MLM Attorney, Kevin Thompson, on Bloomberg TV

I had the privilege of being on Bloomberg for a small segment talking about Bill Ackman’s latest presentation. The 7-minute segment can be viewed above. Ackman’s presentation today, if you can spare 3+ hours, can be found here.

Before summarizing his argument, it needs to be said that he heavily promoted this presentation yesterday. He was like Muhammad Ali talking about the Thrilla in Manila, saying it was “the most important presentation of his life.” He further said that this would be the “death blow” to Herbalife. He successfully spooked the market, causing it to sink 11%. Instead of “conclusively proving fraud,” which was his intent, he ignited confidence in the market due to the lack of substance. After the presentation, the stock UP 25% (same day). I’m not making this up. Up 25% the day of the death blow. Only on Wall Street.

I’ll summarize his thesis:

    • Herbalife’s usage of “Nutrition Clubs” operates like a bait and switch for consumers.
    • The prospects are lured into the clubs on the auspices of hanging out with friends and sampling products.
    • These prospects are then pressured to “get on the treadmill” and join as distributors and recruit more people to visit the clubs.
    • The Club concept is designed to recruit, not to sell.
    • Herbalife’s stance that the clubs foster community efforts for weight loss is smoke and mirrors.
    • He goes further and argues that the positioning of some of the clubs as “success universities” is misleading because they’re not accredited as real universities.
    • He further argues that the Clubs violate various labor laws since the members are expected to help out in keeping the club operational i.e. free labor.
    • He argues that Michael Johnson learned of these strategies of penetrating the hispanic market while at Disney. In my opinion, he gave Michael Johnson way more credit than he deserved in this regard. The Nutrition Club concept was likely an invention in the field.

We discuss the presentation during the interview. Herbalife has issued its own response, including the findings from an economist about its model. Based on his data, he concluded that the vast majority of revenue is attributable to legitimate product consumption i.e. people buying for legitimate value. The data is significant, as it essentially puts the pyramid scheme argument to bed. If true, the majority of commissions are driven via legitimate economic activity by “ultimate users.” This is why, in my opinion, Ackman paid very little attention to the law today. I think he knows the law is not in his favor on a macro level with Herbalife. Instead, he was arguing the facts on a micro level, painting a picture that there’s a massive bait-and-switch occurring with the Nutrition Clubs. In his mind, if he can kill the Nutrition Clubs, he can kill Herbalife.

Commentary from me

Herbalife needs to avoid gloating. They sort of spiked the football today with their remarks. Yes, Ackman’s presentation went off like a snap bomp instead of the full scale firework show we were promised. But, with that being said, he’s certainly not someone to poke. He’s obviously emotionally charged on the issue. He cried on a few occasions during the presentation. In his mind, he sees himself as a “Superman” that needs to rescue these poor, hispanic citizens. While 93% of Herbalife Nutrition Club operators are happy with their experience (based on a recent survey), Ackman would argue that they’re under a trance that only he can break. Referencing the history of his great-grandfather that came to America from Russia, Ackman sees Herbalife as preying on people like his great-granddad, causing significant damage for future generations.

Bottom line: he’s amped up. And his puts expire in January of 2015, which means he needs to land a punch soon to get the stock to soften before he eats the loss. I think he’s done his worst to Herbalife. It’s now in the hands of regulators. Speaking of regulators, he did not provide them with any new ammunition today that they did not already possess yesterday. I stand firm with my initial opinion, made in January of 2013. Admittedly, I could be wrong. But I do not think the FTC will file an action against Herbalife. Instead, I think there’s going to be some sort of negotiated settlement that will involve some sort of penalty for past transgressions. They’re the Federal government…they’re going to find something. Give me Ackman’s investigatory budget of $50,000,000 and I’ll find dirt on whatever you want. The return on his $50M investment was anti-climatic and the market made him pay.

What do you think? What’s next for Herbalife? What’s next in Bill Ackman’s playbook?

BK Boreyko Tries His Hand at Magic: Does he pull it off?

01c62c29d34ede51f7c12ef645d59945I can remember where I was sitting when I saw David Copperfield’s infamous Statue of Liberty trick.  I was right in my living room, sitting three feet from our “big screen” 25 inch television.  I was speechless!  I had my imagination running wild….where in the world did it go!?  Is magic real!? As it turns out, years later, people revealed the logistics behind the magic: it was a revolving stage.  The statute was shown between two pillars, the curtain was lifted to conceal the statute, and as David Copperfield was doing his thing, the stage rotated without audience detection.  When the curtain was dropped, the audience (and those of us watching on television) were staring out into the ocean without even realizing it.

Changing the optic! Pure genius!

With BK’s latest announcement, he’s attempting a similar effort.  In summary, he’s changing the perspective (words) about MLM without changing the model itself.  He’s just rotating the stage while keeping the statute (the model) in tact.

In BK’s video below, he SPRINTS from the MLM category, claiming that Vemma is “more like Amazon and less like Amway.” I’ll start this breakdown with the obvious points first:

(1) Amazon is not a member of the Direct Selling Association;

(2) Amazon does not terminate its affiliates for promoting other MLMs;

(3) Amazon does not bind its affiliates to non-solicitation clauses (commonly done by clients of mine and every other company in the MLM industry);

(4) Amazon does not have monthly volume requirements.  BK makes it clear: “We no longer require our affiliates to buy products.”  Well that’s good to know, because you technically were never supposed to have such requirements anyways.  I know, I know….it’s debatable whether a company can impose a purchase requirement. ViSalus does it (I think).  But in my opinion, I advise all clients to stay away from required monthly purchases. Instead, Vemma is doing what 95% of all other MLMs do: they’re now requiring VOLUME.  Can this volume be achieved via the now optional Autoship? Yep.  Will the majority of reps qualify in this manner?  Probably.  Does this “change” make Vemma more like Amazon and less like Amway?  No. Ironically enough, Amway has ZERO volume requirements for reps to join.

(5) Amazon does not have a genealogy for calculating commissions i.e. there’s no opportunity for recruitment;

(6) Amazon discloses its revenue from customer sales. While BK implies of significant customer activity, we have no way of knowing the numbers.

Affiliate vs. MLM

In his video, BK distinguishes affiliate models from MLMs as follows: affiliate programs are more customer focused and there are no requirements to buy product. Please remember, the entire point of an MLM sales strategy is to SERVE CUSTOMERS. If Vemma was not on this track before, what in the world were they doing? And I’ve already opined on the issue of required product purchases. They never should’ve had those requirements in the first place. Going with a volume requirements puts them in line with most other MLMs out there (keyword being “IN-LINE”…..not ahead).

Real Changes

These are the changes that seem legitimate:

(1) Affiliates are all Customers first. When a “Customer” enrolls another customer, they become an Affiliate and qualified to earn commissions (after they generated the volume via personal purchases and/or sales). This is interesting to me. Do these Customers go on the Affiliate’s front-line i.e. like a personally enrolled affiliate would? If so, Vemma made it more difficult for affiliates to sling participants down in depth. This would legitimately slow recruitment; thus, look more like an Affiliate arrangement. If, on the other hand, these “Customers” are given a position in the genealogy and can benefit from their upline’s actions on a later date, we’re back to David Copperfield’s rotating stage. If the latter is the case, regulators will not consider those people as Customers in the event of an inquiry (my opinion).

(2) There’s a “Custiliate” program. Friend and MLM consultant, Mel Atwood, coined the phrase “Custiliate,” so I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. A Custiliate is a hybrid between a customer and an affiliate. The Customer cannot earn the big bucks but there are some financial incentives available. There’s nothing earth-shattering here. There are numerous companies out there that offer incentives for customers to share the products with other customers. With Vemma, they’re giving customers “credits” that can be redeemed for product sales. This is a good thing and most companies need to implement similar incentives. The key question: will the incentives lead to an increase in customer revenues? If an MLM is selling $1,000 lemonade, the policy would be lipstick on a pig because there would never be legitimate demand for such a product. If Vemma’s product is priced outside of the market, the Custiliate program is window-dressing. If it’s in-line, it’ll help drive the numbers up. This is not proven by making comparisons with Red Bull. It’s proven by customer revenue. It’s that simple.

(3) Vemma now pays full CV on customer activity. This caught me off guard. Why in the world were they allocating 50% on customer volume? This would be a dis-incentive for distributors (affiliates) to accrue customers. Why pursue customer sales that yield 50% CV when they can recruit and get 1 to 1 on the volume for their commissions? This is so bad, I’m not convinced I’m right. If they fixed the 50%, good for Vemma. They’re now in-line with other MLMs (again, in-line…..not ahead).

Conclusion

At a time when the industry needs to be more united, BK’s announcement of “big changes” is counter-productive. Will these changes lead to meaningful changes in Vemma’s sales culture, leading to a more customer-oriented company? Or is he just rotating the stage, using the right words and gestures while only changing the perspective?

What do you think?

If you’re reading this via email, click here to view BK’s announcement video.

Is it better to raid in secret or raid in plain sight?

Epic Era_MLM_Pre-Launch Founding Leaders

If you’re reading this via email, click here to view the video.

The purpose of this article is to explore the current “deal making” culture in the MLM industry. Quite frankly, it’s getting pretty stupid.

Raiding in Secret

Another word for “raiding” is “stealing.” But I’m not taking it that far. “Raiding” typically occurs when a leader strikes a special deal with a new company, violates his contract with his or her existing company, solicits the downline for the next new thing, conveniently fails to disclose the existence of the special deal, generates a decent commission for a year or two, possibly gets sued, seeks out another deal, wash, rinse, repeat. This is what I call “raiding in secret.” It’s a dirty / uncomfortable secret we deal with in the industry. It’s one that rarely gets discussed outside of the inner-circle because both parties instinctively know that it’s wrong. In the scenario of the private deal, there exists an understanding between the company and the recipient that there’s going to be a contract violation somewhere between the networker and their existing (or previous) MLM. This contract violation can even be factored into the contract negotiations i.e. “if you get sued, we’ll cover the legal fees.” I have always known about this side of the industry. There are companies out there like to cut deals and then turn around and sue their own distributors when they leave for other deals. It’s naive for me to think that these sorts of deals will end. After all, there is the occasional special deal that’s legitimate i.e. the networker waits for his or her old contract provisions to expire, starts from scratch and leverages his or her skill to build a large downline FAST. But…that’s rare.

I’ve written about this process in the past in two separate articles. The first is titled Master Distributors: good or bad? In the article, I talk in general about these deals and discuss the importance of disclosing the existence of these deals. In the second article, titled Revised FTC Endorsement Guidelines: Part 1 (Master Distributors),” I talk about the new disclosure requirements published by the FTC when it comes to these sorts of deals. Bottom line: disclosure is key.

Raiding in Plain Sight

Epic has recently announced, very publicly, that they’ve got $100,000,000 available for “experienced networkers.” The payment terms are published in a separate PDF, found below. Basically, if leaders can keep up with various performance metrics, they can earn additional income. While it caps out at $20,000 per month, Epic leaves room for some negotiation:

Are these still not big enough for your dreams and what you know you are capable of? Contact us for details on Epic Performance Programs beyond our $20,000 program.

How is this raiding in plain sight?

Watch the video above, titled Epic Puts $100,000,000 on the table for deals. In my opinion, there’s more to this than “paying for performance.” When you offer networkers $20,000+ per month in addition to commissions in exchange for 120,000 group volume points in six months….you know it’s quite likely (I’m putting it mildly) that the networker is transitioning distributors from another downline. And when that happens, it’s likely the distributor has some contractual restrictions for that kind of activity i.e. non-solicitation, non-compete, etc. There’s a better way to go about building a business. Plus, this sort of activity will invite mass litigation from the industry in general as leaders start migrating towards Epic (if that ever occurs). The claim will likely be “tortious interference,” which occurs when one company encourages people under contract with another company to violate the agreement.

Is this good for the industry?

In my opinion, it’s not. Companies invest years (sometimes decades), thousands of hours and millions of dollars building up their brands and goodwill with its leaders. If all of that effort can be taken by way of a confidential agreement with one of its top leaders, it’s bad for our profession. And what about the distributors in the downline? They’re the people that trust the leader to make good decisions. If they’re not in the know on the special deal, they’re really not in a good position to make an informed decision. They get lost in the shuffle. They get used. Is it in their best interest to uproot their organizations and follow the leader? In most cases, the answer is no.

Disclosure: I’m a conservative, free-market man. I believe in the power of the markets. However, in order for markets to work, information needs to be freely exchanged. In the case of these special deals, the public is never made aware of the deals; hence, the public / distributors are at a significant disadvantage. The market is manipulated.

Conclusion

There are no shortcuts to success. When I competed in the decathlon in college, I was met each year with one or two athletes that talked big. They were motivated for a month, bragging about their inevitable success. Within months, they quit. Success is a grind over time. It’s a long, arduous process. Through week after week, year after year of work, the power of compounding takes over. When I see a company trying to skirt around the work, I just shake my head… If you’re not willing to grind it out, you’re not developing the muscles necessary to win. Cutting these sorts of deals to take advantage of the investments made by other companies…it’s dishonorable.

What do you think? We’ve never had a company publish these sorts of deals before. Is it good or the industry? Bad?

+Kevin Thompson

If you’re reading this via email, please click this link.

Bill Ackman Throws a Hail Mary: warns auditing firm about liability if they validate Herbalife


If you’re reading this via email, please click this link to watch a full video update.

Ackman Warns PwC

In an attempt to thwart the inevitable short squeeze on Herbalife’s stock, Bill Ackman has recently turned to “warning” PricewaterhouseCoopers of potential exposure if they validate Herbalife’s accounting. The letter is included in full below. Irrespective of the fact that PwC has been in business for over 150 years and have maintained a stellar reputation among auditing firms, Ackman felt the need to educate them on accounting. In the letter, he sites a number of issues with Herbalife’s numbers, none of which will be addressed here because, candidly, I have no idea what it all means. However, I do trust analyst Tim Ramey. He wrote a solid rebuttal to Ackman’s letter, which was included on ValueWalk. The key bullets:

The opening point in the PWC letter is that Herbalife is a pyramid scheme, and PWC will have risk if it audits the Herbalife books and does not disclose that fact. The remainder of the 52 pages does absolutely nothing to prove or allege the pyramid scheme hypothesis. Remarkable.

The letter is an eleven-point discussion of various accounting treatments that Herbalife and its previous auditors have taken. We did not see a single “smoking gun” or anything that would cause us meaningful concern. There are audit-type questions, something that two accountants might have a spirited discussion about at a cocktail party, but nothing that seems material. If this is all Ackman has after millions spent on forensic accounting, Ackman has been cheated. On some of the points Pershing Square is just wrong, in our opinion; a risk you take when your securities analysis does not ever engage in a dialog with the company.

What Does This All Mean?

It’s the fourth quarter with 2 minutes left on the clock. The ball is on Ackman’s 5 yard line. He’s down by 16. He needs to traverse the field, score a touchdown, get a two-point conversion, recover the onside kick, score another touchdown and get another two point conversion. Ackman claims to be armed with the “truth;” however, it’s his version of the truth. In order to pull out of his self-induced tailspin, he needs two things to happen: He needs Herbalife to report a decrease in earnings next quarter (not likely to happen). And he needs, more than anything, the FTC to take action. The FTC is NOT going to take action. Care to know why? (1) HERBALIFE IS NOT A PYRAMID SCHEME; and (2), the existing regulations leave plenty of room for debate on both sides. If there were a lawsuit, the FTC would lose. Plain and simple. The FTC, in my opinion, is not equipped to target companies in the gray. They’ve got to go after the easy targets. And Herbalife, without question, does not fit that definition.

If you’re reading this via email, click here to download the letter.

Video Response By BK Boreyko Regarding Criticism

I’ve never endorsed any companies on this site and I’m not endorsing Vemma. I know very little about their model. I know that you likely visit this site for generic content regarding the MLM industry, so this post is a little different. But this video was so good, I had to share. The founder of Vemma, BK Boreyko, lays out honest and sincere arguments explaining the legitimacy of Vemma’s model. If you’re not in Vemma, the video is still worth watching because it’ll give you some bullets to use when you face the same question. He keeps it simple, relying on science, investments in infrastructure, business support, market comparables, etc. Candidly, all CEOs in the industry should provide a similar video, giving their people a link to share when they’re hit with tough questions.

One more point worth mentioning: when he lists his social media links, he lists instagram first. I guess that’s where all the cool kids are hanging out these days. Connect with me there at: www.instagram.com/kevin_thompson.

DS Edge Goes Country!

DS Edge - Nashville | MLM Startup
I’m incredibly excited to announce the location of the next DS Edge conference: my city, Nashville, Tennessee! It’s the home of country music and for two days in September, its neighbor (Franklin, TN) will be the home of direct selling.

Come to Tennessee to learn how to start and grow your party plan or network marketing company at the Direct Selling Edge Conference on Thursday and Friday, September 26 and 27, 2013.

This two-day educational conference is the best for new and young direct selling companies because the quality of the content presented is excellent. It is pure education.

Students Deserve Vacations

After two full days of learning, as a student you’ll deserve a vacation, too.

We’ve got plans to take you an optional excursion to visit some of the most famous honky tonks in downtown Nashville after the first day of the conference. Stay the weekend if you’d like to enjoy all that Franklin and Nashville have to offer. In your free time, you can visit the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Parthenon, and RCA Studio B in Nashville, but don’t miss the historic sites of Franklin, too.

What will you learn at this conference?

You’ll learn…

  • how direct selling is different from other business models
  • the differences and similarities between network marketing and party plan companies
  • what recent Federal Trade Commission decisions means for you
  • best practices and step-by-step instructions for creating an ethical and effective presence in the social media landscape
  • the legal limits for raising capital and the legal rights inherent with stock ownership
  • the differences between different types of compensation plans and how to assess which plan type is best for you
  • the ABC’s of successful recruiting
  • how to teach others how to sell
  • the key behaviors we need to movivate in, and the building blocks of, compensation plans
  • the science behind compensation plan design
  • how Founder Programs work and why have one
  • how to select the right MLM software
  • why you need to have a distributor compliance system for your network marketing or party plan company
  • all about sales tax, 1099′s, unclaimed property reporting, and state income taxes
  • why one merchant account is not enough
  • simple methods to keep your MLM or party plan company safe from federal and state regulators
  • how the options of pilot programs, soft launches and hard launches can be used to ignite your growth
  • common mistakes of startup companies
  • 20 secrets of successful companies

and more!

Our 8 speakers will educate you in 16 sessions, plus there are 4 round table discussions that you will fill you with even more knowledge to give you the edge you need to be successful.

Personal Appointments

At the end of each day, from 5 until 7 pm, you’ll have the opportunity to meet with conference speakers for 20 minute appointments at no additional cost! Add the four hours up and you’re easily walking away with over $1,000 worth of consultation.

Where is the conference?

The Direct Selling Edge Conference will be held in Franklin, Tennessee (just 20 miles from Nashville) at the Drury Plaza Hotel Franklin on Thursday and Friday, September 26 and 27, 2013.

Built in 2012, the new 338-room hotel offers a daily free hot breakfast, free soda and popcorn, free food at 5:30pm, free local and long distance calls, free parking, and a microwave and refrigerator in every room.

We’ve negotiated excellent rates for you. Only $119.95 per night.

Where Do You Register?

Registration is fast and easy. For tickets, go to http://www.directsellingedge.com.

For lodging, go to https://wwws.druryhotels.com/Reservations.aspx?groupno=2181246

Questions? Call Jay or Victoria at Sylvina Consulting or email [email protected].

What is the Direct Selling Edge Experience?

Here is what you’ll get…

 

Agenda

Our agenda is loaded with information specifically chosen to advance your business.

Reserve Your Seat

At $199 for your ticket and only $100 for each of your companions, this educational conference is a great value. Contact me to obtain a promo code to obtain a discount. Ignorance is more expensive than education. Information is the only asset separating you from your competitors. We guarantee you’ll get the edge you need. If you’re not satisfied with the program, we’re offering a 100% refund, no questions asked.

It’s easy to get to Nashville and the Direct Selling Edge Conference. Conference tickets are available now.

See You In Tennessee

Join me,+Kevin Thompson, and many of the top direct selling professionals at the Direct Selling Edge Conference. We hope to meet you there!

MLM Income Claims: Basic guidelines for companies and distributors | FTC

MLM income claimsIntroduction

With the recent buzz of Federal Trade Commission v. Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, Inc. slowly coming to a close, I wanted to write an article to reiterate the importance of proper income claims. Statements regarding a network marketing company’s income opportunity go to the heart of the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) mission to extinguish deceptive, unfair, or unsubstantiated claims made by a company and its distributors. And let’s be honest here, it’s not the distributors’ fault. The majority of income claims made by a distributor are more likely than not truthful statements, but the FTC is not JUST concerned with the truth. Promises of riches and an opportunity to live the American Dream can cloud even the most reasonable person’s judgment. With this in mind, the FTC wants to ensure that all potential distributors make a fully informed decision before choosing to join an MLM program.

In this article, we discuss the legality of income claims made by MLMs and their distributors while using the recent Fortune Hi-Tech (“FHTM”) case as a framework. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll use what we learn in this article to help develop solutions that meet the FTC’s requirements.

What Was All the Fuss About?

Among other reasons in its case against FHTM, the FTC alleged that FHTM’s distributors misrepresented the income opportunity. Specifically, the FTC argued that FHTM violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce” by misrepresenting or omitting material facts in its income claims. In my opinion, the FTC’s argument about FHTM operating as a pyramid was weak. There’s not much to be learned there. But there’s a lot that can be learned by analyzing its argument regarding improper income claims. The FTC based its allegations off of recorded video and audio presentations, pictures on social media networks, and Twitter posts uploaded by various distributors. These facts underscore the importance of properly educating distributors on how to make clean product and MLM income claims online.

Examples cited by the FTC include the following:

Recorded Video Presentations

  • The FTC alleged one distributor claimed in a recorded video presentation on her Vimeo website dedicated to her FHTM business that “four months into the business [with FHTM]… I had actually quadrupled what I have ever made as a Registered Nurse.”
  • The FTC alleged a distributor claimed on her Vimeo site that distributors who reach the National or Executive Sales Manager levels “are making thirty-, forty-, sixty-, seventy-thousand a month.”
  • The FTC alleged distributors frequently made lifestyle claims, such as highlighting extended family vacations to exotic locations, driving nice cars, and purchasing large homes with luxurious amenities.

Recorded Audio Presentations

  • The FTC alleged a recorded conference call posted on distributor’s team website stated that another distributor earned over $50,000 in his sixth month with the company alone and that he “earned millions and millions beyond that” in subsequent years.
  • Regarding another conference call, the FTC alleged a distributor posted on his team’s website that another distributor was earning “over $100,000 a month” after three years with the company.

Twitter

  • The FTC alleged a distributor posted on her Twitter account about a recruiting meeting, encouraging people to “Bring ur friends & learn how 2 make $100k aYR.”

Facebook Photos

  • The FTC alleged that at a national convention, 30 top earners were called to the stage to be presented with a mock check for $64 million to represent the amount of money they earned with the company. Several distributors later shared a photo of the presentation on social networking sites.

Sound familiar? No matter how long you have been involved in the network marketing industry, chances are you’ve heard claims similar to the examples above on a regular basis. I’m not trying to point any fingers at distributors. The statements referenced above could potentially all be true. The key is whether those distributors shared legally sufficient income disclosures to the prospects immediately after making the claims. When it comes to these income disclosures, the FTC preferences are confusing and they require a lot from all marketers. In most cases, distributors are simply unaware of how to promote their opportunities appropriately. That’s just the nature of the beast, and it all ties back to compliance training. It’s important to understand the FTC’s top priority is ensuring income claims are adequate. With that being said, the best place to start when learning how to play a game is studying the rules.

The Rules of the Game

The FTC used the following legal argument to make its case against FHTM:

Any income claim that is considered to be deceptive needs a disclosure. The FTC considers an income claim deceptive where information that would affect a reasonable consumer’s judgment is misrepresented or omitted.[1] There is a presumption that all information regarding earning potentials affect consumer’s judgment, even when you do not guarantee they will make any money.[2] Out of those claims, it is also presumed to be reasonable for consumers to rely on statements you expressly make,[3] regardless of whether you tell them making “big money” is a sure thing or not.[4] In other words, all income claims that are atypical need adequate disclosures.

The FTC says that any income claim made is regarded as what consumers will “general[ly achieve . . . .”[5] In other words, what you represent as potential money to a prospect is what a reasonable prospect will expect to earn. IF YOU LACK SUBSTANTIATION (aka, you have no proof) that the majority of your distributors earn the amount represented by a few high earners, you must give a clear and conspicuous disclosure indicating exactly the percentage of distributors who earn at least the amount you represented.[6] And you must also disclose the average earnings. If you’re a distributor that’s working with a particular company, if they do not provide adequate income disclosures, DO NOT MAKE INCOME CLAIMS. The pressure is on them to provide the data.

Conclusion

If you are the motivated (or self-burdening) type, I’d like to challenge you with a little homework project. Look at the examples cited by the FTC against FHTM above and determine what type of disclosure is necessary using the rules we discussed in this article. In our next installment, we’ll discuss our own solutions and ideas for the proper ways to make income claims.

Click here to read part 2 of this series.

[1] See FTC v. Bay Area Bus Council, Inc., 423 F.3d 627, 635 (7th Cir. 2005); FTC v. World Media Brokers, 415 F.3d 758, 763 (7th Cir. 2005); Kraft, Inc. v. FTC, 970 F.2d 311, 322 (7th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 909 (1993); FTC v. QT, Inc., 448 F. Supp. 2d 908, 957 (N.D. Ill. 2006).
[2] FTC v. Febre, No. 94 C 3625, 1996 WL 396117, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 3, 1996) (conditional earnings claims would be understood to represent typical or average earnings and are therefore deceptive).
[3] See World Travel Vacation Brokers, 861 F.2d 1020, 1029 (7th Cir. 1988).
[4] FTC v. Five Star Auto Club, Inc., 97 F. Supp. 2d 502, 528 (S.D.N.Y. 2000).
[5] 16 C.F.R. § 255.2(b) (Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising); see also In re Cliffdale Assoc., Inc., 103 F.T.C 110, 173 (1984), 1984 WL 565319 (F.T.C.), at *16 (testimonials presumed to represent typical experiences).
[6] In re Nat’l Dynamics, 85 F.T.C. 1052 (1975).

by +Kevin Thompson

FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines for Online Marketing: How to get it right (Part 2)

This article was written by +Kevin Thompson in collaboration with our stellar summer associate, Jake Perry.

FTC Disclosure GuidelinesIn the last article, FTC’s Disclosure Guidelines for Online Marketing: How to get it right (Part 1), we walked through the Federal Trade Commission’s recently published .com Disclosure Guidelines (fully included below). In this installment, we’re going to walk through five hypothetical examples of common marketing claims made in the MLM industry. The goal of this post is to provide you with practical, easy-to-understand tips on how to make proper claims.

The format is simple: I’m going to give you common fact patterns of how claims are made in the MLM industry. Then I’ll show you what most distributors would WANT to do as far as making disclosures. Then I’ll show what they SHOULD do, as per the .com Disclosure Guidelines. These guidelines apply whether the company is an MLM startup or a well-established company.

Ready? Go time!

UPDATE: This article has been updated after further research.  The .com Disclosure Guidelines are over 50 pages and it never mentions income claims.  The analysis below is based on my interpretation of their guidelines.  

EXAMPLE 1: CHECK WAVING

check

Fact Pattern:

Kyle is very excited about his involvement in a new cosmetics company, Wrinkles-B-Gone. After six months of hard work, he received his first check in the mail for $4,500. Overcome with excitement, Kyle gets an idea. He decides to post a picture on his Facebook profile showing off his check. Kyle figures it’ll be a great way to “flex his muscles” while demonstrating the power of his new company. It is clearly visible in the picture that the check is for $4,500. In his Facebook post, Kyle says, “Boom, playa! Check me out! Want to learn why this company is throwing money at me? Give me a call.”

Kyle does not include a disclosure of the average earnings for Wrinkles-B-Gone distributors. The average is $345 per month per distributor.

What Kyle wants to do:

Kyle, in no attempt to be deceitful, would want to provide a naked link to the company’s income disclosure in the caption. He figures, “Hey, they can click on the link and see all of the numbers at their leisure.”

What the FTC wants to see:

In the caption of the photograph: Please click this link to see our average earnings: www.wrinkles-b-gone.com/earningsdisclaimer

Lesson Learned:

The FTC allows marketers to provide a link to a disclosure IF the disclosure is not integral to the claim being made. “Integral” as defined by meridian is “essential or fundamental.”  Is an income disclosure integral to an income claim?  Sadly, the FTC does not give us any examples that involve income claims.  But they did specify that issues related to health or higher costs would certainly require disclosure near the claim itself (not via a hyperlink).  In an example in the guidelines, there was a refrigerator that was unable to maintain a cold enough temperature to prevent bacteria growth.  In that example, a disclosure by the ad itself is required.  Is the risk associated with an earnings claim on par with food borne illnesses?  I doubt it (but I’m open for a discussion).

The FTC further states that disclosures made via hyperlinks are permissible when the data is too complex to disclose next to the ad itself.  With income disclosures, the data can be very complex.  Plus, the average earnings changes each month; thus, making it nearly impossible to get the entire field to properly disclose the averages immediately after their claims.  It’s only practical, in my opinion, to get the field to provide a link to a full earnings disclosure.  Keep in mind, providing the link by itself is insufficient.  The link must be clearly labeled to adequately inform consumers.  Inserting “Please click this link to see our average earnings” sends a clear signal.

If you allow your distributors to make income claims, it’s imperative that you educate them on the proper ways to make those claims.  Also, it’s a good idea to display the income disclosure form at some point during the enrollment process.  This will help “clean up” in the event your leader fails to provide a disclosure.

EXAMPLE 2: Weight Loss Claim

Weight Loss Example -  | MLM attorneyGronk has been using “Slim-Me-Cave” for the past 30 days. Miraculously, Gronk lost 30 pounds in this short period of time. Incredibly happy with this weight loss product, Gronk decides to post a blog on the Internet. In the article, he writes, “I lose 30 pounds in 30 days with Slim-Me-Cave! It best weight loss product!!” The average customer of Slim-Me-Cave loses about 1 pound per week, so Gronk’s results are certainly above average.

What Gronk wants to do:

*Results Not Typical.

What the FTC wants to see:

Typical loss is 1 pound per week for Slim-Me-Cave customers. Results will vary depending on diet and exercise.

Lesson Learned:

Your disclosures must give a “reasonable customer” sufficient information to make a decision. “Results Not Typical” does not provide enough information. When making a testimonial about a product that’s “above average,” the average needs to be disclosed (as per the FTC guidelines). Back in the old days, “Results Not Typical” used to work. But now since everyone is a potential marketer, the FTC wants disclosures to be more specific. Does “Results Not Typical” mean a customer will lose only 20 pounds in 30 days? 15 pounds in 30 days? What results can the average customer expect? When possible, provide the averages.

EXAMPLE 3: YouTube Income Claim

youtube_logo_635

Fact Pattern:

Stephanie is giving a video testimonial on YouTube about the benefits of her network-marketing company’s pay plan. She states that “In this business, when I recruited just 20 people, I was making over $2,000 per week!” In that particular program, the average distributor earns $235 per month.

What Stephanie wants to do:

Stephanie would probably not want to provide an income disclosure at all. I’m just being candid. Rarely in videos prepared by distributors do you see any kinds of income disclosures.

What the FTC wants to see:

The FTC states that the manner you communicate your claim should also be the manner you communicate your disclosure. Therefore, a YouTube video should contain a disclaimer in both video and audio formats. Where should the disclaimer be? Sadly, there’s no clear answer. But if we look at the FTC’s definition of “Clear and Conspicuous,” I think the safest bet is a text disclosure displayed simultaneously to the claim in question in addition to a more detailed audio and video formatted disclosure at the end of the testimonial. Or Stephanie could provide a “visual cue” during the video to communicate to the viewer that disclosures can be found at the end of the video.

Without question, it’s now required (in my opinion) that distributors end their videos with a properly formatted video segment. At the end of the testimonial video, a separate video disclosure should be included to illustrate the average incomes. The video file should include an image of the company’s income disclaimer (usually in spreadsheet format). While the image is on the screen, there should be audio narration regarding the average earnings. If a company is going to permit distributors to use YouTube to promote their businesses, the company should provide this kind of file freely on its website AND educate distributors on how to use it.

While it sounds complicated, it’s not difficult for companies to provide this sort of video file. However, if the company is unwilling to properly arm the distributors with sufficient tools to make good claims, they should restrict distributors from using YouTube (which is not realistic AT ALL).

There are several questions this kind of hypo raises:

Should companies require leaders to insert a clear and conspicuous textual disclosure to appear on the screen when the claim is being made?

It depends. In a perfect world, yes, it’s a good idea to provide the disclosure during the claim. But in reality, most reps lack the technical skill to do this right. This is what we know: disclosures should be as close as possible to the claim being made. Is it sufficient to provide a video file containing a full disclosure at the end of the video? In my opinion, the answer is yes. But in the abundance of caution, it would be better if there were a text disclosure provided during the video in addition to a video file being used at the end.

Is it a good idea to even allow reps to make these sorts of claims to begin with?

Are you able to produce a quality disclosure for your distributors to use? Do you trust your distributors to “color within the lines” and end their videos with a video? Do you have a solid compliance department to catch and correct the distributors that do this poorly? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then you’ve got a shot. If, on the other hand, you answered “no” to any of those questions, it might not be worth the risk.

Lesson Learned:

If you are going to allow reps to make videos that contain income claims, be careful! When it comes to videos, it’s difficult to walk the tight rope. When it comes to income claims in videos, there’s not much margin for error. With this in mind, I would advise companies to require tight compliance. At a minimum, companies should provide distributors with a professionally produced video file that all distributors can include at the conclusion of their videos. If you know leaders are going to make claims in YouTube videos, or any other video platform, it’s wise to properly arm them with adequate disclosures. A video file will give the needed audio disclosure as well as additional visual disclosure to the income claim in question.

EXAMPLE 4: YouTube Product Claim

Product Claim Example | MLM attorneyFact Pattern:

“Sports Minded” is a company that sells organic products that improve mental focus during physical activity. Adam is a distributor for Sports Minded and he decides to do a self published a YouTube video to give a testimonial about how he can now focus for 8 hours straight while playing golf without additional supplements. However, studies performed by Sports Minded indicate users can experience an average of 4 hours of improved focus. Adam is being honest regarding his experience with the product. He’s like Mr. Miyagi for 8 hour straight! Since it’s a true statement about his personal experience, is he required to provide substantiation and disclose the average results?

What Adam wants to do:

Adam would likely try to provide a disclosure via a hyperlink in the video description, in text at the end of the video or in a brief audio message at the end of the video.

What the FTC wants to see:

They want a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure that contains the average results. Just like with the income claim example above, the disclosure needs to be in both audio and visual format.

It would be ideal if the distributor had the skill to inject the disclaimer immediately after making the claim i.e. “I know that the company says the average person experiences 4 hours of increased focus, but that was NOT the case for me!” In order for this to happen consistently in the field, the company needs to take compliance education very seriously.

Lesson Learned:

As you can see with all of these disclosures, it’s a lot more art than science. We previously mentioned that the manner you communicate your claim should also be the manner you communicate your disclosure. Technically, the FTC wants to see the disclaimer in both audio and visual formats (even for videos produced by the field). With that being said, it’s unrealistic to expect sales people to get this right when they’re making product testimonials. And I think the FTC understands this (I’m at least hoping they do). With product testimonials, I think a text disclaimer inserted into the video would be a sufficient disclosure. But this approach would NOT be sufficient for income claims. Because money clouds judgment, the FTC is much more strict in that category (and they should be).

EXAMPLE 5: Tumblr Blog

Tumblr - MLM exampleFact Pattern:

Mary publishes an article on Tumblr about “N-ERGY SAVER,” a utility service MLM where customers can save money on their electric bills throughout the year. Mary, a representative, claims that she saved $50 per month by signing up with the company. While Mary’s claim is 100% true, the company’s data shows that the average homeowner saves $15 per month on their electric bill.

What Mary wants to do:

She wants to tell her story! She wants to say “I saved $50 a month with this service and so can you!” Since it’s a true story, Mary sees nothing wrong with her sharing her personal experience.

What the FTC is looking for:

The FTC wants to see a disclosure in close proximity to her claim. So if she has written text about her savings with N-ERGY, she needs to include a disclaimer in the same font and format as the text that triggered the claim. The disclaimer can say “The average homeowner saves between $10 and $20 per month, depending on their energy consumption patterns.”

BONUS EXAMPLE!

bonus

Fact Pattern:

Same as Example #2, except suppose Gronk wants to make the same claim via Twitter.

What Gronk wants to do:

I saved 30 LBS w/ Slim-Me-Cave in 30 days! bit.ly/f56/productinfo [linking to the product page that includes the average results]

What the FTC wants to see:

Twitter allows for 140 characters per tweet. If there’s sufficient space for a disclosure, it’s ok to use to twitter. Otherwise, it should be avoided. With Gronk, providing a link is insufficient. But the FTC provides a little hope in this category: as long as the average results are provided in the tweet, twitter can be used. The FTC provides an example of a permissible weight loss claim below:

Untitled

Should Twitter be allowed for income claims?

No! There’s just not enough real estate to provide an adequate income disclosure. As I mentioned above, providing a hyperlink by itself is insufficient.

Lesson Learned:

Twitter is tricky. If the distributors are properly trained, they can use twitter for good product testimonials. But with respect to income claims, Twitter should not be allowed AT ALL.

Conclusion

It’s going to be tough for network marketing companies to walk this tight rope. On the one hand, they want to give their distributors the freedom and flexibility to aggressively market the products and pay plan. On the other hand, they need to “pump the brakes” to ensure that the distributors are doing things right. In my opinion, the real challenge is going to be with online video. While it’s very easy for anyone to create a video with a webcam, it’s very difficult for people to insert proper disclaimers during and/or after the video. In the future, proper education in the field is going to be absolutely crucial. Companies that commit to field education are going to be the ones that pass the scrutiny. Companies that take their hands off the wheel and expect leaders to get this stuff right are walking on thin ice. The FTC’s expectations are out there. Ignorance is no longer an excuse.

BREAKING NEWS: FTC’s Case Against Fortune Hi Tech Removed to Kentucky

FTC - FHTM case transferred to Kentucky | MLM AttorneyIn February of 2013, the FTC filed a lawsuit against Fortune Hi Tech Marketing. The lawsuit was filed in Federal Court in Chicago. The FTC is alleging that FHTM operates as a pyramid scheme. As mentioned in my last article, the FTC passed on the scalpel and picked up the sledgehammer. Basically, they departed from their traditional, math-based pyramid scheme arguments and went for a more generic approach. This new strategy is even worse than the other one. If it sticks, it represents a significant threat to the industry. Based on the FTC’s argument, rewards triggered via distributor consumption are illegal recruitment bonuses. This is a very important case.

Time for the Update

FHTM filed a motion to get the case transferred to federal court in Kentucky. Kentucky is the home state for the company and most of the principals. The judge in Chicago punted the file to Kentucky. The factors considered when deciding on such a transfer include:

(1) site of material events relative to the case;
(2) relative ease of access to sources of proof;
(3) convenience of the parties litigating;
(4) convenience for the witnesses.

This is big for two reasons. First, the judge in Chicago thought so little of the case that he sent it south. If he wanted it, he could’ve kept it. Second, the law in Kentucky is clearer with respect to pyramid schemes. It states:

Pyramid distribution plan” means any plan, program, device, scheme, or other process by which a participant gives consideration for the opportunity to receive compensation or things of value in return for inducing other persons to become participants in the program;
(5) “Compensation” means payment of any money, thing of value, or financial benefit conferred in return for inducing others to become participants in the pyramid distribution plan. Compensation does not include payment based on sales of goods or services by the person or by other participants in the plan to anyone, including a participant in the plan, who is purchasing the goods or services for actual use or consumption…..

Again, the FTC was initially arguing that commissions triggered via internal consumption are illegal bonuses. But the statute in Kentucky says the exact opposite. This case is FAR from over. There’s likely going to be a hearing next week in Kentucky regarding the injunction over Fortune Hi Tech. If FHTM wins, they’re back in business. The judge’s reasoning for sending the case to Kentucky is included below.

If you’re reading this via email, please click this link to read the judge’s opinion.

The FTC Is Now Regulating Boxing

FTC Regulating Boxing

See below for the FTC’s latest effort to protect people across the country.

Begin Press Release

The FTC has been commissioned to address the growing belief that shorter men can actually compete at a high level in professional boxing. In fact, after conducting surveys over a period of four years, speaking with numerous experts (none of whom have actually boxed), the FTC has ultimately concluded that the empowering message of the Rocky franchise to be misleading for prospective boxers throughout the country. This report is intended to provide guidance for coaches and trainers going forward when they’re soliciting involvement from young fighters.

As per our newly published guidelines, trainers and coaches are required to obtain separate signatures on a disclosure document from prospective fighters before they begin training. The disclosure document addresses numerous myths associated with the Rocky character as well any false expectations held by prospective fighters. The disclosure document must contain a “purpose statement,” which is included below. The purpose statement must be included in red, 16 pt san serif font, center justified, all caps bold. The purpose statement must also be read aloud in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Russian.

THERE ARE BETTER WAYS OF EARNING A LIVING. WE, THE COACHES AND TRAINERS, STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO GET REAL JOBS. BUT IF YOU DECIDE TO PROCEED WITH A DREAM OF MAKING IT AS A BOXER, THIS IS A REQUIRED DISCLOSURE BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

The disclosure must state:

The average annualized income for all active Boxers during this period (before expenses) was $8.37. The average boxer can expect to suffer much and earn little.

Regarding the Rocky franchise: Rocky Balboa is a fictional character. Statistically, a 5’8″ Italian man over the age of 30 has zero shot of winning a heavyweight boxing title. Chasing chickens has not been scientifically proven to make you faster. There has never been a man that could really piss lightning or crap thunder. Pounding frozen meat has not been validated as an effective way to improve hand strength. After our medical advisory board reviewed the original Rocky film, they concluded that Rocky Balboa would have suffered 27 concussions at the hands of Apollo Creed before the final bell.

There are no guarantees of income as a fighter. Boxers that fail are condemned socially, labeled “wishful thinkers.”

End