The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Time as an Alt-Med Salesman

I moved to Santa Barbara in the spring of 2002 in order to attend graduate school at UC Santa Barbara. I had a severance package from my previous job, and anticipated having to take some loans, but I needed more money to fund grad school. Had I been a PhD student, I could have counted on Teaching Assistantships and Research Assistanceships to cover my bills, but as a Masters student, I had no such luck (I did eventually become a TA, thankfully, but that is another rather bizarre story). So, I needed to find a job.

I did the usual, canvassed places putting in resumes, signed up with temp agencies, and put my resume up on every job search website I could find. Eventually, I was asked to interview for a store manager position at a company called L'Occitane. L'Occitane, for those who don't know, is a company that markets rather expensive soaps, incense, and pretty much everything else to make your home smell like a perfume factory exploded.

They also sold various aromatherapy supplies, making me a small cog in the machine that is the alt-med industry.

I got the job, though I was made the assistant manager rather than manager due to my grad school requirements, and went through a rather surreal three months (at which time I left due to what could euphemistically be referred to as "ethical differences" - I didn't think people should be screwed over, my bosses disagreed). I immediately began reading up on the products that the company sold. Most of what I read was the companies marketing materials (after all, soap is soap and incense is incense, and if people want to spend too much on it, that's their business). However, on those products that made health claims, such as the aromatherapy products, some of the skin screams, and a few other odds and ends, I looked for information from actual doctors and researchers to see if the claims made for some of the products were actually plausible.

In the case of the moisturizing hand creams, the claims made by the company were clearly exaggerated, but at least based on reality. For the aromatherapy products...

Well, let's talk a bit about aromatherapy. It is a practice that involves using aromatic compounds from plants (primarily what are referred to as essential oils, but not limited strictly to them) in order to provide some medical effect. Usually the fumes from the oil are inhaled (hence "aromatherapy"), but they may also be applied to the skin or to an injury.

Some of these things work - chemicals within some plants will break down mucus when inhaled as fumes thus alleviating congestion, and other plant compounds contain toxins that kill bacteria and might stave off infection if applied directly to a wound, for example - but, as with so many of these types of things, most of them don't. And even with those things that do work, the claims of their efficaciousness is often terribly exaggerated. So, one is stuck in a weird position of attempting to figure out what does and what doesn't work.

L'Occitane and our regional manager did something that was both clever and weasel-like. They "suggested" that the store staff refer to medical claims - always in vague or nonsensical ways ("this oil helps to detox the liver"...yes, people who actually understand human anatomy may start screaming now), but the official marketing material touted these benefits in ways that made it sound like they were making medical claims but actually only made direct claims about subjective conditions where it could not be said whether or not the use of aromatherapy actually helped. They also relied heavily on claims about the antiquity of aromatherapy, claiming that this proved that it was effective.

Okay, a quick deal on that last point. It's basically just a variation on the Caveman Fallacy, a claim that "our ancestors did it, therefore it must be best!" In this particular case, the materials we had at the store all claimed that aromatherapy must be 100% effective in all cases because it's been used ever since the Medieval Period!

Yeah, that's right, according to L'Occitane's marketing material, we were supposed to take all aromatherapy claims seriously because they were taken seriously by people who thought that slitting open veins was a great way to cure a headache*. Ugh...

The other claims made generally referred to the improvement of mood, or concentration, or something else along those lines. They were phrased in a way as to suggest (though never outright claim) that these products would be effective in people with emotional symptoms and needing medications because of underlying medical problems. Okay, here's the deal, assuming that you are not suffering from a particularly nasty neurological disorder, the reality is that mood and concentration and the like are based largely on your state of mind. If you are actively doing something to try to improve your state of mind, then odds are you will be successful because acting with the intention is probably sufficient. So, it wasn't the essential oils or anything else that did it, it is the fact that you acted to benefit yourself emotionally. So, if you want to be aromatic plant stuff for that purpose, knock yourself out. But you don't have to spend money if you don't want to. You could do any number of things to get the same results.

We at the store were encouraged by our regional manager to say things such as "this essential oil helps to detox your body" (actually, your body removes toxins on its own through your normal respiratory and metabolic processes - if you actually need a toxin removed, you are probably lying unconscious or in pain in an ICU somewhere and not buying herbs or essential oils in a shop), or "this oil is popular in Europe" (well, so was Fascism**), or, my favorite, "this product has been proven in clinical trials" (no joke, the "clinical trials" involved a small group of women who were given free samples and asked leading questions by a company employee, these were clinical trials in precisely the same way that I am the Emperor of Spain).

So, what's an honest man to do?

Well, I did something that would have annoyed the regional manager had she ever been there to see it. People would come in, having been sent by their psychic***, and would say something like "I was told to buy lavender oil, because lavender helps you relax****"

I would respond with a simple question: "Do you like the smell of lavender?"

If they said "yes", then I would reply that lavender might help them relax and sell them what they were asking for. If they said "no" then I would say "if you don't like the smell of lavender, do you think it'll actually be relaxing to have it around? What scents do you like?" and we would begin finding something that they might actually enjoy having around (and which might, therefore, help them to relax).

And I never, NEVER claimed that the oils did anything medical or magical. When anyone would ask me about it, I would be honest and say that when I looked at the actually data, I was generally unimpressed, and that those plant compounds that are effective tend to get used by pharmaceutical companies making medications to do what the plant oils are claimed to do (yep, big pharma is perfectly happy to use natural compounds to get the desired medical - or, unfortunately, increasingly marketing - results).

The oils could be nice, they had a pleasant aroma, after all. But whenever anyone would ask me to recommend an oil for a medical condition, I always told them to talk with their doctor, as their doctor would be far more qualified to deal with medical issues than an underpaid soap shop employee.

*Amusingly, I also often meet people who are members of neo-pagan religions who claim that aromatherapy must work because of it's connection to Medieval Europe. This seems odd, as the people who they are citing as wise authorities are the same people who thought that burning non-Christians in their homes was a damn fine way to spend a Saturday night.

**Thank you, Mark Crislop

***no joke, most of the people who came in for aromatherapy products told me that they had been referred to us by a psychic, while most of the people who came in for skin scream told me that they had been sent by their plastic surgeon. Ahhh, southern California...

****Depending on which aromatherapist you ask (and I asked quite a few during this odd period in my life), you may be told that lavender helps you relax, or that it helps you to be more alert and ready to act. Two, mutually exclusive reactions, really, so which one is it?

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