Health MLM Mind Scam: Just Try Our “Product X”!

I’ve looked into many MLM Health products such as Nopalea, MonaVie, Zrii, Protandim, Xango, Xowii, and Vemma. One thing that is repeated time and again are the testimonials, which we know are pointless.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if any of these product helped with cancer or fibromyalgia like people on the web are claiming, these diseases would be a thing of the past. The companies would get the products approved as treatments for those diseases and make billions and billions from proving to be able to help many, many people. Even if it only helped a rare condition that few people had, such proof would be worth hundreds of millions in marketing and seriously knock the competing MLM health products for a loop.

Before we get to main article, I’m going to give you a quick example that should hopefully nip this in the bud saving us a lot of time. There is a great article about the history of cigarettes and how they were marketed as health products by the makers. When doctors came out to say that they were bad for your health, the companies came out with a marketing approach that you might recognize:

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a transition began to appear in these ads. Advertisements for Camels began to incorporate a ‘try it for yourself’ approach. Although the ads still pictured physicians proclaiming cigarettes to be less irritating, they also now encouraged consumers to test the cigarettes themselves: “The test was really fun! Every Camel tasted so good! And I didn’t need my doctor’s report to know Camels are mild!”

So there you go. The next time an MLM suggests you try the product yourself, keep in mind that cigarettes used the same pitch to get people to use products that are known to be unhealthy.

Perception and the Placebo Effect

Time and again, I see MLM distributors suggest that one should just try the product. It sounds harmless enough. I mean, you’d try an iPad before you bought one if given the chance, right? Unfortunately, health products aren’t like iPads or most other products out there. The feelings are subjective and rely on human perception. If you’ve ever seen a magic trick or looked at an optical illusion, you know perception is not necessarily reality.

It is the same with health products. There is something called the the placebo effect that has been documented for centuries. It means that people can think a product helped them even if it is known to have no possible beneficial effects. It’s a little like a mom kissing a child’s boo-boo and saying that it will fix the problem. The placebo effect is subconscious, meaning that you aren’t unintelligent if you “fall for it.” There is no connection between the placebo effect and intelligence. Einstein himself could have fallen for a placebo effect.

It turns out that around 1/3 of time people will claim a placebo helped them (Source: American Cancer Society). If you gave everyone in the United States an inert sugar pill, you’d have 100 million people claiming it helped them with a variety of conditions. Maybe 10 million of them would make claims that the sugar pill helped them with cancer.

To determine if a health product works, scientists have come up with placebo-controlled studies and clinical trials. This is a scientifically proven method that is used in every civilized country.

When an MLM distributor says, “Just try our [health MLM] product!” They are really saying, “I know if I can get you to listen to me, I will have a 33% chance that you’ll feel a placebo effect and spend thousands of dollars buying my product.” Often that product, like the many I cited at the start of this article, is vastly overpriced. It doesn’t take a genius to walk through your super-market aisle and compare the prices of juices to these. One thing you’ll never see is company put these products on a retail shelf at Wal-Mart. It just wouldn’t sell without people the illegal health testimonies.

You Can’t Try Everything!

Another thing to consider is that there are more than 5000 products in any VitaminWorld or GNC. Are you going to be fair and try all those products as well? How would you possibly do that? You’d have to have hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, to buy them all. Also it would take hundreds of years to give each product a fair shake at “working.” Of course you couldn’t try multiple products at the same time, because then you wouldn’t be able to isolate which product “worked.” Of course I’m putting “work” in quotes because due to the placebo effect, all that testing wouldn’t actually tell you a thing about whether it worked.

Are Placebos Dangerous?

According to reputable doctors they can be. There’s a lot more information at that link and I don’t feel I need to add anything.

Bottom Line: At the end of the day, there really is no reason to fall for the “try our product” sales pitch. It isn’t going to result in any definitive answer as to whether the product works, because any positive result could be the placebo effect.

The only way to test is take the scientific proven methods for decades and put the product through those tests. If the company selling the product isn’t willing to do it, it should tell you all you need to know… even they don’t believe the product “works.”

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Reconnective Healing and Testimonials

We already know that testimonials are pointless, but for those that need a reminder, here’s a report on Reconnective Healing that will amaze any logical, scientific person. If you aren’t familiar with Reconnective Healing it’s essentially what faith healers use… waiving their hands over you and saying that they are going to heal you without actually making any kind of physical contact.

How does this play in with MLM? Anyone with any kind of medical knowledge realizes that this is up there with spoon bending via telekinesis… it is little more than a magic trick at best, not well-grounded science.

So when you read there are testimonials of people saying that Xowii, Xango, MonaVie, Zrii, Protandim, Jusuru or any other MLM miracle “cure” of many, many things, that non-MLM juice doesn’t cure, keep in mind that until you see proven clinical trials for the product, it should be considered the same kind of magic trick.

Posted in Quakery | 1 Comment

Heath MLM Mind Game: Team X or Athlete X Uses our Product

Many MLM companies will pay professional sports teams and athletes to endorse their product. It’s an investment for them. The idea is that distributors will be easily influenced by the celebrity status of the teams/athletes. In an MLM scheme, when one distributor gets lured in, there is potential for others.

It is important to recognize that these are paid endorsements. Most often the payment isn’t disclosed. This is a violation of the FTC endorsement guidelines, but nonetheless it happens.

Many distributors who lack critical thinking skills often use statements like, “Jonathan Papelbon using MonaVie, so it can’t be a scam.” Well if MonaVie is paying Jonathan Papelbon to pose with a bottle of MonaVie, what does that tell you. Here’s a quick test to see if the athlete is really interested in the MLM product: Are they are distributor and are they willing to set up a face-to-face meeting with you for an hour to try the product and go over the compensation plan? Let me know how that works for you.

Another thing that distributors seem to forget is that these athletes often make millions of dollars. They are not concerned about the cost of the product. What’s the $45 per bottle price to Jonathan Papelbon who signed a 4-year, $50 million dollar deal recently. He’s certainly not looking to make more money selling product or recruiting others. Ironically, MonaVie likely gave Jonathan Papelbon a lifetime supply of the product for the endorsement… it costs MonaVie less than a dollar to make a bottle, so it’s a drop in the bucket for them.

The other thing that people often forget is celebrity athletes aren’t often paid for their intelligent decision making. It’s not too hard to find an athlete with 4 kids from 4 different mothers before they reach age 25. Rather than just give a generic case like that, let’s look at who MLM JuicePlus paid to endorse the product: O.J. Simpson. They probably hoped to capitalize on his nickname, “The Juice”, but that didn’t work out, did it?

Bottom Line: If a distributor is suggesting that product has value due to a celebrity athlete, he/she is likely trying to use the name to buy your trust in the company/product. Your decision should not be influenced on a business relationship between the MLM company and an athlete. Furthermore, it might wise to distance yourself from organizations that employ such tactics to trick you into giving them your business.

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Quackery – The Red Flags to Look For

Many MLMs promote health products such as juices or pills. In every case I have come across this amounts to Quackery. The hope is that through a number of factors the products will be accepted by the public even though they haven’t been properly proven to work.

As a potential consumer, you don’t want to waste your hard-earned money on quackery. There’s no reason to support snake-oil marketers. The question then becomes, how do you determine what is quackery?

Here’s are a few resources to keep in mind:

1. Real science vs. fake science: How can you tell them apart?

2. More Ploys That Can Fool You – This list of items from Quackwatch details a number of tactics that quacks will use to get you to buy their product. Here are a couple of highlighted phrases that quacks will use:

  • “time-tested” / “used for centuries” – They point out that this advice would also apply to practices such as astrology, which are clearly not scientific in nature.
  • “Think for yourself” – This is used to “urge people to disregard scientific evidence in favor of personal experience. But personal experience is not the best way to determine whether a method works.”

3. This poster from Sci-ence:

Have more resources to suggest? Let me know in the comments.

Posted in Quakery | 1 Comment

Health MLM Scam: Testimonials are Pointless

In many cases testimonials are a wonderful thing. You saw a good movie last night and your friend typically likes the same movies, you tell him/her that you saw a good movie. If you use a good product, you might leave a good review on Amazon.com. People use those reviews to make an informed buying decision. It makes sense…

… but it doesn’t make logical sense with Health-based MLM Scams

Why? There are a number of reasons why this fails. Let’s cover them in bullet format:

  1. The MLM Product is not Approved by the FDA to Help with any Medical Condition – No MLM product, to my knowledge, has gotten approved by the FDA for helping with any medical condition. I don’t believe that any have even tried. A company that has a product that could help with a medical condition would make billions. Companies are in business to make money, so if they had a product that actually worked, they would get it approved by the FDA for the medical condition. The fact that they do not is tacit admission from the MLM company that the product doesn’t work for helping with any medical condition.
  2. The Placebo Effect – Health products are susceptible to the placebo effect. To read one example of an MLM product and the placebo effect see: MonaVie and the Placebo Effect. We know that a simple sugar pill that has no medicinal properties at all will help 30% of people on average. So if you got everyone in the United States to try it, you’d have over 100 million people swearing that sugar pills are the answer for all that ails them.
  3. Testimonies are Unverified and Anonymous- Much of the time, a testimonial will be written in the comment on a blog by an unknown person only identified by a first name. In almost every case, they don’t provide and evidence that their claim is true and they usually disappear or refuse to give their doctor’s information to back up the claim.
  4. Testimonies could be biased – The aforementioned anonymous testimonials could be from someone at the company or from a distributor of the product. These people have financial incentives to make the product appear to others as if it actually helps with a medical condition.

When you combine #3 and #4 above you get a picture of why when just about any health product, MonaVie, Xango, Zrii, Protandim, etc. goes MLM, it is clear why there overwhelmingly positive testimonials appear for the product. In the case of Protandim, there are very few reports of it doing anything from the years it was sold over the counter at GNC, but when it went MLM, the illegal health claims skyrocketed all over the internet. If there were a financial incentive for negative experiences to be shared, you can bet they would be more common.

In the end, insist that the product has FDA approval that it helps with that medical condition before spending your hard-earned money on the product. Remember that if it does not, the company doesn’t believe in its own product enough to prove itself. And if the company doesn’t believe in its product, why should you?

Posted in Testimonials | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Science Literacy

A reader passed on this video of Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a talk about how consumers can avoid snake oil salesman by asking the smart questions.

It’s all about developing the necessary critical thinking skills to avoid getting scammed.

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Clinical Study Sample Sizes that Matter

There are some companies like MonaVie and LifeVantage putting out “peer reviewed studies” in an attempt to market their product as being helpful for medical conditions. I think much of that logic was covered well here: PubMed, Impact Factor, Peer Review Journals, and Fraud.

A reader sent me a story that caught his eye Salt wars: New study says a dash or two is OK. One of the things you’ll notice about this study is that it had 30,000 participants over 4 years. When the results showed that adding salt to one’s diet may be okay in moderation a doctor cautioned:

“In a commentary in the same journal, Dr Paul Whelton of Tulane University in New Orleans says the study results should be read with caution, noting problems with the way the researchers estimated salt intake based on a single morning sample of urine.”

What I wanted to point out here is that even independent researchers who have tremendously large scale trials of 30,000 people over years can yield results that the public should be cautious with.

It is interesting to compare that to the MLM studies where they have at most 30 people over a couple of months… and every one that I’ve seen has been done with some kind of biased connection to the MLM company, which is anything but independent. No logical person could trust such a study.

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PubMed, Impact Factor, Peer Review Journals, and Fraud

Many MLMs attempt to use scientific literature to push their product. Often times, they’ll present some kind of research or study. The goal of these companies is to try to get research published with their brand in it, so that their MLM distributors can use it for marketing purposes.

For example, LifeVantage has told its distributor to go to www.pubmed.gov and just type “Protandim” in the search box. They suggest that you don’t really need to understand the study, but that these are researchers doing peer-reviewed studies. The implication is that the product is so innovative that researchers are actively interested in how it can help people be more healthy. It’s a convincing argument if you don’t know better. However, those with critical thinking skills who are willing to do a little more research will find that it isn’t so simple.

Understanding PubMed

It is important to understand what PubMed is. Wikipedia describes PubMed as:

“PubMed is a free database accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. The United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health maintains the database as part of the Entrez information retrieval system.”

The MEDLINE database is essentially a group of around 5,000 journals and has 21 million articles.

The appearance of an article in PubMed does not mean it is a reputable article. It simply means that one of the 5,000 journals found worthy of publishing.

PubMed is a repository of articles. It is important to note that PubMed doesn’t review the articles for inclusion. It is also important to note that the National Institute of Health does not review articles in any way. In the case of Protandim, LifeVantage is hoping that its customers will rely on the reputations of the “.gov” and “National Institute of Health.”

The inclusion of an article in PubMed doesn’t mean anything more than the inclusion of the article in a journal.

All Journals are Not Equal: Understanding Impact Factor

When reviewing a journal article it always worth looking at the quality of the journal publishing the article. Not all journals are considered equal. In the journal industry there are a couple of ranking systems. One of the most popular is the Impact Factor. According to Wikipedia, “[Impact Factor] is frequently used as a proxy for the relative importance of a journal within its field, with journals with higher impact factors deemed to be more important than those with lower ones.” Getting published in the New England Journal of Medicine is much more important than getting published in a small journal that few people read.

When you simply search for a product on PubMed, the value of the journal isn’t being represented. This is a distinct advantage for a company that is simply relying on the reputation of the PubMed repository.

Understanding What the Article Means

In a lot of cases it is important to understand what the research means. Does the research reflect what scientists refer to as POEMS: Patient Oriented Evidence that Matters? In the case of LifeVantage Protandim Dr. Harriet Hall says it doesn’t have POEMs and she’s right. Only one of the studies was actually done on humans. That study used TBARS: an unreliable test of oxidative stress. It also used LifeVantage company insiders and investors. Oh and there is clear evidence of data rigging in that study.

Here’s an example of an MLM creating research for the purpose of marketing. The following article about MonaVie fruit juice was published “In vitro and in vivo antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities of an antioxidant-rich fruit and berry juice blend. Results of a pilot and randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover study.”

That sounds really impressive, but when you read the study you find out that it was a waste of time. The study looked at five people and came to the conclusion drinking MonaVie fruit juice gives some antioxidants in a similar way that fruit does. This research has no value to the scientific community, but MonaVie’s lead scientist has created a marketing tool where distributors can tell their prospective victims that a fancy scientific article proves that MonaVie has antioxidants in it. (If you want to read more about this see: The Multitude of Problems with Schauss’ “Double-Blinded, Placebo-Controlled Study” on MonaVie)

Peer Review and Fraud

Many have suggested that because the journals are peer reviewed the articles are definitive proof of the product’s value and/or effectiveness. This is false. Wikipedia says the following about peer review failure:

“Peer review, in scientific journals, assumes that the article reviewed has been honestly written, and the process is not designed to detect fraud. The reviewers usually do not have full access to the data from which the paper has been written and some elements have to be taken on trust. It is not usually practical for the reviewer to reproduce the author’s work, unless the paper deals with purely theoretical problems which the reviewer can follow in a step-by-step manner.”

Nature (one of the journals with a high Impact Factor) has a great article, Can peer review police fraud?. The article cites a case where a researcher was found to have falsified his stem cell research. One of the points that the article makes is, like WikiPedia mentioned, peer review isn’t designed to deal with fraud:

“Although it is understandable to conclude that, by accepting a paper, a journal’s editors confer their authority to the findings and that, therefore, a portion of the responsibility for the work shifts from the author to the editor, we do not agree that the peer review system can or should detect deliberate fraud.

Science is a communal enterprise built on trust. Referees and editors generally take data at face value and assume that the authors have honestly reported and analyzed their results. Reviewers are asked to judge whether a report’s conclusions are solid based on the data and not whether the data themselves are fraudulent. The system is not set up to work any other way; if editors and referees distrusted all authors and assumed that every result was potentially fake, few papers would be published.”

In the case of stem cell research or any other general area of study, any noteworthy breakthroughs will be retested by other scientists. This is how fraud was caught in the case of the stem cell research. However, in the case of an MLM creating research for marketing purposes (such as when LifeVantage admits science is for marketing) other scientists don’t retest the results. The products haven’t proven themselves to the scientific community and the marketing aspect of the “research” makes a mockery of their profession.

Bottom Line

When it comes to MLM health companies, it is always important to use critical thinking skills and be extremely skeptical about any and every claim that they make. Many of them are going to try to do anything they can to subvert the system. Insist on large-scale, clinical trials aimed at garnering FDA approval for the product in helping with any health condition.

Posted in Uncategorized | 24 Comments

MLM Distributors asking for Credentials

Many distributors of an MLM will ask about my credentials. It sounds like a logical question on the face of it. However, upon further examination it really isn’t. I thought I’d break down a few of the reasons why so we can finally put this debate tactic out of commission.

What are the Credentials of the MLM inventors

I’ve looked at MonaVie and Protandim in detail. In the case of MonaVie, it was developed by Ralph Carson, who had and extremely questionable interview on CBS Radio. In it he violates the FTC guidelines when he talks about the “testimonials” of MonaVie.

Protandim’s inventor, Paul Myhill has no medical background at all.

Some People Ask Why they should Trust an Anonymous Person like Me

I would first like to address why I am anonymous. I have written more than 1300 posts about personal finance over at Lazy Man and Money dating back to 2006. It is quite common (as you tell from this article) for personal finance bloggers to blog anonymously as they mention details about their income and net worth that they might not want to attach to their name. It doesn’t make sense for me to leave my name with much of my financial information present in that blog, so that someone could use the information to steal my identity. Furthermore this allows me to be open and honest with readers about contract negotiations for a new job. If I wasn’t anonymous, the potential employer could “Google” my name, find my blog, steal my negotiating “play book.”

When I started blogging, I wasn’t introduced to the evil that exists in these MLM scams. While I am happy with the number of people who thank me for helping them understand that MonaVie is a scam, when a MonaVie distributor like Glenn Siesser threatens to kill me and another monavie distributor tries to blackmail me, it’s clear that remaining anonymous is the best course of action. From the comments on my original MonaVie post and my Protandim post it is quite clear that many of the distributors leaving comments are not logical, sensible people looking to engage in a productive debate. I’m trying to help consumers and I ask for nothing in return. I’d rather do my job without having to deal with a mentally imbalanced person overreacting about 35 cents worth juice (in the case of MonaVie) or 12 cents of commonly found supplements (in the case of Protandim). These companies don’t need that kind of lawsuit on their hands either as it would easily bankrupt them (and yes we know that MonaVie would be held responsible for the actions of their distributors, just like Napster was).

Why Would You Want Credentials Anyway?

I don’t make any medical claims, not do I claim to have any medical training. I only show you what unbiased information from reputable third parties and point out logical inferences that require no more than your typical 5th grade education to understand. I would never tell you to simply take my opinion for it – as a debate tactic it is an epic fail. Because of this, medical credentials are not necessary – just simple critical thinking skills.

The Purpose of Asking for Credentials in a Debate is Logical Fallacy

Asking for credentials is a classic Appeal to Accomplishment logical fallacy. In case you are too busy to click that link here’s what Wikipedia says:

“Appeal to accomplishment is a genetic fallacy wherein Person A challenges a thesis put forward by Person B which criticizes Person C (or A) a due to the fact that Person B has not accomplished similar feats or accomplished as many feats as Person C or Person A.

Rebutting this appeal has been popularly called ‘Ebert’s Law’, referring to Roger Ebert’s ability to critique films irrespective of his accomplishments as a filmmaker.”

The person asking for credentials is simply trying to debunk what I’ve proven with a logical fallacy. Since the debater can find no logical fault with the arguments I’ve made, the debater resorts to fallacies. (For those who don’t know what “fallacy” means dictionary.com’s defines it as “a deceptive, misleading, or false notion, belief, etc.: That the world is flat was at one time a popular fallacy.”)

Finally, while we are on the topic of fallacies about credentials, I should note Alexander Schauss and Appeals to Authority. This is exactly the same as Joe McCord’s Role at LifeVantage.

Posted in Health Credentials | Tagged | 3 Comments

Health MLM Scam: The FDA Doesn’t Allow for Natural Products to Make Health Claims

This title is false. The FDA does allow for Natural Products to Make Health Claims.

Many in the MLM industry say that their product can’t make legal claims because the FDA won’t let them. This simply is not true. The FDA will let any product make a claim as long as there is enough proof that the product works. For example there are many natural claims listed on the FDA’s website. You can find ones about vitamin D, calcium, and osteoporosis (bone loss). Clearly vitamin D and calcium are natural products. You can find claims that folic acid manufacturers can make about birth defects.

So when you hear that a product can’t make such claims, it’s for one of two reasons:

1) They don’t have the money to do the necessary research. (If they believed in their product, they could get a loan or work an agreement with an investor who does have the money. This is a poor excuse for a product if it actually “works.”)

2) They don’t want to have their product tested. In many cases these products are just common juices and spices and there’s no reason to expect them to do anything medically different than your orange juice or your Cinnamon Toast Crunch. However, as long as they are able to make a reasonable case to a gullible person that their product works, it is to their advantage to never formally test the product as they would be proven wrong. Such a move would end their business instantly.

This disappointing part is that there are gullible consumers who don’t realize that if the company truly believed its product worked for any medical condition it would likely make billions of dollars. The company should be extremely interested in doing these formal clinical tests as it would mean so much more money for them. Yet, I have never seen an MLM company perform these large scale tests with the goal of getting on the FDA list. It seems that these companies have very low confidence in their product.

Bottom line: If someone tries to pitch you a conspiracy about the FDA and pharmaceutical companies and they don’t have a paper trail of who took what money for which service – and they are trying to sell you on an alternative, untested, natural remedy, you should turn the tables and tell them about the bridge that you have for sale at a bargain price.

Posted in FDA | 2 Comments