Are you kidding me?


There are many ways to make a difference in other people’s life. Using lies or the snake oil stratagem isn’t the best strategy.

A man was standing in front of a large map on the wall. Scratching his head, while holding a piece of paper. People were coming his way. Spotting one person, he simply raised his free hand and asked “S’cuse me sir. I’m looking for the Mulberry station. Can you help me?” I was the sir. Listening to his story, it didn’t take long for some bits of it to sound awkward and for the whole thing to fall apart. As it turned out, he wasn’t looking to get to Mulberry station. He was simply looking for some money to buy himself a meal. In less than five minutes he had been able to get my attention, stir a genuine desire to help, trigger some doubts about his real intentions and get my inner voice to say out loud “Are you kidding me?

It didn’t feel good. Having been mislead like that.


Thinking back about this event, it’s easy to say “Next time, people like him won’t get me” or become cynical about anyone asking for help in public. Yet, there were no apparent signs that I was in for being tricked. The man was relatively well dressed, spoke softly and wasn’t pushy at all in his approach. The way he played me was simply by using a tactic that, both, big and small companies have been using way before he stood in front of that large map that day: making a false claim.

In recent memory, Volkswagen and Lumosity (among others) have been accused of false (advertising) claims. [1, 2] This isn’t a new fad or trend. Or something that can be witnessed only in the automotive and software industries. In fact, to “make statements that are incorrect or likely to create a false impression” [3] was a key strategy that any snake oil salesman would use back in the 19th century, while trying to make a living.

The sales techniques, set of arguments and number of channels available to spread a message might have changed over time. The end-result of a false claim, though, hasn’t. Someone still gets fooled to someone else’s own profit.


A set of reasons for acting like a snake oil salesman seems to have remained the same as well: wanting to be liked (or loved) by others, wanting to make a living, and believing that who we are and what we have to offer isn’t good enough for others. Either to earn their attention, time, trust, affection (love), loyalty or money.

As a car manufacturer, for instance, to earn “environment conscious” car drivers’ monthly payments. (Volkswagen) As a software maker to deserve the trust of people “seeking a way to delay any loss of brain functions or cognitive impairment due to their age”. (Lumosity)

The snake oil stratagem is used by some employers these days as well. So they can attract and secure the working hours of job candidates. Not sure? How many times have you experienced or heard someone say “I was told something during the hiring process… but the reality is (somewhat, very or completely) different.”

Not believing they can earn a client’s money or a potential employee’s trust pushes some companies to start using malpractices… and eventually lie about the truth to others.

Each time ending up deceiving the people they sold the lie to. People who were looking for a genuine solution to their initial problem… but now find themselves with a problem that still needs to be fixed. Atop of a broken trust to repair and possibly a thinner wallet.


As for Mister “Mulberry station”, you have to somehow admire his cleverness. At least for having thought of looking around for the most practical way to get someone’s attention, time and money. Instead of settling in doing like many others: putting a hand forward and asking for spare change.

For sure the tactic he ended up choosing wasn’t the most honest or even the best in terms of outcomes. Because, as I watched him from afar, after I left, he ended up with the same results as with me; first, surprise and disbelief from the person he asked help to, then, rejection and an empty hand.

Now, imagined if instead of using his cleverness to trick people he’d used it to help them. Putting in a lot of honesty and a bit of boldness into it. “Hello sir/mam. My name is ______. I’m a ______ by trade and actively looking for a way to help people. What problem can I help you with these days?” How much of a difference would have it made? Not only in other people’s life but in his own and his pocket as well?


When a false claim is uncovered, it doesn’t only hurt that person’s or company’s reputation and finances that one day. It’s something that has an impact on the future as well. Because those that fooled you will have to put in more efforts than their competitors. So they can prove to you that they are now more trustworthy than the people or companies that didn’t fool you in the past.

Some people and companies never get to survive long enough for being granted a “Second chance”. Will Volkswagen and Lumosity? Time will tell.


There are many ways possible to make a difference in other people’s life or ask for help. Lying about your real intention or using the snake oil stratagem isn’t the best one. Being honest and bold, on the other hand, can have a huge impact. First, in building what Volkswagen (among others) wishes it had never lost from its customers: trust.

When was the last time you felt a modern snake oil salesman attempted to or fooled you?

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Photo credits: Ian Andrew