MLM Special Deals: Deceptive Practices

    Kevin Thompson is an MLM attorney, proud husband, father of four and a founding member of Thompson Burton PLLC. Named as one of the top 25 most influential people in direct sales, Kevin Thompson has extensive experience to help entrepreneurs launch their businesses on secure legal footing. Recently featured on Bloomberg TV and several national publications, Thompson is a thought-leader in the industry.

    We’ve been tip-toeing around this issue for years.

    The first question: Is it legal to offer distributors special incentives (in addition to the pay plan) to join a company? Yes. Just like it’s legal to hire the services of a doctor to promote a new medical device.

    The second question: Is it legal when the company / distributor fail to disclose the existence of these deals? No. Actually, it’s fraud. And as an industry, it’s been going on for years. We’ve known about it, yet we’ve done very little to stop it (or even slow it down). I tried humor when I wrote why more disclosure is bad. I addressed it more assertively in my “Is It Better to Raid In Plain Sight” article when Epic was aggressively cutting deals. I addressed it from an academic standpoint four years ago in my article “Master Distributors: good or bad?

    We’ve been dancing around it for years.

    Here’s the bottom line: FAILURE TO DISCLOSE IS FRAUD! IT’S DECEPTIVE. In the competitive landscape of MLM, in order to stimulate recruitment, companies with cash are tempted to drink from the fraud-cup and poach from the more seasoned companies. When the “top leaders” make their move and boast of the benefits of the product and company, it creates synthetic success stories. It creates the appearance of momentum, which creates a more favorable recruiting environment.

    What Do These Deals Look Like?

    • Distributors are paid in a multitude of ways. I’ve seen countless deals, and no two are the same. These distributors are incentivized by way of the following methods (or a combination):
    • Given a “power-leg” of volume, which makes it much easier for the distributor to derive income via the pay plan (easier path to larger commissions);
    • Given a percentage override on top of their entire organization i.e. 2% on all gross revenues accumulated in their downline;
    • Given monthly pay IN ADDITION to the payout of the compensation plan i.e. $10,000 per month on top of the payout;
    • Given a percentage of the enrollment fees captured by new participants in their organization;
    • Given preferred compensation based on gross volume i.e. the typical pay plan is disregarded, and a new one is used that pays out more based on gross volume for a specified period of time (“50% of all CV paid out as dollars);
    • Given substantial signing bonuses;
    • Given cash advances against future commission cycles.

    Why Should Companies Care?

    If companies are building their organizations the right way, brick by brick, deal-free…they’re having the fruits of their labor stolen. And because there’s so little discussion about this practice, it creates an environment where companies can raid effectively without consequence. The non-deal receiving distributors (“lemmings”) follow the distributors because, in most cases, these deal-receiving distributors are great communicators and great recruiters. The lemmings TRUST their upline. But if the lemmings actually knew there was a little extra in it for the promoters….it would slow things down dramatically. The magic would vanish and people would be in a better position to make informed decisions.

    Another reason why companies should care: the pressure of these deals leads distributors to play the “my company is better than your company game” in an effort to raid their old groups. It’s like throwing red meat to hungry lions…it causes people to go on a recruiting frenzy, making aggressive claims along the way. In some egregious cases, the leaders are given authority by the company to cut individual deals at the leader’s discretion. This gives the leader more ammunition to raid deep.

    What Does the Law Say?

    Regarding undisclosed deals, it’s fraud. And it’s getting worse, not better. I’ve flirted with the subject in the past, without much luck. Troy Dooly has published some content about it, without much luck.

    It’s time to be more direct. It needs to stop.

    Back to the law: In their Testimonial and Endorsement Guidelines, the FTC states, “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed. . . . “ These special deals are absolutely material and they absolutely affect the “credibility of the endorsement.” The FTC goes on to provide the following example:

    Example 4: An ad for an anti-snoring product features a physician who says that he has seen dozens of products come on the market over the years and, in his opinion, this is the best ever. Consumers would expect the physician to be reasonably compensated for his appearance in the ad. Consumers are unlikely, however, to expect that the physician receives a percentage of gross product sales or that he owns part of the company, and either of these facts would likely materially affect the credibility that consumers attach to the endorsement. Accordingly, the advertisement should clearly and conspicuously disclose such a connection between the company and the physician.

    In their FAQs on the subject, the FTC adds extra insight by answering related questions:

    A famous athlete has thousands of followers on Twitter and is well-known as a spokesperson for a particular product. Does he have to disclose that he’s being paid every time he tweets about the product?

    It depends on whether his readers understand he’s being paid to endorse that product. If they know he’s a paid endorser, no disclosure is needed. But if a significant number of his readers don’t know that, a disclosure would be needed. Determining whether followers are aware of a relationship could be tricky in many cases, so a disclosure is recommended.

    I have a small network marketing business: advertisers pay me to distribute their products to members of my network who then try the product for free. How do the revised Guides affect me?

    It’s a good practice to tell participants in your network that if they get products through your program, they should make it clear they got them for free. It also makes sense to advise your clients – the advertisers – that when they give free samples to your members, they should remind them of the importance of disclosing the relationship when members of your network praise their products. You might consider putting a program in place to check periodically whether your members are making these disclosures.

    Based on these examples, it’s clear: if the FTC expects people to disclose that they received free product, they will certainly expect companies and distributors to disclose the existence of non-public financial arrangements.

    And let’s not forget common sense: If someone is proclaiming the greatness of a company while under the influence of a special arrangement that’s NOT AVAILABLE TO THE PEOPLE THEY’RE RECRUITING, it’s misleading.

    What happens now?

    Ask! Just ASK. When you see a networker making a move, never feel embarrassed to ask “Were you given extra incentives to switch over? Did the upline kick in extra incentives to get you to switch?” If they actually answer, ask, “If not for the incentives, would you join this company as a new distributor?” I’m sure you’ll be attacked, because you’ll be honing in on a very sensitive subject. Basically, you’ll be questioning their integrity because deep down, they know its shady to withhold that kind of information.

    If the company cutting undisclosed deals is a DSA member, file an online Code of Ethics complaint here. Reference Section A of the Code of Ethics (available here). Section A prohibits unethical recruiting practices.

    As a corporate leader, if you refuse to cut deals, stand up and make yourselves known. Let people see that you’re willing to forgo quick cash for an honorable organization. The average distributor will trust you more, creating more long-term value in your company.

    Conclusion

    If this is the first time you’re learning of this issue, how does it make you feel? How can we work together to stop it?

    If you’re reading this via email, the video can be viewed here.

      Kevin Thompson is an MLM attorney, proud husband, father of four and a founding member of Thompson Burton PLLC. Named as one of the top 25 most influential people in direct sales, Kevin Thompson has extensive experience to help entrepreneurs launch their businesses on secure legal footing. Recently featured on Bloomberg TV and several national publications, Thompson is a thought-leader in the industry.