Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What it means when you touch your face in a certain way

I can’t recall if it was an ad by Taboola (probably) or an ad by Outbrain (I think it was an ad by Taboola). Either way, I clipped it along with the page it linked to, because surely I would have to revisit this.

What goes by the very misleading name of native advertising – one might as well call it ‘indigenous lying’ – is one of the most insidious elements of our current media age. We’ve all come across them, including on reputable sites such as the Guardian and the New York Times – the very people who have pledged to defend us against the scourge of fake news. Following on from stories that, if not always accurate, at least come with a number of explicit and implicit editorial guarantees, and subtly mimicking the almost universal design of web news content, these ads introduce themselves as ‘recommended content’, as if the recommendations came from the sites themselves. Indeed, sometimes they are actual stories from reputable and traceable sources. But more often they are not.

This one is not.

If you click, as I have, on the link under the stock photo of an elderly lady touching her face you will land on a page where a video starts to play automatically. This is a standard infomercial such as you may see on television, but it’s not playing on television. It’s playing on your computer, perhaps as far as New Zealand, across boundaries both electronic and geographic that make what little consumer protections are still in place in the country of origin (in this case, the United States) utterly ineffective.

The commercial begins with these words:
“Take a good look at your husband and children,” said the doctor. “This may be the last time you remember their faces.”
The terrifying lines (which would surely get a doctor instantly fired) are delivered in the video by a reassuring, silver-haired man who goes by the name of Martin Reilly, supposedly a science teacher from Stamford, Connecticut, but almost certainly an actor. He proceeds to tell us the sad story of Sandra, his wife, a victim of early onset dementia, while promising that ‘in the next few minutes’ he will reveal to us the ingredients of a simple plate of food that can cure Alzheimer’s disease.

He won’t. And the video – which you cannot fast forward nor rewind – doesn’t last a mere few minutes, but an exhausting seventy, by the end of which the dish has become a 21 day ‘protocol’ for you to purchase, none of whose ingredients are revealed, save for coconut oil. Nor does the presentation contain any information whatsoever on any parts of the body that, if you scratched them, it would be a sign of Alzheimer’s. That detail is just quietly forgotten in the time it takes for you to click on the link.

'Martin Reilly'

While the roots of the videos are to be traced in informercials such as those that landed Kevin Trudeau in jail, the context in which they can be consumed has changed, making them more persuasive. There are fewer signals that the video playing on your computer screens is in fact an advertisement, more ambiguity about the source of the information and its demarcation from the page that landed you here – perhaps the Guardian or the New York Times. Messages get jumbled together. And while the web can be a place where to test the claims made in an infomercial, it can also be gamed in order to reinforce it.

For instance, if you research the memory research protocol you will find pages with promising names such as ‘memory-repair-protocol-review’ which are in fact long advertorials, complete with customer testimonials and links for purchasing the product. The literacy required to separate these fake reviews from real reviews is not insignificant, and remember: it was a trusted news source that led you here in the first place.

Going over the claims made by ‘Martin Reilly’ (more on his identity in a minute) would take too long, but the story spun during the video is worth a quick summary: while visiting a nursing home as he and his wife prepare for the inevitable, Martin follows a delicious smell of food into the kitchen where an Indian lady of 107 is cooking her meal. I come from a town called Ballabgarh, she explains, and if you Google the name you’ll know why my mind is so sharp. Sure enough, Ballabgarh is is touted in a BBC report as the ‘Indian village may hold key to beating dementia’, on account of its low rates of the disease. Following this discovery, Reilly launches in a crusade to self-fund research into the local diet, which Big Pharma forbids universities to look into so it can continue to sell billion dollars’ worth of drugs that don’t stop the disease.

Finally, Reilly meets Dr Miles Fielding from Unnamed University, a ‘specialist in neuro chemistry and brain function’ whose name returns zero results in Google Scholar for papers in this field, and after much experimentation the pair develops a 21 day diet that not only stops the advance of the disease in Martin’s wife Sandra, but reverts it completely. Now Reilly is willing to share these secrets with us in a package that – and this is by far my favourite part – does not cost $997.

It costs less than that. As a matter of fact, Reilly would not even bother to sell his memory protocol, if not to pay for the cost of running the website, and to deflect the repeated but always unspecified attempts by Big Pharma to silence him.

If you try to purchase the Memory Repair Protocol in book form through Amazon, it lists as the author not Martin Reilly but one Brian Wilds, whose current catalogue includes Lost Ways: Spy Secrets that Can Save your Life, and whose past catalogue boasts such titles as Flat Belly Overnight and Lean Belly Breatkthrough. While if you keep looking for reviews of the product you'll stumble upon a Diabetes Loophole package which is nearly identical in design to the Memory Repair Protocol, and is identically advertised, making similar quasi-scientific claims, retailing for the same price through the same secure banking platform, and hawked by its own stock silver-haired guy.

'Reed Wilson'

This information may be enough to stop you in your tracks, instead of spending less-than-$997 on a recipe book of dubious value, but then it depends on just who you are. You may in fact be vulnerable, or desperate, or grieving for a loved one who is still alive but doesn’t know your face. It’s a common enough condition, even among people who possess otherwise sufficient literacy to disbelieve and disprove the claims of the Memory Repair Protocol. And for all of these people, there is little protection, or hope of redress beyond the 60 day money back guarantee, which hardly makes up for the pain of being duped on top of the misery of living with a cruel and incurable disease.