News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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August 2, 2013

What happens when you actually click on those "One Weird Trick" ads?

You've seen them. Peeking out from sidebars, jiggling and wiggling for your attention, popping up where you most expect them: those "One Weird Trick" ads. These crudely drawn Web advertisements promise easy tricks to reduce your belly fat, learn a new language, and boost your credit score by 217 points. They seem like obvious scams, but part of me has always wanted to follow the link. What, I wonder, makes the tricks so weird? How come only one trick (or sometimes "tip"), never more? Why are the illustrations done by small children using MS Paint? I've never pursued these questions, though, because a fear of computer viruses and identity theft has always stayed my hand. One curious click, I imagine, and I could wake up hogtied on an oil tanker headed to Nigeria.

Thankfully, Slate has allowed me to slake my curiosity, and yours. They gave me a loaner laptop, a prepaid debit card, and a quest: to investigate these weird tricks and report back to you. I also contacted a bevy of marketing experts to help me parse what I found. The individual tricks themselves are peculiar, but the larger trick — of why this bizarre and omnipresent marketing strategy works — tells us a lot about what makes us click, buy and believe.

Newly emboldened, I clicked on my first ad, which promised a cure for diabetes. Specifically, I hoped to "discover how 1 weird spice reverses diabetes in 30 short days." The ad showed a picture of cinnamon buns. Could the spice be . . . cinnamon? Maybe I would find out. The link brought up a video with no pause button or status bar. A kindly voice began: "Prepare to be shocked." I prepared myself. As "Lon" spoke, his words flashed simultaneously on the screen, PowerPoint-style. As soon as he started, Lon seemed fixated on convincing me to stay until the end. "This could be the most important video you ever watch," he promised. "Watch the entire video, as the end will surprise you!"

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