Snake Oil For the Internet Age

Snake Oil For the Internet Age

David “Avocado” Wolfe: your (least) favourite charlatan



A charlatan, according to the Oxford English dictionary, is a word used to describe a person that “falsely [claims] to have a special knowledge or skill.” The term originated in Italy during medieval times: it was used to identify travelling types that fraudulently claimed to possess medical skill, that sold so-called “medicine.” Apparently, enough of these types came from an Italian village named Cerreto that cerretano — meaning “inhabitant of Cerreto” — grew synonymous with the idea of phony physicians. Their methods often included a sort of practiced “chatter,” which in Italian, translates to ciarlare. 

As the story goes, ciarlare and cerretano became so entwined that the Italian word shifted to ciarlatano. When it was Anglicized in the 1600s, ciarlatono became charlatan. Since then, while the tools and methods of charlatans have evolved, the underlying similarities have remained the same: all seek to establish trust by convincing vulnerable people that they are authorities, in order to hawk their own scientifically unproven wares.

To put it simply, David “Avocado” Wolfe, the self-proclaimed and styled “rock star and Indiana Jones of the superfoods and longevity universe,” is a modern-day charlatan.

If, like me, you spend any and all of your spare moments obsessively browsing Facebook, then you have surely encountered one of David “Avocado” Wolfe’s posts through a friend either liking or sharing one. Perhaps, unwittingly, you have already liked one yourself. For all you know, you might even like his page without realizing it, as my mom recently discovered she had. (Full disclosure: it happens — I recently discovered that somewhere along the line, I’d liked the page of “the snack that smiles back” — Goldfish™.)

David “Avocado” Wolfe’s Facebook page has over 9.6 million likes. He shares memes, graphics, videos, clickbait listicles, pseudo-reports, and pseudoscience. 

The memes that Wolfe shares get the most attention of anything he posts: they garner anywhere between a couple hundred likes and shares, to hundreds of thousands (in some cases, millions) of likes and shares. In turn, these generate more likes and shares, and result in more page-likes. As many of you know, anytime that anyone likes an old post on Facebook, said post reappears in the newsfeeds of said person’s friends, starting this never-ending cycle afresh. Why does any of this matter, you ask? This gives Wolfe access to an impossibly large audience on a daily basis. Given that these days, Facebook is the primary news source of choice for many, Wolfe seems to have more influence, at least in the online sphere, than even certain media giants.

According to Wolfe’s website, “The world’s top CEOs, ambassadors, celebrities, athletes, artists, and the real superheroes of this planet — Moms — all look to [him] for expert advice in health, beauty, herbalism, nutrition, and chocolate!” Obviously, he’s a beauty expert — this much is clear from his impressive perm — but a chocolate expert as well?! Where do I sign? By design, Wolfe sets himself up as your one-stop-shop authority for all things alternative.

Among other things, Wolfe is the master of the self-flattering pronouncement: “David has led the environmental charge for radiant health via a positive mental attitude, eco-community building, living spring water, and the best-ever quality organic foods and herbs.” He has “over 20 years of dedicated experience and [has] hosted over 2750 live events.” As for qualifications, well…. He claims to have studied at Oxford, but further research yields that a David Wolfe is registered as having taken only a single course. He does however, have a Juris Doctor in Law from the University of San Diego — though how that applies to his chosen field, is unclear.

Wolfe is also a professor at the Living-Food Nutrition Masters Program, in Patagonia, Arizona, and “faculty” at the “BodyMind Institute” — where, for $54/month (or a one-time payment of $600), you can earn your own “David Wolfe Nutrition Certification,” thus enabling you too with the power to “change people’s lives.” Given that a video on YouTube exists where Wolfe gloats about the money he’s made, and claims that he is “the wealthiest hippie on Earth,” things begin to seem suspect. (If you’re interested, it’s entitled “David Wolfe is Happy About Money.”)

Research gave way to more than a few questionable things (not least of which is the fact that Vin Diesel’s Facebook page has 101 million likes, a figure topped only by Shakira, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Facebook itself). According to Socialbakers — a website that measures and documents social media analytics — Wolfe’s page is averaging 724 511 fresh page-likes a month. In comparison, Steezy Deez is only generating 273 538 page-likes in the same span. When I realized that Yung Deezy is probably closer to topping out than Wolfe, I looked to Ronaldo instead. Only, Wolfe has him beat as well: the monthly growth rate of Ronaldo’s page is a measly 682 482. 

Given his meteoric rise, Wolfe may very well inflate his page likes through other means. Some suggest that he does so via so-called “like farms” — paid services that generate page-likes on demand through, presumably, the use of automated bots. Little is known about like farms aside from that they exist: at least, according to the work of Emiliano De Cristofaro and his colleagues at University College London. But I digress.

Needless to say, online, appearances are everything. Regardless of how Mr. Avocado got them and how he is getting them, in the world of Facebook, the amount of likes his page has matters because a page’s number of likes directly effects its perceived legitimacy. The simple reality is that, when unsure as to whether a page is authentic or fake, a quick check into the number of likes it has makes for a quick and (albeit, much too) easy distinction of the real from the artificial. So, surely, with 9.6 million page likes, Wolfe is the real deal. No?

F**k to the no, no, no.

I mean, he’s certainly an authentic quack — Wolfe has said some pretty preposterous stuff, including: “Chocolate lines up planetarily with the sun…  Chocolate is an octave of sun energy…  In fact, it’s the energy of the center of the sun.” Seriously. You can’t write this stuff. To top it all off, he even claims that the Earth is “optically flat.” Just let that wash over you.

But this is not the real problem. The real problem has to do with his influence, how he gets it, and how he uses it. On Facebook, Wolfe grows his audience through a basic variation of “bait and switch” marketing, that preys upon the laziness and trust of the general populace. The first two steps of Wolfe’s method are as follows: 1) Post innocuous, relatable, pathos-laden memes to establish an audience; 2) Repeat Step 1 for awhile, in order to both generate more followers, and cement your reputation as an authority (here, I use the term authority as loosely as we assign it these days).

With Step 3, things get interesting. He posts some pseudoscience that either further instills an Us. vs. Them dynamic (in which, naturally, Wolfe takes the side of the average viewer against, effectively, “the man,” in his various forms, be it big government, big pharma, modern medicine, or science in general) or subtly promotes one of his own products. Wolfe makes money through both his reputation as a whole, and the sale of his sketchy products. When you like or share his posts, know that you’re giving a man who believes the earth is flat, a man whose Wikipedia page was once deleted for “unambiguous advertising or promotion,” free advertising.

Wolfe is the spokesperson for the Nutribullet; you might have seen its infomercials. He has claimed that Nutribullet turns regular food into superfood. If true, this would be magnificent — only, blending food doesn’t alter its nutrient content. In fact, the NutriBullet is no more than a glorified (and admittedly, half-decent) blender. In Canada, it retails for about $100. The fancier models are upwards of $130. Compared to other blenders, its going price is relatively reasonable. Nonetheless, it has been successfully marketed on a complete and utter lie.

Another one of his products is deer antler extract, which…. Wait for it…. He describes thus: “Deer antler is not a product. It’s a cosmic substance. And it’s an androgenic substance, by the way — very androgenic. And it needs to be taken with respect and understanding, which is why we’ve been getting into this whole thing about estrogenic forces and then androgenic forces. You got to know that deer antler is an androgenic force. And why? Because it’s cosmic in nature. It’s elevating. It’s levitational in nature. Which actually makes you younger. The forces of levity make you younger.” With his own unique combination of uncanny self-assuredness and circular reasoning, Wolfe makes his case in roughly the same fashion that he claims mushrooms are from distant planets. I’d laugh, only people are actually buying 60mL bottles of this garbage for $100 apiece. (A litre goes for over $1000.)

A Science Enthusiast describes Wolfe’s 3-Step method as “The David Avocado Wolfe Effect” — he baits us with cute, fuzzy, feel-good memes, only to hit us when we least expect it with seriously harmful claims. This, is the real danger. Wolfe knows exactly how to sound science-y: to the casual observer, some of his word salad-y, devoid of fact, gibberish actually sounds plausible; when, really, he just wants your money.

This smarmy douche goes to great (and I mean great) lengths to sow the trust that underlies his sales pitches. For instance, did I mention that he’s also an anti-vaxxer? (I mean, by this point, you’re probably thinking, “yep.”) I found the following on his website — he seems to delete his anti-vaccination-themed memes after awhile): “Where there is smoke, there is fire. A growing body of evidence indicates that vaccines are not safe and that they can injure, permanently maim, or even kill you or a family member. The damage caused by vaccines can no longer be ignored, nor can it be dismissed as a necessary evil. By 2010, the US Court of Claims had awarded nearly $2 billion dollars to vaccine victims for their catastrophic vaccine injuries. Currently, this number is believed to now be $3 billion dollars.” Take note of the loaded language. 

Now, this is all news to me. Thankfully, he lists this “growing body of evidence” below: which ends up consisting primarily of links to articles from sites like Natural News and The Truth Wins, sites notorious for being either anti-vaccination and/or having supremely low journalistic standards. In the 5-10 minutes it takes to properly sift through these links, five times (FIVE TIMES) I was forced to click the tiny “x” at the corner of a full-screen Nutribullet contest pop-up, and resist the urge to punch my computer screen and exclaim “Nutribullet, this!”

He goes on, in a passage that reads like the Pig Latin equivalent of Legalese: “If you choose to avoid vaccinating yourself and your family, that is your choice, and it should always remain your choice. To force others to vaccinate themselves and their families is a violation of our basic human right to protect ourselves and our families from danger. The basic and important logic is this: If you and/or your child are vaccinated, then you and your child are supposedly safe, so you shouldn’t be concerned with violating the basic humans rights of another family and their children by forcing them to comply with vaccine serums supplied by transnational pharmaceutical corporations with products made in China.” I mean, I sort of see where he’s coming from — until he says “supposedly safe” — and completely misrepresents the argument for herd immunity, the effectiveness of which depends upon a high percentage of the population having said vaccination against a virus or bacteria. 

This is absolutely crucial in protecting those that cannot be vaccinated. If one person gets the vaccination and nobody else does, any hope of herd immunity (any hope of stifling or eradicating a particular disease) goes out the window. I know this much, and I’m no scientist; then again, neither is Wolfe.

All things considered, next time you feel tempted to like or share one of David “Avocado” Wolfe’s posts, remember all of the above, along with the fact that he once said the following: “Gravity is not intrinsic to matter. That Carl Sagan idea that was sold to us on Cosmos on PBS, was sold to us deliberately to actually confuse us just so you know that. There’s people who have known that gravity is a force that can be displaced. There’s people that have known that since the 50s or even earlier than that. But by screwing up, confusing our mind about things, and giving us incorrect theories, we were brain washed into a totally different belief system. That gravity is intrinsic to all matter, we’re fighting gravity, we have to push our way through gravity to launch a craft up into outer space, all this nonsense….” Got it? Brilliant stuff, really.

Here’s a realistic New Year’s resolution for you: stop paying attention to David “Avocado” Wolfe (#DontCryWolfe).