Snake Oil

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Old commercial for Snake Oil

Performer Ross Nelson as the snake oil salesman Professor Thaddeus Schmidlap.

Snakeoil is the name given to a product that has little or no real function, but is marketed as a miracle cure to solve many problems.

The term snake oil comes from the mythology of the American Wild West, where self-proclaimed faith healers and quacks sold snake oil at medicine shows as a cure for ailments of all kinds. In the Anglo-American-speaking world the term snake oil is nowadays mainly used as a synonym for a quack product. The Germanization to snake oil only became common for the transferred use regarding dubious software products.

Snake oil software is often found in software areas whose technical background is difficult for laymen to understand or requires a lot of training. Here, windy profiteers easily find customers by advertising their product with many important-sounding but meaningless technical terms. Most examples of snake oil software therefore come from the areas of cryptography, network security or performance enhancement.

The manufacturers of antivirus programs in particular are often criticized by IT security experts because their software does not protect customers, but exposes them to even more dangers. Because such programs usually run with extended rights and redirect system access invisibly to other programs, security gaps in antivirus programs are particularly critical.[1]

Part of today’s understanding is that “snake oil” offers are a hoax. If the offerer believes in the effectiveness of his product – although these and/or the function mode of the product are not scientifically rationally comprehensible – one does not speak of “snake oil”. This subheading includes homeopathic preparations, orgone machines or earth radiation suppression devices.


In 1995, the company Syncronys Softcorp sold a product called SoftRAM 95, which, according to advertising claims, was supposed to double the amount of RAM that could be used under Windows by compression and, in addition, to speed up the computer system immensely. By disassembling the program, c’t magazine found that it displayed statistics pulled from thin air and otherwise performed no other functions.[2]

In April 2014, it was revealed that one of the most popular antivirus programs – Virus Shield by Deviant Solutions – was absolutely useless for Android. The only thing it could do was change an icon on tap. Despite this, Virus Shield had been installed thousands of times and was even at the top of the payment apps on Google Play. Google subsequently refunded all buyers and apologized to customers.[3]

Especially in the Chinese market, energy saving devices are offered (so-called power savers), which are plugged into the socket. They are supposed to reduce energy consumption. Inside there is usually a small capacitor and minimal electronics for the current of the LED. A university test could not prove any effectiveness.[4]

Web links

Commons: Snake oil– Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. Antivirus software: the snake oil industry – [retrieved 21 December 2016]).
  2. “Placebo forte!”, What’s really behind SoftRAM 95. In: c’t magazine for computer technology. No. 12, 1995, p. 100 ([retrieved 24 September 2012]).
  3. Google compensates buyers of useless virus scanner, retrieved on 29. April 2014
  4. Earthwise Power Savers fail laboratory test, uploaded on 18 December 2013