Old-Time Sales Tricks on the Net

Should a popular alternative-doctor's Web site be allowed to blur the lines between business and medicine?

Sometimes even if you don't like an entrepreneur's business style, you have to give credit to his ability to promote and sell. So it is with Joseph Mercola, a Chicago-area osteopath (a type of physician, who tends to be holistically oriented). He is one of a fast-growing number of alternative-health practitioners who seek to capitalize on concerns about the conventional health care system -- in his case relying on slick promotion, clever use of information, and scare tactics (see BW Online, 05/29/06, "Medical Guesswork").

I came across Dr. Mercola's Web site (mercola.com) while doing a Google search on raw milk -- milk that is unpasteurized and is considered by many health-care practitioners to be healthier than the pasteurized stuff. What struck me wasn't his claim that pasteurization destroys many important nutrients in milk -- many alternative-care practitioners say that -- but his requirement that I supply my e-mail address before he would send me a link to view his article.

I quickly discovered that Dr. Mercola gives the lie to the notion that holistic practitioners tend to be so absorbed in treating patients that they aren't effective businesspeople. While Mercola on his site seeks to identify with this image by distinguishing himself from "all the greed-motivated hype out there in health-care land," he is a master promoter, using every trick of traditional and Internet direct marketing to grow his business.


  He claims to have the most popular alternative-health Web site on the Internet, pointing to rankings by the traffic-ranking site alexa.com showing his Web site is the top-ranked site in natural health (ahead of drweil.com, the second-ranked) and as the No. 4 medical site overall (behind the National Institutes of Health, WebMD, and MedicineNet -- and ahead of Drugs.com, eMedicine, the American Medical Association, and the New England Journal of Medicine).

His site sells books, how-to guides, protein powders, juicers, coconut oil, and nutritional supplements and, according to an article in a Chicago paper last year, employs 45 employees and freelancers. And, oh yes, he sees patients. (Both Dr. Mercola and the top executive of his Web site declined to be interviewed for this article.)

How does his site attract customers? Here are his key techniques:

1. Use promises of "free" to sell costly stuff.

I was especially intrigued with the box on Mercola's home page which promises, "Discover Your 'Metabolic Type' Instantly -- FREE For a Limited Time." To actually take the test, I had to provide my e-mail address (again) and then answer nine questions about my dietary preferences. (For example, "Do you constantly think about food and frequently look forward with eager anticipation to your next meal or what you want to eat?")

The site promises results after answering the nine questions, but all I received were two e-mails -- the first of which said that the abbreviated test I took "is NOT intended to be a reliable indicator of your actual (metabolic) type," and the second of which offered me the opportunity to take the "full-length online metabolic-type assessment for just $59.95. ..."

2. Add in all kinds of "bonuses."

In an effort to keep you reading, and increase the odds of selling, a skilled direct marketer tacks on giveaway items to the main offer. When I read on in Mercola's four-page second newsletter, I learned that if I bought the $59.95 version of the metabolic assessment, I'd also be entitled to "two incredible LIMITED-TIME ONLY bonus offers (valued over $95!)." These included a 15-hour audio program and three months' access to "metabolic-type forums."

3. Use real news to sell more products.

Blogs have emerged as devices for individuals and corporations to engage customers and other constituents, but Mercola takes his blog to another level for pure selling. For example, in a news item reporting on Bausch & Lomb (BOL) recalling a contact lens cleaner, he concludes with "one more reminder" that readers can "correct your vision safely without the use of glasses" and links to a six-CD how-to package for $397 (including "3 FREE Limited-Time Bonuses").

Another blog item about research on controlling and remembering dreams leads eventually to an alarm clock ($79.95) and remote controller (for the clock, $39.95) that Mercola sells.

4. Don't be afraid to use scare tactics.

A professional direct marketer knows how to tap into people's fears, and in the health-care arena that isn't difficult to do. Mercola does it smoothly and repeatedly. On his home page you can "Discover the forbidden oil you should be cooking with" (it's coconut oil at $65.45 a gallon) and "the mercury magnet that can remove dangerous toxins" (it's "wonder food" chlorella at $19.50, plus shipping, for 180 capsules).

A recent Mercola.com newsletter even includes an article, "How to Protect Yourself from Self-Help Scams" (along with an offer to practitioners to sign up for a "FREE teleclinic").

If the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) were helping me write this article, it might have added a fifth technique to my list: Exaggerate claims about your products. The FDA in early 2005 sent Dr. Mercola a "warning letter" because of claims that three products, including the coconut oil and chlorella, would combat diseases like cancer and heart disease.

The letter is posted on the FDA's Web site, and you can read it there. "Your products are not generally recognized as safe and effective for" such conditions, the FDA letter stated. It appears that Dr. Mercola has since removed the claims from the site.

I don't mean to suggest in any of the preceding that Dr. Mercola is dishonest or insincere, nor that the products he recommends are of poor quality. To his credit, his site offers a complete explanation of his own practitioner fees at his clinic in Schaumberg, Ill. Indeed, his marketing techniques wouldn't be especially noteworthy if Dr. Mercola were selling furniture or digital cameras or any of hundreds of other things that are sold over the Internet because, after all, such direct-marketing techniques are the norm in our consumer world.


  Unfortunately, Dr. Mercola isn't selling furniture or digital cameras. He is selling health-care products and services, and is calling upon an unfortunate tradition made famous by the old-time snake oil salesmen of the 1800s, who went from town to town around the U.S. promising miraculous cures for diseases and selling useless concoctions.

Certainly it's difficult to argue with success. After all, what's so bad about Dr. Mercola's approach successfully attracting much Web-site traffic and making him lots of money? My response is that if he really wants, as stated on his Web site, "to make you as healthy as you can possibly be," then he would demonstrate more respect for both site visitors and for the products and services he sells.

If they are as helpful as he believes, and if so much of conventional care is as inappropriate as he argues, then he'd dispense with the high-pressure "buy-one-get-one-free" marketing techniques that degrade everything he does (see BW Online, 03/28/06, "Dr. Weil, Heal Thyself").