Patent Medicine as Political Metaphor

WarnersSafeDiabeticCure Not an insulin bottle: H. H. Warners “Safe” Diabetes Cure (photos from Warner’s Safe Cure Blog)

In Friday’s post (about Charles Antell’s Formula No. 9) I took an off-topic political swipe at “today’s neo-Reagan Republicans.

Formula No. 9’s truth-in-advertising problem (there were claims made about curing hair loss) goes back to patent medicine and the laws, enacted to prevent fraudulent product claims. Not that these laws completely ended deceptive marketing. Nowadays, instead of saying “A sure remedy for diabetes” a company today might say something like, “Emerging science suggests…”

What prompted my parenthetical politics on Friday, was the apparent unanimity among current Republicans hopefuls that any governmental intervention in business affairs is bad for business, bad for jobs, un-American etc. Following the GOP’s current economic tenents to their logical conclusion, we would need to repeal the Pure Food and Drug Act and embrace the sale of rancid meat and patent medicines. Surely even die-hard conservatives would have to agree that those governmental regulations (brought about by Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt) were a good thing… right?

Wrong. By today’s political calculous Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican in name only. Maybe there’s some revisionist history at work here, in which we would all have been better off if patent medicines had never been regulated. Glenn Beck seems to swing that way.

But in the broader cultural sense, both political parties seem to understand that patent medicine was a harmful fraud, because both sides use it as a metaphor to criticize each other.

Roosevelt, himself, used it when he complained in 1898 about how McKinley’s campaign manager, “advertised McKinley as if he were a patent medicine.”

More recently the metaphor has coalesced around the economy…

Political illusions—the blue smoke and mirrors that have accompanied Reaganomics, for instance—are maintained only by hope. It’s the same sort of hope that benefits salesmen of snake oil and patent medicine; people ache so badly for relief that they suspend cynicism and mistrust.

An Honest Man, 1981, The Harvard Crimson


“The low-growth years of the past two decades have produced an intense, fascinating debate between economists of rival ideologies. Sadly, they have also produced the policy entrepreneur—the economic snake-oil salesman who offers easy anwers to hard problems.”

“The fault line between serious economic thinking and economic patent medicine, between the professors and the policy entrepreneurs, is at least as important as the divide between left and right.”

Paul Krugman, 1994
Peddling Prosperity:
Economic Sense and Nonsense in an Age of Diminished Expectations


The Great Tax Cut Delusion and its false promise of a free lunch for the American people must be cast aside as a patent medicine dangerous for the nation’s health. If not, we risk speeding rapidly toward a second tier economy and a vanishing middle class.

Walter Williams and Bryan D. Jones, 2008, SeattlePi
False promise of free lunch
Bush policies put U.S. on road to second-tier economy and vanishing middle class


Unfortunately for America, we bought “Mr. O’s Special Blend of Snake Oil Hope & Changery,” and now we’re broke and worse off than we were before.

Obama the Snake Oil Salesman
The Conservative Brawler, 2009


Thank you for acknowledging that Republican medicine has earned a Patent. While the drug that Democrats are pushing is experimental. Still not ready for use on rats, but Democrats are taking a short cut. Injecting it directly into humans. Risky at best. Deadly?

A pro-Republican comment about Jay Bookman’s anti-republican blog post in 2009: GOP still peddling its patent medicine


Last night, watching President Barack Hussein Obama’s press conference, I felt thrust back in time to the con men of the medicine shows. Obama is more polished than the quacks of old, but he’s just another snake oil salesman.

The Great Obama Traveling Patent Medicine Show
Robert J. Avrech, 2009


The latest term of political art is an old-fashioned insult: Snake oil.

President Obama used the phrase twice yesterday to describe Republican economic policies, saying the GOP would wreck the economy (again) if it re-takes control of Congress.

The Republicans "are clinging to the same worn-out, tired, snake oil ideas that they were peddling before," Obama said in Los Angeles…

Of course, the definition of snake oil is in the eye of the political peddler.

Republicans say the term applies to Obama policies — the stimulus bill, health care, new business regulations — that they say have failed.

Obama, Republicans offer different definitions of ‘snake oil’
USA Today, 2010


The GOP’s prescription for our economic woes is like one of those old bottles of patent medicine you see in museums — dusty, completely ineffective, peddled by hucksters, and probably containing something that will make you even sicker. Nevertheless, this morning’s very dismal jobs report has the GOP reaching for some of that old-time medicine yet again.

The GOP’s Bad Medicine, 2011,


Here at home, the GOP is pushing austerity politics like patent medicine, but far too many Democrats — including the White House — are also buying in…

Bruce Schmiechen, 2011
The Austerity Agenda: Governments creating even greater disaster

(Some political cartoons, after the fold…)

Obama-SnakeOilBottles Cartoons portraying President Obama as “snake oil" salesman: on left by Eric Allie; on right by Brian Farrington

There are a multitude of cartoons dipicting President Obama as a “snake oil" salesman, and President George W. Bush has also been portrayed this way…

Bush-SnakeOilBottlesCartoons portraying President Bush as “snake oil” salesman: top by Ben Sargent; bottom by John Sherffius

In Bush’s case, however, he had to distance himself from associations with patent medicine…

George W. Bush and the Florida Republican Party decided Friday to return thousands of dollars in donations to a contributor with a troubled record of selling “alternative” medicines, including hair loss tonics… A. Glenn Braswell has made millions selling products making claims such as removing cellulite and curing baldness. He has also served federal sentences for mail fraud and perjury. Braswell, 57, gave $25,000 to George W. Bush's 1998 Texas gubernatorial campaign.

Bush Reprimands Snake Oil Salesman, 1998

(See also: Presidential Packaging as Op Art)

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design


  1. says

    I don’t think that many neo-Reaganite Republicans would deny that _some_ folk may make oodles and gobs of money and employ lots of people in spite of high taxes and regulations. Instead, such Republicans and other opponents of high taxes and regulations would typically argue (as did the Kennedy Administration with respect to the tax side of things) that significantly _fewer_ would do so.
    (They might also note, en passant, that regulations don’t seem to function as advertised when bogus baldness cures are being sold. Some of them might be willing to explain how they can actually back-fire.)

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