(ARTICLE FEATURED IN SEEKING ALPHA) Battle Over BurnLounge: Both sides claim victory

Below is an excerpt from my article about the Ninth Circuit opinion on BurnLounge.  The article can be read in full over at Seeking Alpha.  It’s an important subject.  Click here to read it.

Summary

  • The Court successfully threaded the needle on the issue of “ultimate users,” essentially creating two classes of participants.
  • The Court provided several factors throughout the opinion to help outsiders deduce the motivation driving consumption. This is especially helpful in assessing $HLF.
  • The Opinion will require the FTC’s pyramid scheme expert to create another analytical framework to distinguish pyramid schemes from legitimate direct selling companies (assuming they need one).
  • The Court adopted the logic provided by the FTC in its 2004 Staff Advisory Opinion.
  • The Court eliminated all confusion regarding Omnitrition as it completely ignored the widely referenced dicta that consumption from participants cannot count as sales to “ultimate users.”

On June 2nd, 2014, the Ninth Circuit published its long awaited BurnLounge Opinion. Within hours, both sides of the Herbalife battlefield issued statements claiming victory about the decision. I’ve taken the week to process the opinion. During this time, I’ve tried to keep up to speed with the online chatter regarding various interpretations. One thing is clear: the gray space in MLM law separating legitimate direct selling companies from pyramid schemes has been minimized considerably.

On the one side, Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square spun it as validation of its argument that commissions in the Herbalife plan were derived primarily by opportunity driven demand (recruitment rewards) instead of legitimate product consumption. On the other side, the MLM industry (myself included), breathed a sigh of relief, submitting that the decision validates a lot of our main points in responding to common criticisms of the model. This article is intended to cull out the key nuggets in the BurnLounge decision and interpret what it means going forward.

End of Excerpt

Click here to read the rest of the article on Seeking Alpha.  Seeking Alpha is a news site dedicated to publishing content about publicly traded companies.  The article took me quite a bit of time to prepare.  I hope you find it informative.

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE FTC: “When it comes to pyramid schemes, don’t be in denial”

If you’re reading this via email, please click the image above to view my video on the subject. 

The FTC is finally starting to talk, and we better pay attention. The FTC has recently announced a “Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction” in its case against Fortune Hi Tech. There’s no surprise here…the founder of FHTM has recently passed away and there was not much to fight over once the initial injunction was in place.  The injunction is what we’ve been expecting: the company is prohibited from operating as an MLM and they’re ordered to pay cash to the government.  

In its announcement, the FTC communicated in plain English. Instead of giving you my perspective, I’m going to share their statement in full. It’s easy to read and it’ll give you an idea of what they find offensive. If I were to summarize (I know I told you I wouldn’t give my perspective, but I can’t help it), I’d say there were three things that caught the FTC’s attention regarding FHTM: (1) aggressive income claims with inadequate substantiation; (2) the emphasis of the marketing pitch was on recruitment instead of product value; (3) (you’re not going to deduce this from their statement below, but it was certainly a factor) the majority of the pay plan was driven by the volume from new participants i.e. front loading.

BEGINNING OF PRESS RELEASE, included in full

Promotional materials and live presentations for Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing used a lot of organizational jargon to recruit new people.  The first step:  Shell out start-up fees and monthly charges.  Next:  Recruit enough “independent reps” so you can work your way up through the ranks to Regional Sales Manager, Executive Sales Manager, National Sales Manager, Platinum Sales Manager, and ultimately “Presidential Ambassador.”  But the FTC and the State AGs of Illinois, Kentucky and North Carolina have another term for FHTM’s convoluted system of recruiting and compensation: They call it a pyramid scheme.

Last year, the FTC and the states sued FHTM, related companies, and individual defendants, alleging they deceptively claimed people would make big bucks by signing up to sell FHTM’s health and beauty products and services from other vendors.  What kind of bait did they dangle before would-be entrepreneurs?  According to one video, “Four months in . . . I had actually quadrupled what I have ever made as a Registered Nurse.”  One of FHTM’s Platinum Sales Managers said in a video that people who reach the upper levels were making between $30,000 and $70,000 per month.  During a recorded conference call posted on a team website, an FHTM Presidential Ambassador claimed that a colleague involved for only six months “earned over $50,000 in one month” and “millions and millions beyond that.”

Ultimately, more than 350,000 people enrolled, but the FTC and State AGs say the bottom line was a far cry from FHTM’s bluster.  After conducting its own investigation, the court-appointed receiver concluded that FHTM’s main business was recruiting new members and not selling stuff  – a key factor in differentiating a pyramid scheme from a legitimate multi-level marketing plan.  For example, 98% of participants lost more money than they made and at least 88% didn’t even recoup their enrollment fees.  To the extent people made any money, 81% of the payments to FHTM participants came from recruiting new members, not from sales.

To settle the case, the defendants have agreed to a lifetime ban from multilevel marketing.  The stipulated order imposes a judgment of more than $169 million, which will be partially suspended when they surrender certain assets with an estimated value of at least $7.75 million, including property from the estate of defendant Paul Orberson, who died while the case was pending.  What kind of valuables are we talking about?  A farm in Kentucky, a Florida condo, a house in South Carolina, a BMW, a Jeep, two boats, a sports memorabilia collection, coins, and bullion.  The jet skis?  They’re going, too.

What can bizopp buyers and sellers take from the case?

    • Right on the money?  Some bizopp sellers argue that earnings claims are just harmless puffery.  Wrong.  If you state – or imply – that people will achieve certain results, you need competent and reliable evidence to back up those promises.  And don’t think that one person’s unusually successful outcome will be sufficient to support a general money-making claim.  Save the cherry-picking for the pie.
       
    • United we stand.  The FTC and State AGs stand shoulder to shoulder to protect consumers from questionable money-making ventures.  Sometimes the cooperation is behind the scenes; other times we’ll file a case jointly.  Either way, we work together to ferret out fraud and deter deception.
       
    • A ruse by any other name.  The evidence showed that the FHTM defendants targeted Spanish-speaking consumers and members of immigrant communities for their shady pitch.  Deception is deception, regardless of the language or demographics.
       
    • A word for entrepreneurs.  View business opportunity pitches with a skeptical eye, especally if the person making the promises stands to make money from your participation.  Before investing so much as a nickel, run it past someone with proven business savvy who isn’t trying to sell you something.  The FTC has free resources in English and Spanish to help you evaluate the options, with specific advice on multilevel marketing.  One possible tip-off to a bizopp rip-off:  If the focus is less on selling the product and more on recruiting new members.
END PRESS RELEASE

If you’re reading this via email, click here to review the Stipulated Order for Permanent Injunction.

Herbalife Announces FTC Investigation

Herbalife announced that the FTC has initiated an investigation. While it’s not pleasant to deal with a government subpoena, this gives Herbalife an opportunity to put this issue to rest. Watch the video below to get my thoughts. In summary, I believe the FTC will use the data it collects from Herbalife to sharpen its saw in an effort to create better guidelines for network marketing companies. They’re not going to sue Herbalife (though I’m sure they’re thinking about it). If you’re reading this via email, click here to watch the video. The paper referenced in my video can be found embedded below (or here).
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Senator Markey’s Letter to the FTC: Prediction

Recently, Senator Markey from Massachusetts called upon the FTC to investigate Herbalife.  His full letter is included below. Click here to read if you’re reading via email. It’s worth mentioning that that the letter was likely originated by someone at Pershing Square, as observed by John Hempton. Markey has useful letterhead, being a U.S. Senator and all. I digress…

These are my predictions:

  • The FTC will respond. While Markey’s letter called for a response by February 28, I’m guessing they’ll respond after the deadline but by late April.
  • The FTC is not going to respond specifically about Herbalife. Three points worth mentioning here: (1) The FTC lacks the data to provide any meaningful commentary about Herbalife; (2) If the FTC had a problem with Herbalife, they’re not going to announce same at the behest of a Senator; and most importantly (3) Herbalife is not a pyramid scheme.  Ackman is playing another confidence game, and the market has grown immune to his tricks.
  • The FTC is going to take this as an opportunity to start a broader discussion about the network marketing space.  There’s an ocean of gray that separates legitimate network marketing companies from illegal pyramid schemes.  As a result of this ambiguity, fraudulent programs are flying under the guise of network marketing, claiming legitimacy because they’re “just like Amway.”  In my opinion, this is the underbelly of the space that the FTC needs to address, not companies like Herbalife.  What will these guidelines look like in the future?  That’s a different set of predictions for another time.

The video is a short one. I hope you find it informative. If you’re reading this via email, please click here to view the video.

Update: Herbalife’s CEO, Michael Johnson, personally wrote a response to Senator Markey. It’s also included below.

Herbalife Distributors Continue to Win Despite War on Wall Street

This post is for the unsung heroes carrying the Herbalife organization through this difficult period. Candidly, their distributors are dominating! 2nd Quarter Earnings are in for Herbalife. All of the major metrics are up. Despite the war on Wall Street over the fate of Herbalife between several notable players, the Herbalife distributors continue to produce results. In this video, I explain the importance of their achievement. I also give a few predictions about what this conflict means for the future of the industry.

If you’re interested in the financial elements surrounding Herbalife stock, check out the video below. Robert Chapman does a great job explaining the current and potential value of $HLF. He understands the network marketing model AND the markets, which makes his insight valuable. If you’ll recall, Robert Chapman was literally the first professional on Wall Street to question Bill Ackman’s analysis. His article titled “Herbalife: Why I Made It a 35% Position after the Bill Ackman Bear Raid,” let a lot of air out of Ackman’s proverbial tires. It moved the market. I’m proud to know him.

http://video.cnbc.com/gallery/?play=1&video=3000187031

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

FTC Shuts Down Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, Summons the Krakan

Peter Vander Nat

As most of you know, the FTC has filed a lawsuit against Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing, alleging them to be a pyramid scheme. This is the first action taken by the FTC against an MLM since December of 2006. The most informative pleading that shows the FTC’s position is the memorandum supporting the FTC’s motion for an injunction. WARNING: It’s 54 pages…and boring. When describing these cases, I’ve found that it’s always best to give a brief summary of the business model.

Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing (“FHTM”) Business Model

FHTM_logoFHTM is a network marketing company that specializes in selling nutritional supplements and beauty products. It also dabbles in selling cable and telecom services. Participants join FHTM by paying a $250 administrative fee. In order to qualify their positions, these “Managers” are required to move (buy or sell) 1,000 volume points. This usually costs between $100 and $400 per month, totaling at least $1,200 annually in product sales / purchases.

Managers can advance to “Regional Sales Managers” by recruiting six additional Managers. RSMs can advance higher by recruiting additional Managers. RSMs are eligible to earn $100 for each new Manager in their downline. While the new Manager doesn’t generate $100 worth of margin based on his or her product purchase, I doubt FHTM is using money from the $250 enrollment for the $100 bonus (which would obviously be a recruitment bonus). Instead, they’re probably allocating some of the breakage in the plan from unpaid commissions from product sales i.e. the majority of reps do not hit the RSM rank; therefore, there’s plenty of money in the pot for the bonus. Using Vander Nat’s “perfect scenario” theory, assuming everyone were to hit the RSM rank, the plan breaks. The FTC is exploiting this as a weakness in the plan.

FTC’s Thesis

The FTC’s thesis is simple: the FHTM products are merely incidental to the money making opportunity. The FTC makes itself clear: while FHTM talks about “selling product,” the references to sales are cosmetic designed to conceal a money transfer scheme. Additionally, the FTC is arguing that the structure of the pay plan itself is turbo-charged to reward recruitment over legitimate product sales.

FTC’s Purported Expert a/k/a the Kraken

Peter Vander Nat

The FTC’s attack dog throughout the years has consistently been its economist, Dr. Peter Vander Nat. Vander Nat co-wrote an article titled “Marketing Fraud: An Approach for Differentiating Multilevel Marketing from Pyramid Schemes.” In the article, Vander Nat publishes his math formula that he uses when reviewing a multilevel marketing program. Vander Nat is an interesting anomaly in the MLM industry. In my opinion, he’s similar to the the Kraken in Pirates of the Caribbean. In the movie, the Kraken is a large beast residing in the depths of the ocean, only to surface when called upon by its master to destroy a vessel. And when the job is done, it vanishes…

Vander Nat operates in simliar fashion. While the FTC recognizes the legitimacy of the MLM industry, their chosen expert does not share the same sentiment. I suspect they keep him locked behind closed doors for years, only to use his services when they need to sink a ship fast. Can you blame them? Vander Nat has never once found an MLM legal using his math formula. I’m not kidding. In the FTC’s case against BurnLounge, Vander Nat’s credibility as a witness is being contested at the appellate level. In its brief, BurnLounge references Vander Nat’s deposition transcript and writes:

Vander Nat had never studied any MLMs that he concluded were legal. He could not testify that using his analysis, one would ever find an MLM to be legal. . . Nothing was presented to show that his test had gained widespread acceptance. He likewise admitted that he did not know if his test complied with the Koscot/Omnitrition test.”

If you want the full text, check out page 43 of BurnLounge’s Appellate Brief.

I’m not making this up. The FTC’s expert, the man charged with distinguishing good companies from bad companies, has created an impossible standard. And furthermore, if you review his math formula published in his article, it requires a doctorate in quantum physics to truly understand. As if that’s not enough, central to his formula is this definition of “retail sales.” He writes, “We rely on Omnitrition’s findings that for purposes of pyramid analysis, the sale of product to ultimate users means the sale of product to those who are outside the organization.” In other words, for purposes of his formula, commissions triggered via internal consumption are considered “recruitment bonuses.” When you control the terminology, you control the outcome.

On a side note, his reliance on Omnitrition is misplaced. Omnitrition was never held to be a pyramid scheme. But I digress…

What does the FTC say on the issue of MLM internal consumption? Unlike Vander Nat, the FTC takes a softer stance on the subject when it writes, “In fact, the amount of internal consumption in any multi-level compensation business does not determine whether or not the FTC will consider the plan a pyramid scheme.” Clearly, there’s some incompatibility between the FTC’s public statements and their arguments made in litigation. Do they reserve the Kraken for what they perceive to be the most egregious of companies? It appears to be the case.

Why Fortune Hi Tech Marketing

Just to be clear, I’m not defending the Fortune Hi Tech model. I lack adequate information to form an opinion one way or the other. I’ve learned that it’s ill-advised to form an opinion based on the initial complaint. But I do know this: FHTM is isolated. The DSA rolled them under the bus and it only took them 24 hours after the FTC filed its lawsuit. FHTM is not part of the tribe, which means they’re not going to score many sympathy points from industry participants. Will this hurt them? I think so. If they survive the injunction (very high bar there), there’s not going to be enough positive press to keep their sales force engaged. The industry, traveling in a pack, will keep moving in a herd knowing full well that occasionally, some get eaten.

The FTC’s allegations can be summarized in two small sections.

(1) Recruitment Culture.

FHTM heavily emphasizes recruitment over sales. In fact, the FTC commonly places sales in quotes i.e. “sales.” They know that there’s a theoretical opportunity for sales, they just dismiss it as fake. They allege that as a requirement for participation in the plan, Managers must buy (or “sell”) a certain amount of inventory each month. This amount averages over $1,200 per year. Are the prices inflated? The FTC never says one way or the other. The FTC also accuses FHTM of overstating the benefits of their partnerships with nationally known brands i.e. DISH Network, Xoom Energy, etc. The FTC alleges that Managers in FHTM tout these partnerships as validation of the model; however, there’s very little commission to be gained from those sales because those partnerships are just “run-of-the-mill affiliate agreements.”

(2) Income Claims.

FHTM allows its sales force to make inappropriate income claims. The FTC provides a number of crazy claims made by leaders and executives. These statements were taken from all over the place, including company meetings, YouTube videos and, most surprisingly, Twitter. If you’re an executive for an existing MLM, pay attention. Compliance matters. While FHTM has an income disclosure document, the FTC is alleging that FHTM never made it a priority to get it in the hands of prospects. Also, the FTC alleges that the income disclosure document uses fuzzy math to reach its numbers because it excluded a large population of the sales force.

Due Process?

dueprocessDoes it make you nervous knowing that the Federal government can shut down a long-standing business without a judicial hearing? Critic or not, it’s disturbing. If FHTM is a flaming pyramid, it would never have survived a hearing. After being in business for over a decade, where is the imminent threat referenced by the FTC in its motion for an immediate injunction? The Critics, who commonly take a “win at all cost” approach, even if it means heralding a felon as their champion, will say “serves them right!” But be careful…

“And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, sir, the laws all being flat? . . . And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!” Sir Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons.

If you’re reading this via email, please click this link to view the FTC’s memorandum in support of its motion.