The placebo effect is an important tool in modern medicine, yet it is also a phenomenon that can be used for deceit when marketing products to the masses. Let’s take a closer look at its uses – and abuses – shall we?

A Definition

The word placebo (pluh-see-bow) is defined as a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for disease or medical condition intended to deceive the person taking it. This could be a pill, spray, liquid, powder, or any type of apparatus that may look like real medicine but is not. In the field of legitimate science, placebos are used in conjunction with substances that may have actual benefits in order to test whether they really work or not. This is often referred to as a double-blind placebo study, where both doctor and patient have no idea who is getting what. (For more about clinical studies, read our article about how to understand them.) 

When a study seems to show that those taking the medicine being tested have no better improvement in their condition than those taking the placebo, it is concluded that the medicine is ineffective or at least requires further testing. But here’s the funny thing about placebos, sometimes they appear to actually work better than actual medicine. This was first documented in 1955 by Henry K. Beecher in a publication he titled The Powerful Placebo, and the term “placebo effect” was coined.

Do Placebos Actually Work?

Dr. Beecher’s report was initially heralded as a breakthrough in medicine – he claimed in 15 trials with different diseases, 35% of patients experienced relief through taking a placebo alone. However, later studies of his article concluded this was not true, that there may have been other factors in the patients’ recovery.

Further investigation into the placebo effect has not entirely disproven its benefits. According to WebMD, studies have shown patients taking a placebo have been helped with ailments like pain, depression, sleep disorders, menopause, and irritable bowel syndrome. So what is actually helping these people?

The Mind-Body Connection

The reason why people may experience a change in symptoms is thought by scientists to be evidence of the mind-body connection as well as the incredible power of suggestion. The WebMD article mentioned above talked of a study where two sets of patients were given the same placebo: one set was told it was a stimulant and the other were told it was a sleeping pill. Both sets of patients appeared to react to the placebo according to what they were told. 

Using placebos in this manner is not without controversy. Ted Kaputchuck, an associate professor at Harvard has created the Program in Placebo Studies and the Therapeutic Encounter, where he has been investigating the placebo effect in a variety of different ways. He has concluded that sometimes simply the benefit of seeing a doctor and/or seeking care can help patients alleviate their symptoms, whether they receive real medicine or not.

One of his placebo studies involved patients with asthma, some of whom were given empty inhalers, some acupuncture, and a third group received a prescription medication. Only the group with the prescription medicine showed measurable improvement; however, in the patients’ own assessment, they all said they felt better. This, some feel, is where the danger lies – perceptive improvement can mask dangerous deterioration. In the case of asthma, noted Dr. Harriet Hall, this could be fatal.

The Placebo Effect and Advertising

Here’s where we are going with this article: when the mind-body connection, the power of suggestion, and the placebo effect come together it can form a powerful connection. This is sometimes utilized by unscrupulous marketers who sell products that have no proven medicinal benefits.

We see this a lot in the supplement industry, especially for products that say they can help with pain, depression, sleep disorders, bowel problems, or menopause. If you remember from earlier, these are the very conditions that appear to be alleviated in some people by placebos. When they are combined with an endorsement from a doctor as well as testimonials from people who say it works, it can be a powerful method of persuasion to get people to spend a lot of money on products that have no real medical value.

To be sure: it is illegal to sell a sugar pill or other item that the manufacturer knows is fake – that is the definition of fraud. However, because supplements are not evaluated by the FDA and as long as they say somewhere in the fine print they are not meant to cure, treat, or prevent disease, may items end up on television or on the web that have no science to back them up. Even though you’ve spend hundreds of dollars, the relief you feel may just be in your mind.


  • A placebo is an important tool in medical research to study a drug’s efficacy.
  • There is evidence that taking placebos can work just as well as medicine for ailments like insomnia and depression.
  • Unethical companies may be taking advantage of the power of suggestion when marketing their products.
  • A $50 bottle of supplements may be just as effective as a sugar pill.

Further reading: Placebo Effect (American Cancer Society)

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