality and reduces aging. It's implied that there really is something to Sarlatt's elixir (as he's been drinking it for years and is about twenty years older than he looks) and he claims that he really did feel good about selling people a genuinely helpful product but he always wanted to do more and eventually fell in with an outlaw gang who robbed his wagon out of both greed and to keep them from killing him, scheming to help the gang with their plan for Taking Over the Town and ultimately committing several murders to help them.
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts: Jane, the "queen of snake oil," sells all manner of sketchy serums that rarely do what they're supposed to do and often have horrifying side effects.
    Haneefa: That greedy cow would sell a ball of lint and call it a cure for cancer. For all you know, you swallowed a vial of arsenic.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 7 Yüz: Oşa, who aids protagonist Pınar in "Hayatın Musikisi", is unmasked as a sham and a swindler when he is arrested for fraudulent business practices and misleading his clients.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Dead Man's Gun:
    • Reverend Early in "The Wages of Sin" is a drinker, womanizer and con artist who sells healing elixir with his two assistants (one of whom believes it's real, one of whom doesn't) that is really just river water mixed with molasses. Later in the episode, Early comes to believe that he's developed genuine mystical healing powers and starts over-extending himself as a result. Really it was the more innocent of his assistants though.
    • In "The Oath" during the middle of an outbreak of illness a man shows up selling bottles of a supposed cure that's really just corn syrup. He turns out to be working for the sleazy mayor. He ends up sick himself and begging for real medicine.
  • Doctor Who: In "Rise of the Cybermen", the President of an alternate-universe Great Britain accuses Pete Tyler of being this in a discussion, having tried some of his supposed health-food drink Vitex, only to find out it's just pop.
    President: You made money by selling a health-food drink to a sick world. Not quite the ordinary Joe you appear to be, are you?
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman:
    • A season-one episode involves a snake-oil show coming to town. Naturally, Dr. Mike, unlike the rest of the town, takes issue with the effects of the "perfect elixir" peddled by Dr. Eli (played by Robert Culp, who had once played Buffalo Bill Cody in a similar manner). A good deal of the emphasis is also placed on how touring "wild west" and medicine shows like the one depicted demeaned Native Americans involved in them.
    • Another episode involves a man, asking people to invest in a "home refrigeration box", even showing drawings of such a machine. Not everyone is sold, but this changes when a visiting black man asks to invest as well. The con man pretends to be racist, but eventually accepts his money, as well as those of the other black folks in the area. In the end, both turn out to be partners, scamming towns of their money, themselves not believing that such a device would ever be possible (spoiler alert: it will be). Then they themselves get cleaned out of all the money they took from the town by Dr. Quinn and Reverend Johnson. This is the first time the latter uses his hustling skills since he became a minister.
  • 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!"
  • Referenced through flashbacks in Forever when Henry remembers the classic type of snake-oil dealers when investigating deaths connected with a modern-day snake-oil business. The modern-day outfit is selling a compound that, unbeknownst to its customers (and even its main spokesman/salesman), is made from human brains, resulting in fatal prion infections in people who use it.
  • Game of Thrones: Bronn accuses Pyromancer Hallyne of being one of these, even going so far as to suggest that the wildfire he's making is actually pigshit, much to the man's affront. Averted during the Battle of the Blackwater when his wildfire turns out to be the real deal.
  • On Good Eats, Alton pretended to be one of these in the celery episode, selling a "tonic" made from celery seeds. Complete with a stooge in the audience claiming that it made his hair grow back.
  • The Goodies. In "Hospital for Hire", the Goodies are so frustrated with the National Health Service that resident genius Graham invents a tonic that can cure anything, and the Goodies are shown pitching it in a classic travelling snake oil salesman act. The irony is that the tonic really does work and they end up curing everyone in the country causing the hospitals to shut down, leaving no-one to cure the Goodies when they fall ill after running out of tonic.
  • Before she died and went to The Good Place, Eleanor's job was to sell a fake allergy medication called NasaPRO, (and its senior citizen-marketed variant NasaPRO Silver), which legally couldn't be called medicine because it doesn't technically "work" and is technically "chalk".
    Chidi: So your job was to defraud the elderly... Sorry, the sick and elderly?
    Eleanor: But I was very good at it. I was the top salesperson five years running.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • An episode of Kung Fu featured a woman named Theodora (played by Diana Muldaur) whose "magic elixir" was stream water mixed with leaves.
  • Dr. Oz has come under fire recently with studies that show that only about half of the products he recommended on his show were backed by science. John Oliver tore him apart on Last Week Tonight. Twice.
  • 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.
  • Murder Rooms. Dr Bell encounters another doctor who's offering free consultations, but the treatment is invariably an expensive patent medicine that only he sells. There's also a Running Gag of him trying to sell a magnetic device to the Navy that can deflect cannonballs...if the enemy was considerate enough to use steel shot.
  • In the Murdoch Mysteries episode "The Canadian Patient", Dr Ogden confronts a woman selling health pills who has learned enough to explain the concept of "vital amines", but not how to make pills that actually contain them, because people buy what she's selling. She ends up applying for med school and becoming Dr Ogden's new assistant.
  • In the episode "A Single Drop of Rain" of Quantum Leap, Sam leaps into the life of a travelling "rain maker" (who is, in fact, a con man) visiting a drought-stricken farming community. Sam decides to combine his knowledge of future cloudseeding techniques with an afternoon of yelling at God that He owes Sam big time, resulting in a beneficial downpour.
  • In the taiga drama Shinsengumi!, this is Hijikata Toshizou's first job.
    Kondou Isami: I'll bring you the medicine that you sell.
    Hijikata: It's okay. That doesn't work.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959) 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. This was confirmed in the episode "Frenzy". Maryann explains to Tara that "ritual is a powerful thing," and that Miss Jeanette was able to, albeit unwittingly, tap into actual supernatural forces. In fact, it was Tara's "fake" exorcism that summoned Maryann to Bon Temps in the first place.
  • They show up a couple of times on Wagon Train, such as the title character of "The Shadrack Bennington Story" (who, while something of a con man, is basically harmless) and Jethro Creech in "The Baylor Crowfoot Story" (a bullying Jerkass).
  • In Season 3 of The Wire, state senator Clay Davis solicits money from Stringer Bell to be used to "grease the wheels" for getting a federal grant. Davis just pockets the money, and the grant goes to whoever it would have gone to anyway. When Stringer finally talks to his lawyer about the whole thing, the lawyer has to laugh at it.
    Levy: [After he stops laughing] He rain made you! A guy says if you pay him, he can make it rain. You pay him. If and when it rains, he takes the credit. If it doesn't... he finds reasons for you to pay him more.
  • In Leverage, the delayed version (called the "Inverted Pyramid") is the scheme of a season 4 Mark. He brings a sense of scale to the whole thing: instead of a two-man operation selling stock predictions to, say, 10 or so marks, he runs a "boiler room" of grifters selling stock predictions to thousands of marks.
  • In The Adventures of Pete & Pete the two Pete's make a con where they sweep a neighbors yard for landmines, they first plant a landmine in the lawn, knock on the door, and then throw a toy at the landmine to convince the customer.
  • Early episodes of Sesame Street has this trope in play with a trenchcoat/fedora-clad Muppet known as Lefty, who often tries to sell things to Ernie. The caveat is that he always try to make their negotiations as quiet as possible, shushing Ernie when he talks too loud, sells things that often have no practicality, like a plain O, or worse yet, an invisible ice cream cone, and only ever seems to target Ernie, who's one of the most gullible Muppets on Sesame Street.

  • 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 song introduces us to "the Mystery Man" who has a rather dubious line of business; he starts off by telling Zappa that he can help him reach Nirvana for a “nominal service charge” and later tries to convince him to buy an ordinary shaving kit that the Mystery Man claims will work miracles for him. Zappa isn’t fooled for a second.
  • The subject of Steve Earle's "Snake Oil", though the "salesmen" he sings about are crooked politicians.
  • The Corrupt Corporate Executive of Iron Maiden's "El Dorado" says that his extortive Get-Rich-Quick Scheme "is my personal snake oil".
  • "Medicine Show" by Big Audio Dynamite is sung from the POV of one, extolling the virtues of his product, but never says what the product is.
  • "Lily the Pink" by Scaffold (and with a young Elton John on backing vocals) is a satirical take on this; the song touts the increasingly outrageous things "Medicinal Compound" has supposedly done. "Lily the Pink's Medicinal Compound" is suspiciously close to "Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound", an actual product from the late 19th Century at least up through the Prohibition era, though its 18% alcohol content (36 proof) may have had something to do with its popularity during the latter part of that.
  • The father of the viewpoint character in Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" was at least a part-time snake oil salesman, selling bottles of "Doctor Good".
  • "Paracetomoxyfrusebendroneomycin" by The Amateur Transplants. It can cure the common cold, and being struck by lightning! Sure, none of the animals it was tested on survived, but... details, details.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In a Dragon magazine article for 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, outlining what seems to be an early draft of the 3rd Edition Bluff rules, one example is a conman selling fake healing potions, and who bluffs so well that even when a cleric exposes the scam, the mark assumes he meant well and just didn't realise.
    • This is a possible background for player characters detailed in the Player's Handbook for 5th edition, called the Charlatan.

  • 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. Overlap with Never Trust a Hair Tonic, since his elixir claimed to make hair grow back. 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.
  • 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).
  • The show 110 In The Shade is the musical adaptation of the play The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash. The play tells the story of the relationship between a spinster, the local sheriff and a conman promising rain.

    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.
  • Pokémon examples:
    • The Magikarp Salesman first appears in the original Pokémon Red and Blue (and Pokémon FireRed and LeafGreen). First seen in the Pokémon Center on Route 4, he offers you a Magikarp for 500 PokeDollars. This is, of course, a ripoff, because you can get a Magikarp anywhere. While he doesn't actually appear in the sequel a boy in Pewter City (which is adjacent to Route 4) will show his Gyarados to anyone who asks, and a girl in the same city claims he bought a Magikarp from a "weird old man" three years prior, and trained it.
    • In Red and Blue, however, it's only a ripoff at first glance. Magikarp IS found everywhere, but the means to catch it won't be available until after you beat Misty and reach Vermilion, which is quite a while after the salesman. Meanwhile, you get one this early, and right before a cave where you can grind it (a lot) to Level 20 to evolve...potentially before you even enter Cerulean! Watch as that 500 PokeDollar-investment suddenly becomes VERY worth it! In the remakes, however, due to changed game mechanics since the first games, Gyarados isn't as much of a Disc-One Nuke as he used to benote .
    • Zigzagged in Gold and Silver, where a Team Rocket member offers to sell you a Slowpoketail for a million PokéDollars. This is a ripoff, of course, but you couldn't buy one even if you wanted (there's a 999,999 limit to the amount of money you can carry).
    • Inverted in Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, where the Meister offers to trade you his Magikarp for a Finneon. It's no better than any other Magikarp, but accepting the trade does enable the German language entry of Magikarp in your PokéDex.
    • Zigzagged in Pokémon Black and White (and its sequel), where the Magikarp Salesman appears again on the Marvelous Bridge. He offers the same deal here, but it might actually be worth it now, as Magikarp are not native to Unova, and can only be found in the Nature Reserve in the second game.
    • In X and Y, a Magikarp Salesman appears, and he's even more crooked than any others. After you talk to a hiker that you meet in the hotels enough times, he offers you a "Super Special" Magikarp in exchange for a Gyarados. It's nothing but a plain old Magikarp, and only Lvl 5, lower than one you could catch yourself. (If you knew that the guy's name was "Caveat" and that the Magikarp's name was "Carpe Diem", it might tip you off, but you only learn that if you trade it.) The only compensation is that the Magikarp has an Adamant nature (which lowers Special Attack to boost its Attack) and has a perfect IV in Attack.
    • There's a guy like this in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. He doesn't offer a Magikarp, and if you're clever, you can benefit from dealing with him. After dealing with Groudon/Kyogre, an old man who claims to sell stones appears on Route 114. He speaks highly of one he offers for 40,000 PokéDollars, even higher of one for 80,000, and highest of one for 150,000. But all three are Hard Stones. Two items he sells, which he claims are "for beginners" and tries to steer you away from, only cost 1,500; these are the Mega Evolution stones for the two Starters you did not choose.
  • 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.
  • 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:
    • Nigel West Dickens, a major character; even mentioning the trope by name. While his products definitely don't work as advertised, they do have other beneficial effects. Drinking his medicine refills your Dead Eye meter.
    • This trope is also parodied with the "The Dangers of Doctors and Patent Medicines" short film that can be watched in the movie theater. It features a snake oil salesman and the unfortunate and violent side effects of his "remedies," ending with the warning "Medical science cannot save you. It will kill you and leave you dead.
    • Even better, in the Undead Nightmare DLC storyline, it turns out that his "vitality elixir" which he sells as a zombie repellent actually attracts the undead – John remarks that "It's like catnip to them!". This turns out to be 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 the Wild West version of Left 4 Dead's Pipe Bomb.
  • In Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the early bounties in the game is a Snake Oil Salesman wanted for murder after his wares have led to the deaths of his customers.
  • 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 miracle products such as "genuine Falmer blood elixir" to the citizens of Riften. A previous scam of his, "Wisp Essence", turned out to be crushed Nirnroot mixed with water. It doesn't help when you remember that Nirnroot can be used to make a fairly potent poison. It doesn't really matter if he actually sells anything, though: His little bouts of quackery are mainly used as a distraction so that other members of the Thieves' Guild can do their business in the market with everybody handily looking at the person who isn't breaking into their stalls.
  • 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: The Princeless Bride 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.
  • Griftah in World of Warcraft sells trinkets and amulets that he swears offer all sorts of amazing benefits, like recovering health by eating, finding treasure in mundane places, and coming back to life. Every good luck charm he sells offers access to basic MMO mechanics, aside from a tikbalang ward (they might get you if you don't have one... or not) and soap on a rope (running around all day in the same clothes...).
  • Kingdom of Loathing does have a wagon-based healer, Doc Galactik, who uses poisonous substances in his remedies; however, his stuff is both cheap and effective. With the advent of the West of Loathing challenge path (early 2016) players can now play the Snake Oiler character class, which upgrades the character type to an effective adventurer. Snake Oilers actually do collect snakes (in a briefcase) and use their oils and venom to compound awful "cures" to give to monsters, but they also possess advanced revolver skills (as "customers" may survive), the ability to safely handle highly venomous snakes, and (as they may need to drink their own tonics) will learn to concoct genuinely effective medicine.
  • In Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate, Dr. Goodwell is such a character. He sells various nostrums during his medicine show at Fate's Carnival, though he later delves into full Mad Scientist territory come Fate's Carnival.
  • The tutorial boss of Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher is a salesman who tries to sell you deer repellent in the middle of New York. Refusing his offer turns out to be a bad idea, as Socrates has an accident with a deer later.
  • Available as a character class in the Spin-Off West of Loathing. The snake oiler actually collects snakes, and can extract a certain amount of both their oil (a minor healing item) and their venom (poison grenades) per day. The amount can be increased by stuffing defeated snakes into their breifcase. The description for their healing skill is "Some of your patent medicines actually work! You put them aside for yourself."
  • Early in The Yukon Trail you can talk to a guy who will sell you gophers who can detect gold and bicycles designed for travelling through the mountains (this game taking place seventy years before the invention of mountain bikes). Neither of them work.
  • One of the stories in The Sims Medieval had the Doctor character deal with one of these. However the twist is that the bogus potion they were selling actually was having some benefits to the townsfolk. The second half of the story is the Doctor trying to figure out what exactly is in it.


    Web Original 
  • Fat, French and Fabulous discusses the early 20th century radium craze more broadly, but also mentions William J. A. Bailey, a Harvard dropout who claimed to be a doctor and got rich selling quack radiation therapies, including the radioendocrinator, a dangerous radiation source worn directly against the body (specifically the abdomen or the scrotum) and supposedly treated the endocrine system. Bailey himself was a passionate user of the radioendocrinator and eventually died of bladder cancer.
  • On Cinema: Dr. San whom Tim often pays for alternative medicine treatments which often led to Tim developing more health issues. Greg, however, does not trust him and has on at least one occasion referred to his treatments as "quackery".
  • Skrufy the Hobo from Norman Tweeter qualifies, as he once sold a copy of Manos: The Hands of Fate for $75. [1]
  • JonTron set up a stereotypical Snake Oil Salesman wagon outside of a Goopnote  store and played the part of one as "Jonathan Tronley", including dressing up as one. He declared he was selling a variety of various snake-based items, which did include actual snake oil made of crushed snakes.

    Western Animation 
  • In the Felix the Cat TV cartoon "Youth Water", the Professor poses as a salesman, using ordinary bottled water to con gullible old people out of their money by making them think its water from a Fountain of Youth.
  • 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.
  • Futurama: 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).
  • Looney Tunes:
    • In one cartoon, after weakling Daffy Duck is humiliated at the beach by a bully, a huckster sells him a bottle of muscle tonic (ingredients: 10% tap water, 90% hot mustard); then, to prove it worked, the guy makes a fake 5,000 lb barbell out of balloons while Daffy is coughing from the spicy drink, and when he recovers, tells him to lift it, which he does with ease. (Of course, this leads to Daffy only humiliating himself more, but he gets even in the end, daring the bully to lift the barbell; the guy does so only too well, propelling himself way into the air and crashing to the ground.)
    • Averted in "Porky The Rainmaker", where a salesman is selling Weather Manipulation pills, and they geniunely work.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Lyle Lanley, the monorail salesman. He made his living tricking towns with a budget surplus into buying shoddy monorails then skipping town.
    • Played with in the episode where Ned opens a Christian theme park in his late wife Maude's memory. The park is a bust until someone has a vision of Heaven in front of the statue of Maude near the gates. Everyone thinks it's a miracle until Ned later finds out there's a gas leak in front of the statue and people are just hallucinating off the fumes. However, the park is bringing people together—and raking in loads of money—as crowds flock to the statue to experience their version of Heaven, so Ned uncomfortably goes along with it. He finally caves in when he sees two children try to light a candle near the statue...
    • Selma once visited a Gypsy fortune teller hoping to buy some love potion so she can find a husband. The fortune teller accidentally drinks her surprisingly effective "truth serum" revealing to Selma that the bogus love potion is mostly made of just "corn syrup and rubbing alcohol" as well as there being a big chance it will cause hair loss.
    • Homer invested some money in a scam that told him which football team would win. Of course, he lost money to it, but the worst part was he borrowed money from Fat Tony.
  • Harry Mudd shows up in an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series hawking a Love Potion. It turns out to be the real thing... except that it's short-lived, and when it starts to wear off it makes the affected people hate each other until it wears off completely. Mudd admits that he didn't know that the stuff actually worked and is chagrined at how cheaply he was trying to sell it.
  • An American cold war propaganda piece called Make Mine Freedom had a sleazy man selling "Ism" tonic, as a cure to the ills of government. A savvy would-be customer shows the side effects of it as being horrible (slave farms, no free speech, everyone is poor and under the heel of the state). The townsfolk run the con man out of town by throwing his "medicine" at him.
  • In Hoppity Hooper, Waldo P. Wigglesworth hawks patent medicines of dubious effectiveness.
  • In one episode of Amphibia, normally scrupulously honest Hop Pop briefly becomes one when he's desperate to raise money to save the family vegetable stand. His conscience eventually gets the better of him and he calls the scam off.
  • In The Legend of Korra, Bolin is sent with bribe money to change the outcome of a Kangaroo Court. The people he ends up bribing have nothing to do with the trial, but gleefully take his money anyways.

     Real Life 
  • Corrupt Church leaders, particularly televangelists, will often promise to cause miracles for or bring good fortune, wealth, and/or happiness to anybody who donates money to their church which, of course, they keep to spend on things like a $23,000 toilet (look for an example in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief). This is frequently done with The Shill acting as a benefactor of a supposed miracle, such as sitting in a wheelchair then suddenly standing up and walking, when they never needed the wheelchair in the first place.
  • Selling "predictions" on outcomes is a common scam with sports betting, especially the NFL. First, a scam artist acquires a few hundred thousand potential pigeons. He then sends predictions to them and keeps sending predictions only to those who have received a lucky streak of predictions. So why use the NFL? Well, first, the season is extremely short: 16 games over just over four months, plus a three- or four-game postseason over one month.note  Starting at mid-to-late season, a scammer might only have to make seven straight predictions before he's "gotten them all right," and is offering his pigeons Super Bowl picks. This leaves more potential marks in the pot. Second, betting on football in the United States is far more common and culturally accepted. Even when illegal, it's treated more like "boys will be boys" than as a crime.
  • A number of consumer products that started as patent medicine still exist today, albeit with revised ingredients and in compliance with applicable laws. Some of these include Bayer Aspirin, Geritol, Goody's Powder, Smith Brothers cough drops and Vicks Vapo Rub.
  • Some carbonated beverages used to be sold as patent medicine but have since be repurposed and are no longer considered medicinal. Examples include 7Up, Dr. Pepper, Moxie, Hires Root Beer, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

  • Played for Laughs with Macfuddy's Pepper Elixir, a cola marketed like patent medicine. It's got such outrageous claims on it as "Infused with Luck! For 24 hours of favourable outcomes." and "Cures timidity and satisfies the daring!" In reality, it's spicy pop with a cool label.

Alternative Title(s): The Quack


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