Three years after co-founding Fitocracy, we launched a new online coaching service to start bringing in money. We needed a way to hook people in, but no one seemed interested.
Illustration: Sam Woolley
It didn't make sense. The sales email I was sending technically ticked all the right boxes: it was well-positioned, engaging and clearly priced -- the exact formula I had been taught in Wharton Marketing 101.
In my desperation, I confided in my mentor, a well-respected fitness expert who I had been following for years.
"Well, let me take a look at the email you're sending to your users," he offered. I forwarded -- what I then thought -- was a good sales email. I would soon learn that it wasn't.
"This is horrible," he said, sending my ego (and the mental image of our bottom line) tumbling. "There's no deadline for the user to purchase. Limit the group to 10 spots left and say that it ends in 24 hours. Oh, also qualify everyone by saying that you're only looking for people who want serious results."
His instructions seemed arbitrary and unnecessary. Surely nobody would be gullible enough to be lured by a false impression of scarcity. But I did what I was told, tweaking the email to talk about the group's "limited" nature. I fired them off into the ether, not particularly convinced that anything would improve.
I was wrong. Within ten minutes of sending the new email, there was a sale. Then another. A cascade of registrations flooded in. We eventually had to turn down clients and started a waiting list. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy; by faking scarcity, we had actually created it. A simple tweet-sized change was enough to resurrect our marketing efforts.
Then it hit me: this person wasn't just a fitness expert... he was also a marketing expert. I had been reading his emails and blog posts for about a year now, and while much of his writing added value to my life, every piece of content was an intentional, well-crafted advertisement.
The more time I've spent in the fitness industry, the more I've learned how much marketing can make a difference. But there's a fine a line between marketing yourself -- a necessity if you want to make it in the industry -- and becoming a dishonest con man. Unfortunately fitness is one industry where it's easier to make it as the latter.
In Fitness, Marketing Is Everything
Marketing in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad thing. Everyone in the fitness industry -- or any industry -- who's trying to make a living for themselves knows that they need marketing to survive. Myself included. The alternative is to find a nine-to-five job, or worse: work for a corporate gym and get stuck racking the weights of some tanned jerk who only comes in to get a pump before heading out to the club for Jaeger bombs.
Unfortunately, marketing is everything for those out to make a name for themselves. Those who actually change lives through evidence-based methods (like Alan Aragon) will always get trumped by the likes of marketers without a conscience, like Vani Hari, aka the Food Babe.
But this is the nature of the industry. Expertise and experience are by no means correlated with success. To the unsuspecting mainstream, there's an inherent assumption that popularity stems from one's knowledge and experience. That assumption is completely wrong.
One thing I learned about the industry is that experts -- actual experts -- are known to argue about everything and rarely come to a consensus. In fact, the only unanimous consensus among them is that celebrity personalities like Dr Oz, Tracy Anderson and Food Babe are full of shit.
If you hear about a person or a product, it wasn't necessarily because their methods work. It's because they marketed their arse off. Those who rise to the top are simply those who are the best at selling their "wisdom," even if it's completely wrong. Elite fitness money makers know that getting your attention is all that matters, and they will go great lengths to build their businesses around capturing it.
For example, I spent some time talking shop with the creator of Force Factor™, one of the most successful supplements in history. To be clear, I don't have strong opinions either way on the product's efficacy (these guys do however), but it's worth noting how it's marketed.
Most companies would employ run-of-the-mill SEO consultants or a social media manager barely out of university. Instead, Force Factor's parent company hires the smartest minds from Harvard and MIT in order to groom them into engineers, marketers and data scientists. In fact, you've probably seen their ads before. That's because there is a building full of would-be bankers, Google, and Facebook employees, working towards one mission: getting you to click on an ad, open your wallet, and type in your credit card information.
But lying to make a quick buck is neither new nor particular to fitness. In fact, research shows that "snake oil salesmen" have been around since homo sapiens discovered snakes. [Citation needed.] The difference in the fitness world is that the gullible pay with their wallet and their health. Falling for baseless recommendations for the umpteenth time will inevitably take a mental toll, especially if they're from America's favourite doctor.
In other industries, the potential irreparable damage to one's reputation might deter would-be snake oil salesmen. But not in fitness, where performers of these charades are rewarded by becoming revered gurus in their field. Never trust a salesman without doing your due diligence. Some will do anything for a quick buck. They may be handsomely rewarded for it too.
Don't Trust Your Eyes
One of the most common marketing scams is the before-and-after transformation picture. If you've never seen one, here are the Cliffs Notes: some average Joe or Jane out there buys a book, supplement, or uses some groundbreaking method (that trainers don't want you to know about, undoubtedly), only to come out looking like the Incredible Hulk. Put those pictures side-by-side and you can't deny the results... right?
In reality, creating that six pack is ironically unsexy. In my decade going from obese teenager to fitness geek, I've learnt that the recipe is simple, but boring: build more muscle through resistance training, reduce your body fat through diet and exercise, and avoid magic tricks while learning everything you can from reliable sources.
This may take years, or even decades. After the first two years of beginner progress you'll be capped at five pounds (2.3kg) of lean muscle per year, eventually dwindling down to an annual two pounds (907g) of muscle building shortly after. But this process is not marketable, so the scam artists turned to a different formula:
- Create a "groundbreaking, revolutionary" new product.
- Find a spokesperson that's already in great shape to promote it and claim that it was the product's doing.
If you have any doubt that these models did not get their muscularly sculpted hairless physiques using a Bowflex and its patented Power Something Technology, then Google "Bowflex casting" and you'll find talent agencies looking for ultra-lean gym rats with coloured contact lenses to hock this soon-to-be coat rack for three easy payments of way too much money.
But this still doesn't explain those great side-by-side transformation photos, like the ones you see in Hydroxycut's "Pro Clinical" weight loss supplement. At first glance, Hydroxycut looks like quite the panacea for fat loss. The spokesperson starts out bloated and soft, only to become "ripped" and muscular, presumably as a result of the pills. But in reality, this spokesperson is using a bodybuilding trick that the average Joe's doesn't know about.
In bodybuilding, there's a concept called the "cutting and bulking" cycle. As explained by a bodybuilder friend of mine here:
Judging by the amount of mass that he has, the spokesperson is clearly a bodybuilder. In the first picture, he's at the end of his "bulk" (a weight gaining phase focusing on building muscle). The second picture is him on a cutting phase (weight loss phase focusing on losing fat). Bodybuilders do this all the time, and while most people think this picture looks miraculous, it's quite typical...nothing to see here.
What most people don't know is that the physiques who grace the front of a fitness magazine don't remain that way year-round. They don't even look like that for very long, because they probably went through a series of water-manipulating techniques to create that peak, yet short-lived, physique for the photo shoot. In fact, many bodybuilders go through extreme physical changes fairly regularly.
As an extreme example, here is professional bodybuilder Lee Priest at the end of a bulking phase and here he close to the end of his cutting phase. The highs and lows of these cycles create the perfect opportunity for "transformation" pictures, a fact that marketers are keenly aware of.
Hydroxycut might work to some degree (if you're willing to put up with the health risks that accompany many supplements), but that's irrelevant. It doesn't work to the degree that the pictures convey, unless of course you're a trained bodybuilder who is highly skilled at cycling between muscle gain and fat loss phases.
But in the grand scheme of things, profiting from consumers' unfamiliarity with bodybuilding is relatively innocent compared to another prevalent marketing tactic: steroids.
In the industry, if your job is to look "ripped", it's common to take steroids. But taking steroids for a bodybuilding contest is very different than taking it for the Tour de France. In fact, unless a bodybuilding contest is designated "natural" (which no one watches anyway), it's not cheating; it's expected. Professional bodybuilders submerge themselves in chemicals like a fish in water... many taking upwards of one gram of testosterone every week. (For context, the average male produces about three to seven milligrams per day.)
Legality aside, I see nothing wrong with others using steroids to further their physique. Just like smoking or drinking, they should have the freedom to take that health risk. Hell, I have many friends that are drug-assisted, and these substances actually allow them to work harder.
But the problem is that in fitness, steroids aren't just used for personal reasons or bodybuilding shows. They're used to lie to the unsuspecting mainstream.
Industry insiders sometimes play a game called "natty or not?" where they try to identify whether someone's physique was natural or boosted by the good ol' "Vitamin S". Do you know why the game exists? It's because many who benefit from chemical assistance are discreet about it.
Their secrecy is no accident. They are discreet because they then go on to promote a product. Perhaps it's a new discovery that "trainers don't want you to know about," or "one weird trick that raises testosterone by 500%" all the while neglecting to inform gullible consumers about their testosterone, Winstrol, and Trenbolone injections. After all, if seasoned vets can't determine whether or not their physique is a byproduct of Vitamin S, how can Average Joe?
I have no exact figures on how often this bait-and-switch occurs, as there have obviously never been any studies done. But according to friends involved with companies selling many of the products you have come across, the "after" pictures are very often a result of Vitamin S flowing through someone's veins.
The takeaway: Always look at transformations with scepticism. Hell, if I could create my own fake transformation using pictures taken only five seconds apart by manipulating nothing more than posture and flexing, imagine what someone else could do with lot more time, effort and -- most importantly -- lots and lots of drugs.
Science Isn't Always What It Seems
At this point, I may have inadvertently likened consumers to gullible sheep -- addicted to purchasing the fitness industry's empty promises. But I don't actually fault them. They're simply the product of a broken industry.
In fact, by mid-October 2012, some consumers began to wisen up.
Communities like Reddit's /r/fitness began to scrutinise and refute a lot of industry garbage through the use of science. Prominent sites like Examine.com (which sprung out of Reddit) were launched to debunk the claims of many useless supplements, such as the Dr Oz-recommended raspberry ketones, by vetting them against a large body of scientific research.
It was the first time that the science of health and fitness was this easily consumable by normal people. To some, this science was an incredibly powerful -- almost magical -- tool. It was evidence-based and objective, innocent and pure, only existing to inform and help you improve. After all, how could science be anything else? Facts are facts.
But much like the battle between virus makers and their anti-virus nemeses, marketers looking to make a quick buck quickly caught up.
I first noticed a new type of "science-based marketing" after purchasing the diet book Carb Backloading by D.H. Kiefer. Carb backloading had a compelling premise: by following a simple set of rules (based on science, of course) you can lose weight by "starving your fat cells" and enjoying your favourite foods. Cherry turnovers? Ice cream? Fries? Fuck yeah. You'd be an idiot to not want that.
Each chapter read like a science textbook of sorts, containing recommendations backed by an impressive volume of references, rivalling the National Archives in length. These references were hidde... errr... neatly filed away at the end. (As to not interrupt the reader's experience, of course.)
Nonetheless, Kiefer was one of the first to utilise a powerful marketing blueprint: create a product, make scientific claims, and inundate the consumer with more research than they can handle. (You can't argue with science. What are you, an anti-vaxxer?) In Kiefer's case, this method was rewarded. A close source told me that the book netted somewhere in the six figures. For a fitness ebook, this was a resounding success.
While Kiefer may have been one of the first to own the manipulation of science as a marketing tool, he stopped short of creating a cultural phenomenon, such as putting butter in your coffee.
In December 2010, Dave Asprey, better known as "The Bulletproof Executive," started following me on Twitter. He had a total of 15 followers, and I had never heard of him before. Today he is one of the fastest rising names in the fitness industry, creating a cultural phenomenon around putting butter in your coffee and amassing a loyal following that listens to his every word. In fact, he just launched FATwater™, backed by the the Venture Capital firm Trinity Ventures.
While Asprey's products are based on lies, his story is compelling. He purportedly losing 45kg without exercise and raising his IQ by 15 points, all because he spent $US300,000 to hack his own biology and placed himself at the forefront of biohacking "research". But don't just take his word for it. His site is littered with testimonials of people who have found similar success using his methods.
So what's the secret behind these methods? For that, I turned to Armi Legge, founder of EvidenceMag, and a rockstar in the (legitimate) evidence-based fitness world.
Armi is an interesting guy. At only 20 years old, he's one of the de facto good guys in the industry, possessing the conscience of a Care Bear and the manners of a boy scout. Imagine my surprise when I found out that he was once Asprey's right-hand research guy -- research that turned out to be a sham:
I helped launch many of the products that Dave sold. One such product was Bulletproof Whey. After the marketing page went up, Dave was concerned that it didn't sound "scientific enough," so he tasked me with finding research to support one of the compounds.
After informing Dave that there were no studies that supported his claims, he responded "Just go on PubMed and find something with the compound in the title. It doesn't have to be related to our claim...No one's going to read the study anyway."
The Bulletproof Executive was truly obsessed with science, not for the purpose of knowledge, but because he knew that science was a powerful sales tool. In another example from Armi, he was named "chief researcher" for Asprey's "The Better Baby" book. Here is the alleged conversation that took place:
Armi: I'm happy to do the research, but it's going to take forever to find good research on the topic.
Dave: You don't have to take too much time. Just make sure you find 10-15 studies per chapter that "look" like they should be in there.
For Armi, this was the last straw. In fact, he chose not to fully complete this task. I suspect it's because giving baby recommendations based on bullshit can have some bad side effects, such as... you know... death. But Armi didn't need to fill in all of the research, because Dave did that for him. When Armi took a look at some of the materials, he found "reference" links to "random alternative bullshit health sites" with zero research. Armi can't remember the exact names, but they were something along the lines of "makeyourbabybetter.com".
As for the testimonials:
For every good "testimonial" that came in, there were many more that said that these methods did nothing for them. I was told to ignore these people. Once, Dave had to troubleshoot someone who wasn't losing weight and told them that they probably weren't eating enough butter.
Eat more butter to lose weight, you say? If you haven't figured it out by now, the whole butter-for-weight-loss recommendation is about as real as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. To be clear there's nothing inherently bad about butter... but simply consuming it won't make you lose weight. For safe measure, Alan Aragon, the actual evidence-based researcher mentioned earlier, explains it anyway:
Eating more butter as a solution to weight loss is as dumb as stabbing yourself in the neck as a solution to bleeding less. It simply makes no sense. There is nothing inherently fat-burning about any particular food, especially not butter, which is much more easily stored as fat than, say, a protein-dominant food or even most carbohydrate foods, and a wide range of foods that are not as energy-dense. Compared to other foods, butter isn't particularly satiating, either. There's certainly no shortage of individuals who are obese that consume butter daily.
As for the legitimacy of Asprey's own transformation, you can decide for yourself. It's worth noting that Asprey has (openly) been receiving testosterone injections for about a decade, which he claims is simply "replacement therapy" to normalise his levels. But then again Asprey makes a lot of claims.
How to Identify Snake Oil Salesmen
The good news is that just being aware of what goes on in the industry will make you think more critically. Still, how do you distinguish between an Examine.com and a Bulletproof Executive when both are claiming science is on their side?
1. Ask yourself "Is this person trying to sell me something?"
If the answer is no, you probably have less to worry about, but you should "follow the money".
For example, Examine.com doesn't sell any of the products it reviews. Its main business model is in selling an evidence-based digest to health professionals. Using this model, Examine probably only succeeds when it provides objective quality evidence.
On the other hand, while Dr Oz doesn't directly sell the products he promotes, he makes money on viewership. He has incentive to promote products with enthusiasm and excite people by magic pills. He also has to come up with new content for every episode. A quick search on some of the products he promotes shows that they don't work.
If the answer is "yes, this person is trying to sell me something," it doesn't automatically mean that they're fraudulent, but be sceptical. Take a look at the evidence used to promote the product. Never trust the salesman and keep in mind the tactics discussed earlier: transformation pictures are easily doctored, only "good" testimonials are shown, and even science can be manipulated.
2. Ask if the Seller Cares About Your Long-Term Results
Consider your goals against the incentives of the salesperson. For example, gyms make the most money when you buy a long-term membership and then never return (which is actually how most gym models operate). Similarly, fitness products on late night infomercials want you to buy their product, but they have absolutely no incentive to see you succeed in the long run.
If there's a misalignment of incentives, do your homework. Make sure that any review is from a third party website, and not directly from the source. If a testimonial seems too good to be true, it probably is.
3. Build a List of Trusted Sources
Once a source -- an online resource, an "expert" and so on -- demonstrates trustworthiness time and time again, add it to your list of vetted sources. This method isn't always bulletproof (then again, you'll want to avoid any methods branded as "bulletproof"), since you could misidentify a source or the source might build a reputation only to "sell out." But in a world of endless information, you have to trust something. Continuously refine your list, adding the ones that prove themselves and throwing out the ones that lose their credibility.
The health and fitness industry will treat you like it's your first time at the Cheers bar -- Dr Oz recommending the best drinks, Food Babe warning you that the special tastes funny, Asprey telling you that you won't absorb calories from beer if you eat the wings at the same time, and everyone else eager to learn your name. Take it at face value, and you'll end up mysteriously missing your wallet. The worst part is that you'll still want to come back and hang with your new "friends." (I mean they were just so damn nice to you!)
Instead, treat the industry like you're walking alone at night in a dangerous neighbourhood. Stay cautious, avoid sketchy-looking alleys, and only walk along brightly-lit areas.
Lastly, I'll leave you with this: Use common sense. You may laugh, but in fitness, this is harder than it sounds; your brain will constantly try to convince you that there's "one magic pill" still out there.
When this happens, catch yourself. You have more common sense than you think, because sometimes common sense is as easy as realising that someone's weight loss advice is to eat more butter.