The lie that Stephen Hawking takes “smart pills” is not even the biggest lie in these “smart pill” ads

This never happened.
This never happened.
Image: IQ+, March 27, 2017
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Synagen IQ, according to parts of the internet, is a truly spectacular drug. The Harvard scientist who created the pill believes it can “help everyone on the planet, and take us to the next stage of evolution.” It gave Donald Trump the energy and stamina to win the US presidential election. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking owes his prodigious intellectual abilities to the stuff, which can be purchased for as low as $29.99 a bottle online.

Those parts of the internet are wrong. None of those things are true.

Stephen Hawking did not talk to Anderson Cooper about internet brain pills. The nonexistent conversation was not the biggest event in human history.
Stephen Hawking did not talk to Anderson Cooper about internet brain pills. The nonexistent conversation was not the biggest event in human history.
Image: discoverynewsjournal.com, March 31, 2017

Synagen is a dietary supplement that claims to boost cognition. It’s one of several supplements sold online that target people’s insecurities about things like memory loss or extra pounds in ads rife with bogus claims, fraudulent articles posing as legitimate news sites, and fake celebrity endorsements.

Of all the lies these ads peddle, the biggest may be that the pills can be had through a “risk-free trial.” According to the US Federal Trade Commission and consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau, people who fall for the pitches and enter their credit card numbers may be unwittingly signing on for recurring payments or significant overcharges. Companies that assure customer satisfaction before purchase suddenly become impossible to reach once they’ve got the billing information they need.

“The products here are just the bait. The real scam here is the marketing techniques,” says Richard Cleland, assistant director for the FTC’s division of advertising practices.

“A blizzard of lies”

When Quartz last checked in on Amanda Haughman, she was, according to the site independant-research.com, a Cornell student recently featured in a CNN story about a miraculous diet involving apple cider vinegar and herbal supplements. A little research confirmed that the ad was bogus, the diet was nonsense, and Amanda was not a real person.

Here’s what independant-research looked like on March 14…
Here’s what independant-research looked like on March 14…
Image: independant-research.com, March 14, 2017
…and here’s what it looked like on March 31.
…and here’s what it looked like on March 31.
Image: independant-research.com, March 31, 2017

A few things have changed at independant-research.com. Amanda is now described as a student at “a University,” not Cornell, and the CNN logo that used to be at the top of the page has been stripped away. And instead of the TrimGenesis Garcinia supplements the ad hawked a few weeks ago, it now credits Amanda’s weight loss to a supplement called Pure Life Garcinia. A link at the bottom of the story offers readers a free 30 day supply of the pill. Clicking on “Get a free sample” leads to a product page for Pure Life Garcinia.

Editor’s note: Amanda Haughman isn’t real.
Editor’s note: Amanda Haughman isn’t real.
Image: independant-research.com, March 30, 2017

Finding an actual person at a company endorsed by a fake person is tricky. On the morning of March 30, the site listed a company address in Santa Ana, California and a customer service phone number. Quartz called, and the operator who answered said he was selling an anti-wrinkle cream and had never heard of Pure Life. An email to the address listed bounced back immediately.

On the evening of March 30, the same page listed entirely different contact details. The company now claimed to be based in Carmel, Indiana. Quartz emailed the new address. There was no reply. A customer service representative at the new phone number said she only handled customer accounts for Pure Life Garcinia and gave Quartz a different phone number for a company representative who might be able to answer questions. That number did not work.

On March 31, the “free sample” advertised on the site was an entirely different product called Green Garcinia. Green Garcinia’s website was identical to Pure Life Garcinia’s, save for the contact details, which listed an address in Tampa, Florida.

“I’m new so I don’t really know so much fully about the product,” said a customer service representative who identified himself as Mike. He said that a supervisor who could explain the company’s marketing strategy would call back. No one has.

There is a Better Business Bureau listing for a company called Pure Life Garcinia Cambogia. A customer service representative at the posted phone number there said that the company also sells a supplement called Pure Life Garcinia, but that their company was located in Tampa, not California. Or Indiana. A customer service representative later emailed to confirm they are not the same Pure Life in Amanda’s ad, but did not answer other questions. The company has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau and 23 customer complaints, most charging that what they believed was a free trial was actually an expensive monthly subscription that proved nearly impossible to cancel.

Who falls for these sales tactics? Lots of people. In a recent YouGov survey, 61% of US adults said they trust ads. Only 32% trust the news, according to a separate Gallup poll. That trust translates into dollars. In just four years, Anthony and Staci Dill, the married owners of now-defunct marketing firms Direct Alternatives and Original Organics LLC, sold $16 million-worth of two supposed weight-loss aids called AF Plus and Final Trim. In announcing a $16.4 million judgment in February 2016 against the Dills, an FTC official described their marketing tactics as a “blizzard of lies.”

“They sold worthless weight-loss supplements, lied about their supposed ‘risk-free trial’ offers, took people’s money with unauthorized auto-renewal plans, and made it nearly impossible to return their bogus products,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

In the last five years, the FTC has shut down more than two dozen supplement companies that use similar tactics. In March, three Florida-based marketers agreed to pay $500,000 to settle charges of using phony celebrity endorsements and unsubstantiated claims in ads for weight-loss supplements. In February, the agency shuttered a network of marketers hawking “smart pills” through fake news articles, radio ads posing as public service announcements, and fraudulent celebrity endorsements.

Steven Hawkings doesn’t take these pills, and Stephen Hawking doesn’t either

There are a lot of ways to lie about phony cognitive supplements. An ad on the website tmz.rocks (not affiliated with tmz.com) claims Donald Trump went on the Dr. Oz Show to credit Synagen IQ with his “high energy.” While Dr. Oz and Donald Trump have both said many demonstrably false things in public, neither of them said this particular false thing.

Donald Trump did not say that.
Donald Trump did not say that.
Image: tmz.rocks, March 31, 2017

A Synagen ad on the site socialaffluent.com (since taken down) assembled a virtual flash mob of fake endorsers, including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady; musician Kanye West; Harvard sophomore Ben Lishger (no such person exists); Harvard scientists Dr. Rosenhouse and Dr. Cortigan (there are no Harvard faculty or staff by either of those names); actor Denzel Washington; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; and a person described as “Genius Steven Hawkings” under a photo of the physicist Stephen Hawking, though that is not how either “Stephen” or “Hawking” is spelled and “Genius” is not his official job title.

Steven Hawkings might use Synagen. Stephen Hawking does not.
Steven Hawkings might use Synagen. Stephen Hawking does not.
Image: socialaffluent.com, March 24, 2017

The names most frequently appropriated for these ads—the unwitting Geico lizards of the shady brain pill world, if you will—are Hawking and journalist Anderson Cooper. The marketers of Synagen IQ, IQ+, BrainPlus IQ, Brainapsyl, Adderin, InteliGEN, and Intellux have all claimed the author of A Brief History of Time plugged their pill in an interview with the CNN host (though in keeping with the laissez-faire approach to accuracy, some labeled a photo of CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer as Cooper).

Stephen Hawking does not take this pill, he did not tell Anderson Cooper he does, and that’s not Anderson Cooper.
Stephen Hawking does not take this pill, he did not tell Anderson Cooper he does, and that’s not Anderson Cooper.
Image: cnnn-health-reviews-on-brain-supplement.com, March 31, 2017

The bizarrely specific claim shows up so often that the FTC contacted representatives for both men to confirm that no such interviews or endorsements had taken place. They had not. Emails to InteliGen (now sold as Intellex), VitaCSR (maker of Adderin), and Brainapsyl were not answered. Intellux appears to have gone out of business.

The customer service phone number on Synagen’s website led to an automated recording. An email to the company received an auto-response:“Your request…is being reviewed by our support staff”—but no further reply.

A customer service representative at BioTrim Labs, maker of BrainPlus IQ, said that no one from the company would be able to answer questions about the product’s marketing. An email to support@biotrimlabs.com received an autoresponse directing us to the company’s contact page, which said to email support@biotrimlabs.com.

For those who fall in the sliver-thin Venn intersection of people who admire Stephen Hawking and people who believe Stephen Hawking takes internet pills, handing over a credit card can start a long and frustrating ordeal.

“They charge you $84.71 after the 14th day and you’ll be billed for a 2nd bottle (another $84.71) 2 weeks after that because they’ve put you on a monthly subscription,” a Synagen customer complained to the Better Business Bureau, where, like Pure Life Garcinia Cambogia, the company has an F rating.

It’s far from the only company to face such charges. “I placed an order on-line for $29 and than [sic] they charged my… credit card for $72 which included additional products that I didn’t order,” fumed a customer who purchased BrainPlus IQ from BioTrim Labs, which also has an F rating. “This Company should not be permitted to be in business.”