a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

sell me your strongest potions

The original Ricola throat lozenge looks incredibly medicinal to me:


The one on the front of the bag, anyway. I'm sure once you get it home, it won't look nearly as nice, but forget about that for a moment, forget about the brand, forget about the dumb commercial: if I had a cough and I went to an apothecary, and they gave me a jar of these, I'd 100% believe it would cure my cough. That particular shape, that particular combination of colors, the translucency. The yellow, brown and gold calls to mind flowers, whiskey and honey. I can almost taste the astringent yet soothing pastille melting in my mouth and coating my poor, aching throat with its curative elixir.

Of course, that's not how it works. That's not how anything works. The only active ingredient in Ricola is menthol, so it would be exactly as effective against a cough as anything else you suck on that has 4.8mg of menthol.

...or would it?! Well, everything else being equal, if you offered me a hypothetical lozenge that looks like the one on the bag or, like, a cherry Halls, I'd take the golden capsule, even if I knew they were functionally identical. I know the placebo effect only has a tiny effect on my potential recovery, but it's more than zero. If I feel on a gut level that one thing looks more curative than the other, and I know it's safe and just as effective, why not take that one?

If we believe in something irrational but know it's harmless, I don't see why we shouldn't use that to our advantage. It's the knowing part that's important.

So, we should ban homeopathic "medicine", because it has a known harm: it doesn't do anything, and it prevents people from receiving otherwise useful treatment. It might offer a tiny bit of help from the placebo effect, but whatever effect it has doesn't outweigh the harm of diverting people away from actual helpful medicine.

On the other hand, if you take real medicine and create a side-brand that you call homeopathic, sell it in some nice snake-oil type packaging to appeal to the people who go for that sort of thing... well, then you open a big can of worms about medical ethics, whether it's ok to lie to people for their own good, yadda yadda yadda. So we shouldn't do that. But it'd be cool in a vacuum.

Another example of a cosmetic flourish that doesn't have anything to do with the medicine's efficacy is alka-seltzer. The effervescence doesn't have any actual purpose, but because we see it fizzing, we're more likely to think it's doing something. There's also shampoo that makes your scalp tingle to make you think it works better. Some of this stuff probably gets into scam territory, but it doesn't have to. As long as it's not less effective or massively more expensive than the alternatives, the extra bullshit doesn't hurt.

In conclusion, I wish we could get real medicine with packaging and advertising that looks like this:

old ad for pond's extract, with two frogs working in an apothecary

Whatever it does, the placebo effect modifier will be at 110%. I'd trust those frogs with my life 🦝