Pills, shills and thrills

Back in the early 19th century, people were more gullible than they are now. ("It was just because they didn’t have TV to tell them about the world," says the Lizard of Fun).

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, they were inclined to believe all sorts of things we now know to be untrue, such as the ideas that eclipses signaled the end of the world or that the Industrial Revolution would help people live more leisurely lives.

And so, when traveling shills came to town with cartloads of snake oil and sugar tablets, people got really excited. Not only was it a diversion from their usual routine of weaving cloth and milking goats, these smooth-talking quacks promised people the instant satisfaction of feeling healthier, living longer (so they could milk more goats, presumably), and being happier with their lives.

"Okay, freak girl, if I wanted to hear about the dark ages, I woulda turned to the History Channel. How do you know, anyway?"

Opera. That’s how. In Gaetano Donizetti’s Elixir of Love, a fine record of life in 1832, the inhabitants of an Italian village go bonkers when a silver-tongued guy comes around selling bottles of Love Potion No. 9.

"Oooh, opera. That’s just not fun," says the Lizard, channel-surfing away from A&E. "Let’s watch them bulldoze Heidelberg Street instead. Backhoes – now those are exciting."

But before we get to watch the news, we have to sit through the commercials. ("It’s like having to suffer through a plate of sugar-coated flies before you get some cotton candy," says the Lizard.)

The trouble with commercials is, they make me itchy. ("No problem," says the Lizard. "Try Gold Bond Powder.") And nauseous ("Maalox. Here ya go."). They give me a headache ("Wanna Tylenol? How about an Advil?"), make me sneeze ("Zyrtec. Or Claritin. Just a few side effects, really.") and sometimes even make me feel bloated ("Tums? Or Midol?").

Stop it! You’re making me sick!

"The trouble with you," notes the Lizard, "is that you’re too susceptible. You should be taking echinacea, zinc, bee pollen, St. John’s Wort and gingko biloba – all available in handy capsules, so you know you’re getting pure herbals."

I refuse to believe what I’m beginning to suspect, that the only ads during the "CBS Evening News" are for health products, so I start making a list: Super Poligrip. Maalox. Boost Bars ("Mmmm, chocolatey," says the Lizard. "You know you can party for a whole night on just two of these and a fifth of gin?"). Breathe Right Nasal Strips. Visine Tears. Centrum Herbals. Tylenol. Zyrtec.

And thus, I stand corrected. Not all of the commercials were for health products. More correctly, a whopping 60 percent (more than shampoo commercials aired during "Melrose Place!") were for some kind of lotion, potion, bar or tablet aimed to make our lives – surprise! – healthier, happier and maybe even longer.

"It’s all about demographics," shrugs the Lizard. "You know, baby boomers, getting older – I mean, have you looked at Dan Rather lately? Forget about vitamins, they should be advertising embalming fluid!"

Ah. So it seems the traveling medicine show has merely switched modes of transportation.

People still crowd around the messenger, hoping that the calcium-enriched, anti-oxidant, germ-fighting, cootie-catching effects of the latest FDA-approved snake-oil-du-jour will somehow turn their television-watching, sofa-sitting bodies into hard-muscled health machines, capable of leaping small buildings and removing childproof caps without help.

There’s even a present-day Love Elixir, sort of – but of course there’s no need to advertise Viagra during newscasts. Why bother, when – on slow days, when there’s no war or presidential scandal – it is the news?

And then there’s Rufinol and GHB, the so-called date rape drugs, which make the news as a kind of anti-Viagra ("Yeah, for when a guy has no trouble getting it up, but he’s just too ugly to get it anywhere else," says the Lizard with a sneer).

If we go down this road just a little further, it’s easy to picture the commercials of the future, in a world where good old-fashioned aphrodisiacs are marketed in as many gel-tabbed, sugar-coated, time-released formulas as people will willingly swallow. You can just picture the commercials of the future:

Scene: A couple walking on a beach at sunset. Romantic music. Misty focus.

Friendly Voice-over: Does your Valentine deserve something special this year?

Scene: Smiling couple. She hands him a small box, printed with the product’s unmistakable logo.

Voice-over: Make his day unforgettable, with the aphrodisiac powers of snake blood, pine nuts, quince, fennel, truffles and, of course, gingko, all combined in one easy-to-swallow caplet.

Happy guy: Thanks, honey. It’s really a gift for both of us.

"No way," says the Lizard. "Snake blood is not an aphrodisiac."

"Way," I say. "They’re all real aphrodisiacs. Whether or not they work is anyone’s guess."

"Speaking of which, you gotta date for Valentine’s Day? Or are you going to spend the evening wearing a red merry widow and watching ‘Jeopardy,’ like you do every year?" The Lizard winks as it nudges me in the ribs.

"Hey, I only did that once, and I’ll thank you not to remind me."

"Uh-huh. If you did it more often, maybe you’d have more fun."

"Did I mention," I growl, "that chopped lizard tongues are supposed to cure headaches?"

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