This is an improved version of an article that I originally published on Feb 16, 2013. The article received the attention of a group of doctors, scientists, and researchers at the American Institute for Technology and Science Education (AITSE) and they asked if they could republish it on their website. I agreed and you read that original version here. One commenter suggested that I bring this article back every year. Unfortunately, it’s been more than a year.
I write today’s article in response to the thousands and thousands of comments that I’ve gotten from multi-level marketing (MLM) distributors for various products such as MonaVie, Youngevity, Jusuru, Asea and others that make the claim that their products helped with such and such medical condition.
“New Rules: No More Claiming Mona Vie Cures Cancer!
Nor, for that matter, AIDS. Nor lupus, GERD, acne, age spots, arthritis, a balding scalp or sagging libido.
And lest you think I’m picking on poor MonaVie, the same is true of Xango, Mangosteen, Xocai, Tahitian Noni, and all the other ridiculously overpriced and oversold juices promoted by scientifically illiterate multi-level marketing ‘distributors’ who repeat these claims with the sincerity and earnestness of a Kucinich volunteer.”
Dr. Bowden isn’t alone in citing that these testimonials are bunk. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, perhaps best known for the popular Cosmos show, says such testimonials are “the worst form of evidence that you could possibly bring forth.” The key quote begins around the 1:50 mark, but you should invest the 6 minutes to watch the whole video.
Having received thousands of testimonials like Dr. Bowden mentioned and documented them on this site, I think it is safe to say that the people making these claims are typically those who are scientifically illiterate. They don’t offer up the clinical trials that measure the efficacy of the products. The companies themselves never put together large-scale clinical trails to prove their products are safe and effective. They rely on the “worst form of evidence”, testimonies, because the scientific process in place would expose the products as ineffective.
Dr. Bowden wrote that article before the aforementioned Jusuru and Asea were around.
When you include the products that Bowden mentioned, we have 8 products that are all reportedly able to cure or aid with almost every condition known to mankind. I’ll add Xowii, Zrii, and Nopalea to round out to an even dozen. Though some of them have overlapping exotic ingredients like acai, there is no single ingredient common to all of them that could provide a reasonable explanation of healing benefits. Additionally other products with the same exotic ingredients such as Sambazon (which has organic acai) that are sold through traditional retailers have no reported healing benefits. These 12 products only have three things in common (that I can see): they are digested, they are all sold via MLM, they are all extremely expensive. In addition, each company (I think) has hired a doctor (or a scientific advisory board) to endorse their product, which is something you don’t find with Ocean Spray (a juice like MonaVie, Jusuru) or your standard multi-vitamin (similar to some Youngevity products).
Clearly the only logical conclusion is that selling a product via MLM bestows some magical properties allowing it to cure nearly anything or everything. Wait that isn’t logical, is it? Well I can’t think of any other reasons for the claims… or can I?
What’s Behind All These MLM Health Claims
There are a number of factors at play with these claims:
- The Placebo Effect – This provides the most obvious answer as to why people feel these products help them. The American Cancer Society says that placebos have an effect in 1 of 3 people. Here’s a great 3-minute video illustrating The Strange Powers of the Placebo Effect. This alone explains why people report a product with no known therapeutic value “works”:
Need a little more convincing? Here’s Dove’s Real Beauty Patches campaign that has 20 million views:
While the product seemed to be effective to the women using it, it had no therapeutic ingredients at all. There’s not really a difference between an MLM miracle cure and this Dove patch. Both have testimonials of people swearing that it works. Neither has the large-scale clinical trials to convince the FDA that the product has a therapeutic effect.
In Time’s review of the campaign, the author says: “I just can’t believe the thinly-veiled marketing ruse that there is a patch that can make us more beautiful. It makes women seem too gullible, too desperate, and overall helpless against the all-knowing master manipulators at Unilever.”
Imagine what happens when the product is a juice or a pill and pitched for some internal medical condition. It’s much more believable than Dove’s patch, which gives you an understanding of the master manipulators of MLM.
Some people try to claim that the placebo effect can’t possibly be a factor, because they didn’t believe it would help them. Research shows that even if you know you are taking a sugar pill with no active ingredients, it can make you feel better. So if you find yourself feeling better, you might just want to go to a local CVS and buy the cheapest you can find, maybe a low-dose of vitamin C.
- Spontaneous Improvement Regardless of Intervention – Sometimes things get better over time even without intervention. Many distributors are subject to drawing a causation between taking a product and the condition getting better when no such causation exists. The Latin for this fallacy is Post hoc ergo propter hoc, which means “after this, therefore because of this.” This is sometimes referred to as the “Rooster Syndrome”; “believing that the rooster’s crowing causes the sun to rise.”
- Observer-Expectancy Effect – Since the products are usually pitched with the health claims, one taking the product may have this expectation.
- Conscious Deception – Let’s call a spade a spade. It’s very difficult to convince people to buy $40 bottles of juice when they are used to spending $3 for juice. One of the easiest ways to close this gap is to pitch the product as an alternative to costlier medicines. I’m not saying that every MLM distributor is dishonest, but let’s agree that some are. What percentage? It’s impossible to say.
- Price-Placebo Effect – As the Washington Post reported, people who were able to buy identical energy drinks at different prices showed very significant differences in unscrambling words. Even though the researchers made clear that the drinks were identical, those paying more had better performance. The researchers concluded, “The price-placebo effect comes from the fact that you form this global belief that low price equals low quality.” The article also showed, “A wine connoisseur who pays extra feels different from someone who pays less for the same bottle of wine, because the larger financial investment increases the motivation to be satisfied.”
So when I show that Youngevity products’ prices are 4 times Amazon’s for nearly equivalent nutrition, I get a response from distributors that they “feel” the difference. Let’s go back to the placebo video above (this one). It notes that paying more for a product makes the placebo effect stronger. That’s proof positive that there’s an additive effect to these points.
- GroupThink – Unless you’ve taken a psychology class or two, you may never have heard this term before. Wikipedia explains it:
“Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an incorrect or deviant decision-making outcome. Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus decision without critical evaluation of alternative ideas or viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influences.
Loyalty to the group requires individuals to avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions, and there is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. The dysfunctional group dynamics of the ‘ingroup’ produces an ‘illusion of invulnerability’ (an inflated certainty that the right decision has been made). Thus the ‘ingroup’ significantly overrates their own abilities in decision-making, and significantly underrates the abilities of their opponents (the ‘outgroup’).”
Both of these dynamics come into play with MLM as GroupThink inhibits the ability to analyze the opportunity. In fact, MLM proponents often suggest that people can “plug into the system” removing all individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking. MonaVie has used GroupThink to send its distributors a message of “you are either with us or against us” and tell them to unfriend distributors from social networks who have moved on to other companies.
I’m reminded of the Funny or Die demonstration of how students tricked into drinking nonalcoholic beer exhibited drunk behavior:
Groupthink at its finest, right?
- Social Proof From a Trusted Friend – Many of these products are introduced by a friend or family, who are often quite zealous about the product and the “business opportunity.” This enthusiasm coming from a trusted source creates an obvious motivation for wanting the product to “work.”
- Cognitive dissonance – Cognitive dissonance can be thought of a person altering reality to fit his/her perception. Specifically, the Wikipedia article claims, “After someone has performed dissonant behavior, they may find external consonant elements. A snake oil salesman may find a justification for promoting falsehoods (e.g. large personal gain), but may otherwise need to change his views about the falsehoods themselves.”
This is the same kind of phenomenon that is found in those predicting the world is going to end, except at least with those people there is a clear expiration on their erroneous belief… when the world doesn’t end. Unfortunately, with MLM health products, there is no clear and obvious end-result that can be pointed to.
Any of the above by themselves would explain the testimonials. However, when you combine them all together, the result of the testimonials is little surprise. We humans in general are an optimistic bunch and we all want to believe that these products are the solution to our health and financial security for not only us, but our friends (by sharing the “opportunity” with them). To use the Washington Post’s words, “our motivation to be satisfied” is significantly increased by the business opportunity and our desire to help our loved ones.
Let’s run some numbers. If the placebo effect is responsible for 1 in 3 people making a claim the MLM products work, what about all the above additional factors layered onto that? I’m going to speculate that pushes it to 60%, perhaps even higher. I admit this is speculation, but I don’t have a research lab and wouldn’t know how to really conduct an accurate experiment combining all these factors. If an MLM gets 10,000 people to try the product, that’s 6,000 people who are going to come away with a positive experience. The other 4,000 will move on with their lives and probably never mention the product again. A good percentage of the 6,000 will join the MLM to make money and spread the word that the products “work.” They explain away the 4,000 by saying something to the effect of “Everyone’s different and nothing works on everyone.” In actuality, the products haven’t been shown to work for anyone.
(And if my speculation of 60% (due to the factors above) is off, the placebo effect alone still counts for 3,333 people thinking it worked and another 6,667 that continued on with their life never thinking about the product again.)
Nonetheless that’s where you get thousands of testimonials for any number of unrelated medical conditions across any number of unrelated products that are all sold via the same MLM distribution method. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it a better explanation than, “Whenever a product is delivered via MLM the product gets bestowed with magical healing powers.”
For these reasons, it really is best to avoid the “Just Try Our ‘Product X!'” pitch when it comes to MLM products. You don’t have the time or the money to try all the health products in the world anyway.
It’s easy for distributors to ignore the fact that if any the products worked as promised, the companies would get their products approved as treatments for such medical conditions and make billions of dollars. Many MLM distributors falsely say that such claims can’t be about supplements, but when supplements work, the FDA allows claims to be made. You don’t have to look any further than calcium and vitamin D which have been shown to help with osteoporosis.
The Appeal to Good Health
Each of the companies that I mentioned makes an appeal that it will make you healthier. Since everyone has a vested interested in their own good health, it is an easy sales pitch to make. There are plenty of news reports citing promising supplement studies, which makes some of the products seem credible. The news rarely reports on the subsequent studies that show that the supplements don’t work. Something “not” working isn’t news and doesn’t bring in high ratings by giving people hope. This NY Times article covers this phenomenon well.
It turns out that there’s extensive evidence in studies involving millions of people that you shouldn’t waste your money on supplements. If you think this article is thorough, I implore you to read that one as I think it is just as thorough.
Still people seem to ignore it and go with anecdotal evidence instead. That kind of evidence can go both ways though. Here’s a Slate article from someone who grew up doing all the healthy things, but didn’t get vaccinated. The result was that she was sick all the time. The article even makes the point that it is anecdotal and decisions shouldn’t be based on it, yet that’s what people are doing with these MLM products all the time. If you took away the anecdotes from all the reasons above, you’d have a product that no one would buy at the exorbitant price points… unless as part of some kind of misleading business opportunity such as the MLM ones that the FTC describe here.
What is “working”?
You may have noticed I put “working” in quotes throughout this article. That’s because that’s the magic word distributors use when leaving comments on my site. “MonaVie works” and “Youngevity works”, etc. The interesting thing is that there is no consistent definition of what constitutes “working” with these products. I often ask them what clinical effectiveness research is behind the product, because as PubMed says:
“Clinical effectiveness research finds answers to the question ‘What works?’ in medical and health care.”
None of the products that I’ve mentioned have the clinical effectiveness research to say that it “works” for any medical condition.
But As Long As People Feel Better It’s All Good, Right?
A first glance this appears to make sense. Many supporters of MLMs have said, “Who cares as long as people feel better?”
There are at least three things wrong with this line of thinking:
- The Economics – What about the people who are paying an expensive price who don’t experience anything special? They might be thinking that they are doing their health a great service, but aren’t. That money could be used for proven health improvements like healthier food or maybe a gym membership. What about the people who actually believe that the product represents a legitimate health breakthrough and invest a significant portion of their life savings in a “business opportunity” where it is extensively shown that 99% of people lose money.
- Placebos are Dangerous – That article make the point pretty clear.
- Self-Licensing Causes An Overall Decrease in Health – This Wikipedia article makes a point about study involving supplements:
“A 2011 study published by researchers in Taiwan indicated that people who take multivitamin pills, especially those who believe that they are receiving significant health benefits from supplement use, are more prone to subsequently engage in unhealthy activities. Participants in the study were divided into two groups, both of which were given placebo pills; one group was correctly informed that the pills contained no active ingredients and the other group was told that the pills were multivitamin supplements. Survey results showed that participants who thought that they had received a multivitamin were predisposed to smoking more cigarettes and more likely to believe that they were invulnerable to harm, injury, and disease… Participants who believed they were given a multivitamin were also less likely to exercise and to choose healthier food, and had a higher desire to engage in ‘hedonic activities that involve instant gratification but pose long-term health hazards’, such as casual sex, sunbathing, wild parties, and excessive drinking… In the ‘multivitamin’ group, the more supplements a participant used, the less likely they were to exercise, and smoking was highest among participants who expressed a conscious belief that multivitamins increased health.”
In my MonaVie article, distributors had erroneously claimed that 2 ounces of MonaVie was equal to eating 13 fruits. They then said that this justified the $40 price for the bottle. As a result these people were making bad health decisions due to misinformation. That doesn’t even factor self-licensing in.
Are These Claims Even Legal?
It doesn’t seem as if they are. MLM distributors are typically not educated by the companies to follow the FTC guidelines on endorsements. That article states:
“Advertisers still must have adequate substantiation to support claims made through endorsements in the same way they’re required to if they had made the representation directly. In other words, advertisers may not convey through testimonials claims they could not otherwise prove with competent and reliable evidence. But one key revision of particular interest to electronic retailers is the new standard for endorsements that don’t represent the experience buyers can expect from using the advertised product themselves.
Despite the unequivocal requirement that the disclosures must be clear and conspicuous, some advertisers flouted this directive by cherry-picking their best case scenario, touting those results in banner headlines, and dropping an all-but-invisible footnote with the cryptic statement, ‘Results not typical’ or ‘Individual results may vary.’
No more. As the revised guidelines make clear, testimonials reporting specific results achieved by using the product or service generally will be interpreted to mean that the endorser’s experience is what others typically can expect to achieve. That leaves advertisers with two choices: 1) Have adequate proof to back up that claim, or 2) ‘Clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected performance in the depicted circumstances.'”
MLM distributors endorsing the products simply aren’t allowed to give a testimonial that they believe that the product helped with their arthritis… unless the MLM company has demonstrated significant scientific proof. As mentioned above, no MLM company has met the requirement to show the FDA that it works. I don’t know of an MLM company that has even tried.
Not only are these claims a violation of the FTC endorsement guidelines, they are a violation of The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) where supplements can’t make claims to help with medical conditions with the notable exception of these well-studied claims such as vitamin D and calcium helping with osteoporosis.
As MonaVie CEO said to Newsweek in 2008 about keeping its million distributors (at the time) compliant with these laws, “It’s next to impossible, like herding cats.” Unfortunately, Newsweek didn’t pose the logical follow-up questions to him, “Why did you unleash the cats in the first place? Why don’t you just solve the problem by distributing through traditional means where there are no false claims?” The solution to the problem that MonaVie caused is obvious, it just doesn’t help sell $40 bottles of juice.
I’ve found that most often MLM companies will cover their ass in public with a blog post saying all the right things, but in private they coach distributors to use these illegal medical claims.
It’s not just a few bad eggs either. It’s commonplace. How common? Truth in Advertising extensively show as many as 97% of nutritional companies have these claims. Here are are some of their findings:
“TINA.org’s investigation found that out of 62 member companies selling nutritional supplements, 60 have distributors who are making (or have made) claims that their products can diagnose, treat, cure, prevent, alleviate the symptoms of, and/or reduce the risk of developing a multitude of diseases, which means they are making illegal disease-treatment claims.
TINA.org has catalogued well over a thousand such inappropriate health claims, ranging from cancer cures to disappearing gangrene.
TINA.org’s investigation found that out of 62 member companies selling nutritional supplements, 60 have distributors who are making (or have made) claims that their products can diagnose, treat, cure, prevent, alleviate the symptoms of, and/or reduce the risk of developing a multitude of diseases, which means they are making illegal disease-treatment claims.
TINA.org has catalogued well over a thousand such inappropriate health claims, ranging from cancer cures to disappearing gangrene.
Or as I like to put it, “How else are you going to sell $40 bottles of juice?” Perhaps that the reason why MonaVie collapsed. It was never the juice which was outed to be nothing more than “expensive flavored water” by its inventor.
What About Weight Loss Shakes?
A number of MLMs such as Herbalife, One 24, ViSalus and MonaVie sell some kind of weight-loss shake. These products “work” as expected. That is to say that their nutritional label is likely to be accurate. Beyond the label, there’s nothing that special. You can save a lot of money by going with Slim Fast or Carnation Instant Breakfast Essentials that has essentially the equivalent nutritional content at usually less than a 1/3rd the price.
Picking one weight loss shake over another isn’t going to make or break a diet. It’s everything else, eating well and exercising, that has been shown time and time again to work. People normally don’t stay on shakes their whole lives. Without a change of underlying diet and/or exercise habits the weight comes back. For this reason, I’m not a huge of fan of meal replacement shakes.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. When I create Lazymandium, a mix of garlic, tumeric, cacao, and chili powder, and sell it via MLM at a price of 30 pills for $50, it doesn’t “work.” I’m simply using known psychology to exploit you and make your wallet a little lighter for my own benefit.