This week, Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-profile lifestyle and e-commerce site, Goop, gave birth to a beautiful gift to the Internet—and it wasn’t a moon-powered vagina egg that invigorates our mystical “life force.” No, it was a perfectly crafted reference guide for how to sell snake oil.
It’s really quite impressive.
In case you’re unfamiliar—or just need an empowering refresher—Goop is a site directed mostly toward affluent women that peddles pricy products and overuses the word “empower” while dabbling in many forms of pseudoscience and quackery—everything from homeopathy to magic crystals and garden-variety dietary-supplement nonsense. Despite all logic and much hope for humankind, Goop has proven successful. With a posh, new-age vibe and Paltrow’s celeb status, it raised $15 to $20 million in venture capital last year alone. This year, the Goop group teamed with Condé Nast to begin publishing a quarterly print magazine as well as digital content. (Condé Nast also owns Ars, by the way.)
Amid the success, journalists, medical professionals, and public health experts have thrown swift, science-powered punches against this brand of high-end hocus pocus. There are blogs, news stories, and even a book titled “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?,” slamming Goop’s products and advice.
On Thursday, Goop finally struck back. In a post titled “Uncensored: A Word from Our Doctors,” the Goop team suggests that the gloves are off and it’s ready to tussle. As the Internet collectively grabbed popcorn, Paltrow herself tweeted the post, writing, “When they go low, we go high.”
But Goop didn’t go high. Going high would be providing data to back health claims and dubious products. Going high would be denouncing bad products and consulting with evidence-based doctors on effective remedies—or at least discussing potential harms of unproven ones. Even adding clear warnings on products and practices that lack evidence on effectiveness and safety would be inching upward. In general, going high would be clearly putting the health and well-being of customers ahead of profits.
Instead, the Goop team went low—basically not changing position. It defended its evidence-free and sometimes potentially harmful products while personally attacking one specific medical blogger, Dr. Jen Gunter, an Ob/Gyn who has knocked back many of Goop’s products and claims.
In doing so, Goop provided a clear how-to on peddling bogus remedies, which I will break down for you—for fun and so that future iterations can be easily spotted.
Goop’s greatest hits
But before we take a dive into how Goop makes its money, it might be useful to run through the inventory of ridiculous products and practices that the Goop brand has peddled. This way, you can have an idea of just how much legwork might be needed during a sales pitch to move these types of products.
I’ll start off with the jade egg, which is, of course, intended to empower women when inserted into the vagina. According to Goop’s “beauty guru/healer/inspiration/friend Shiva Rose” it can improve your sex life and “detox” your lady bits, among other things. It sells for a mere $55 to $66 on Goop’s site.
To be fair, some women might feel emboldened by shoving an expensive rock in there. But there is no evidence to support—or even reason to believe—the health claims. For one thing, unless your kidneys are failing or you have been poisoned, you do not need to detoxify your body. Detoxing is not a thing. Plus, as Dr. Gunter and others have pointed out, keeping a porous egg that may harbor bacteria in your vagina has the potential to spur an infection. Similarly, Goop has also recommended vaginal steam cleaning, which is unnecessary because the vagina is self-cleaning. The steaming could also encourage infections, as well as burns.
To continue solving problems that don’t exist, Goop promoted “energy healing” stickers recently. It falsely said the stickers were made of “NASA space suit material,” to which a NASA scientist remarked to Gizmodo: “Wow. What a load of BS this is.” To toss in a real and serious condition, Goop entered fear-mongering territory by suggesting that bras cause breast cancer, which is a bogus claim that has been debunked.
Diluting the scientific method: Ars looks at homeopathyThen there’s Goop’s “medicine bag” of magical crystals that harness your own inner strength and healing. I’m not sure how to debunk this exactly, besides noting that magic is not real and crystals are not an effective treatment for mental health issues.
On a related note, water is also not an effective treatment, unless you are treating dehydration. It’s a point worth noting because Goop also sells a variety of homeopathic products. Homeopathy upholds the false and dangerous belief that an ailment can be cured by extremely diluted poison that causes the same symptoms as the ailment. The doses are often so diluted that only water remains, but mistakes can turn deadly. That was the case recently for improperly diluted homeopathic teething products containing deadly nightshade. They were linked to the deaths of 10 infants and severe sickening of around 400 others. Ars covered that tragedy and has repeatedly debunked homeopathy, as have others. Yet, Goop sells a few homeopathic products, including Gelsemium sempervirens, which, for $8, is said to treat “stage fright, apprehension, and fever.”
Tragic FDA reports of sick babies reveal toll of homeopathic productsLast is Goop’s line of luxury dietary supplements and vitamins, which cost $90 for a month’s supply. This is big business. Americans spend more than $30 billion on vitamins and supplements each year—to little benefit. With some exceptions, including people with known deficiencies or who are pregnant, there’s weak evidence that taking vitamins improves the health of healthy people. And if you do need vitamins, it’s best to get them in food. Of course, the people most likely to take them—the affluent—are the least likely to need them. And many vitamins, such as vitamin C, are water soluble—you will just pee out the extra you take.
Moreover, dietary supplements come with potential harms. For one thing, they aren’t reviewed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration before going on the market. There are no independent checks that these products are safe or effective. And it is possible to overdose on some of them. Vitamin A, for instance, can cause bone loss and birth defects when taken at extremely high doses.
Duping into Gooping
So, how do you successfully sell that steaming pile of goop? In its latest post, the Goop team wanders through all the steps. I’ve brought them out and reordered them here for a more coherent interpretation.
Step 1. Assure the customer that you are there for them and can care for them—especially when no one else is or can, including the heartless, mainstream medical community. As Goop puts it:
Our primary place is in addressing people, women in particular, who are tired of feeling less-than-great, who are looking for solutions—these women are not hypochondriacs, and they should not be dismissed or marginalized.
2. Explain that you just have more answers than those stuffy evidence-based doctors because you look at things from a fresh, holistic perspective.
We are drawn to physicians who are interested in both Western and Eastern modalities and incorporate the best from both, as they generally believe that, while traditional medicine can be really good at saving lives, functional medicine is more adept at tackling issues that are chronic.
3. Gently caution that you might not have all the answers—because, duh!, nobody does. So, it’s understandable that not all of your remedies will work.
The thing about science and medicine is that it evolves all the time. Studies and beliefs that we held sacred even in the last decade have since been proven to be unequivocally false and sometimes even harmful. Meanwhile, other advances in science and medicine continue to change and save lives. It is not a perfect system; it is a human system.
4. But stress that you are the real deal. You have degrees, badges, and an open mind.
The doctors we regularly feature on Goop: doctors who publish in peer-reviewed journals; doctors who trained at the best institutions; doctors who are repeatedly at the forefront of medicine; doctors who persistently and aggressively maintain an open mind.
5. And you are definitely not crazy at all!!!
We would never suggest that someone skip a colonoscopy, pap smear, or a mammogram, that they refuse chemotherapy or radiation, that they not have that clogged artery in their heart attended to. There is much in Western medicine to marvel at.
6. At this point, note that you are the victim of Meany McCriticFaces, who don’t know what they’re talking about and are just trying to sell stuff and promote their own brands, unlike you, who has the customers’ backs (see step 1).
There are third parties who critique Goop to leverage that interest and bring attention to themselves. Encouraging discussion of new ideas is certainly one of our goals, but indiscriminate attacks that question the motivation and integrity of the doctors who contribute to the site is not.
7. Twist the facts to suggest that any critics of you are actually critics of the customer. You’re in this together!
Some of the coverage that Goop receives suggests that women are lemmings, ready to jump off a cliff whenever one of our doctors discusses checking for EBV, or Candida, or low levels of vitamin D—or, heaven forbid, take a walk barefoot. As women, we chafe at the idea that we are not intelligent enough to read something and take what serves us, and leave what does not. We simply want information; we want autonomy over our health.
8. End by turning the table on those who dare to criticize evidence-free, nonsensical health remedies that may be dangerous. Declare that it is those critics that are in fact dangerous, not you, who are open and compassionate.
It is unfortunate that there are some who seem to believe that they already know it all, who pre-judge information before they’ve even taken the time to read or understand it, who believe that there is actually nothing left to learn, who believe that they, singularly, own the truth. That is troubling, and that is dangerous.
Here’s to an open and honest dialogue, to open minds and open hearts.
More Info: arstechnica.com