Of Scams, Skeptics, and Big Lies to Swallow

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“Are you kidding?” he asked. “We reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.” – from the New York Times article “In America; Tobacco Dollars”, by Bob Herbert

“There’s a sucker born every minute.”

I first heard it from my Principles of PR professor in college, Ludmila Labagnoy: she said it was from one of the founders of traveling circus Barnum & Bailey, P.T. Barnum (although some contest that attribution.)

Back then, I wasn’t a big fan of Public Relations as a career: I was young and wanted to become a famous writer (I still do, by the way.) The quote though stuck to me ever since, and it echoed clearly in my mind as I walked away one night from a business meeting, shaking my head in dismay.

It started when an acquaintance messaged me over Facebook, saying that he had a business proposition in mind which he thought I’d be interested in. While I’m a big skeptic and I take a lot of things with a grain of salt, I resolved to let my curiosity take over and requested for more information. He couldn’t share it to me over email, he said — would I mind if he scheduled a meeting with one of his friends? I said I didn’t, so he arranged a meeting with his associate one weeknight so they could discuss the offer to me.

My suspicion was confirmed the moment his friend whipped out his iPad and presented to me the plan: it was a multilevel marketing scheme for a health & beauty brand. He showed numerous features in different newspapers and magazines, as well as their offices in Quezon City, Singapore, and Dubai. As a final flourish, he let me see photos of his mom in New York: the glittering American dream come true, thanks to the money he earned from their business.

Come decision time, he asked if I had questions. I told him that recent studies have surfaced discrediting the effectiveness of nutritional supplements, even causing harm to the pill-popping population. (I quote the Atlantic article: “[A] review of all existing studies involving more than 230,000 people who did or did not receive supplemental antioxidants found that vitamins increased the risk of cancer and heart disease.”)

But the story doesn’t end there, sadly (or funnily — depending on how you see it.) After my little speech, the guy was still bent on getting me on board, even saying,

“Well you don’t have to drink it: maybe you could refer people who’d be interested in selling this product?”

I can’t even begin to describe how I was absolutely floored by that statement.

I find it difficult to demonize people who have made great mistakes because they believed in what they did: a strong delusion can lead a lot of us to commit dumb things with firm conviction.  But to do stupid things knowing full well that you intend to delude others?

I can’t help but lose my hope in humanity, at times.

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