'Magic dirt': How the internet fueled, and defeated, the pandemic's weirdest MLM
Black Oxygen Organics became a sudden hit in the fringe world of alternative medicines and supplements, where even dirt can go for $110 a bag.
Illustration of hands holds sparkling dirt.
Black Oxygen Organics burst across social media in just a few months, generating sales that surprised even company executives. But that success attracted government regulators.Robert Beatty for NBC News
Dec. 2, 2021, 5:01 AM CST / Updated Dec. 2, 2021, 6:49 AM CST
By Brandy Zadrozny
The social media posts started in May: photos and videos of smiling people, mostly women, drinking Mason jars of black liquid, slathering black paste on their faces and feet, or dipping babies and dogs in tubs of the black water. They tagged the posts #BOO and linked to a website that sold a product called Black Oxygen Organics.
Black Oxygen Organics, or “BOO” for short, is difficult to classify. It was marketed as fulvic acid, a compound derived from decayed plants, that was dug up from an Ontario peat bog. The website of the Canadian company that sold it billed it as “the end product and smallest particle of the decomposition of ancient, organic matter.”
Put more simply, the product is dirt — four-and-a-half ounces of it, sealed in a sleek black plastic baggie and sold for $110 plus shipping. Visitors to the Black Oxygen Organics website, recently taken offline, were greeted with a pair of white hands cradling cups of dirt like an offering. “A gift from the Ground,” it reads. “Drink it. Wear it. Bathe in it.”
BOO, which “can be taken by anyone at any age, as well as animals,” according to the company, claims many benefits and uses, including improved brain function and heart health, and ridding the body of so-called toxins that include heavy metals, pesticides and parasites.
By the end of the summer, online ads for BOO had made their way to millions of people within the internet subcultures that embrace fringe supplements, including the mixed martial arts community, anti-vaccine and Covid-denier groups, and finally more general alternative health and fake cure spaces.
And people seemed to be buying; parts of TikTok and Instagram were flooded with #BOO posts. The businessman behind Black Oxygen Organics has been selling mud in various forms for 25 years now, but BOO sold in amounts that surprised even its own executives, according to videos of company meetings viewed by NBC News.
The stars appeared aligned for it. A pandemic marked by unprecedented and politicized misinformation has spurred a revival in wonder cures. Well-connected Facebook groups of alternative health seekers and vaccine skeptics provided an audience and eager customer base for a new kind of medicine show. And the too-good-to-be-true testimonials posted to social media attracted a wave of direct sellers, many of them women dipping their toes into the often unprofitable world of multilevel marketing for the first time.
But success came at a price. Canadian and U.S. health regulators have cracked down on BOO in recent months, initiating recalls and product holds at the border, respectively. And just as an online army of fans powered BOO’s success, an oppositional force of online skeptics threatened to shut it down.
Just before Thanksgiving, the company announced in an email it was closing up shop for good. Sellers packed video calls mourning the death of their miracle cure, railing against executives who had taken their money and seemingly run, and wondering how they might recoup the thousands of dollars they paid for BOO that never arrived.
The announcement was the apparent end of one of the most haltingly successful companies to ride a wave of interest in online and directly sold alternative medicines — immunity-boosting oils, supplements, herbs, elixirs and so-called superfoods that, despite widespread concerns over their efficacy and safety, make up a lightly regulated, multibillion-dollar industry.
In a world where consumers flock to alternative health products, BOO seemed to provide an answer to the question: Just how far are people willing to dig to find their miracle cure?
A social post from Black Oxygen Organics and a Facebook post from a fan of the "magic dirt."
A social post from Black Oxygen Organics and a Facebook post from a fan of the "magic dirt."Obtained by NBC News
What is BOO?
Monica Wong first learned about BOO in May. The 39-year-old was scrolling Facebook from her home in Brentwood, California, and saw a Facebook ad that caught her eye: A woman in a bright green shirt emblazoned with a marijuana leaf holding a sign that read, “F--- Big Pharma!” alongside a kind of treatment that promised to “detox heavy metals.”
Wong had been looking for such a product, for her boyfriend and herself, and while the price was steep, a little internet research convinced her that the health effects would be worth it. Wong clicked on the ad and bought some BOO.
Wong said that for two months she dissolved a half-teaspoon of the black stuff in a glass of water and drank it every day. But unlike people in her new BOO Facebook group who posted miraculous testimonials of cured diseases, weight loss, clearer skin, whiter teeth, regrown hair, reclaimed energy, expelled worms and even changes in eye color (from brown to blue), Wong didn’t feel like any toxins were leaving her body. In fact, she started having stomach pains.
“I can’t say it was the BOO for sure,” Wong said she remembers wondering as she went to the hospital for tests, “but wasn’t it supposed to heal my gut?”
Wong quit taking BOO and told the head of her Facebook group, a higher-ranked seller who earned commission off Wong’s participation, about her new pains. When asked why