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After what seems like an eternity, the FTC has issued guidance to multilevel marketing (MLM) companies. As guidance, the document issued on January 4, 2018 does not carry the force of law, but is instead intended to help MLMs to “apply core consumer protection principles to their business practices.” The guidance itself is a series of questions followed by the FTC’s answers, purportedly designed to help MLM companies adhere to the said core consumer protection principles. To view the actual guidance document, click here.
Those who were hoping that this long-awaited guidance would provide objectively measurable guideposts to MLM companies will be sorely disappointed; and those who are familiar with the legal issues confronting MLMs will find much that there is really nothing new in the guidance. For example, in response to the ultimate question “How does the FTC distinguish between MLMs with lawful and unlawful compensation structures?”, the guidance pretty much tells us what we have always known:
Network marketing is in the midst of a rapidly advancing Orwellian era. It’s been slow to develop, starting in 1996 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Webster v. Omnitrition, but it’s snowballed in the past two years. Today the snowball grew exponentially with the announcement that the Federal Trade Commission and Herbalife have reached a settlement agreement.
Watch for detailed updates and analysis on the settlement. We’ll break it down into many little pieces to determine how it will impact your business. But today we just have time for a broad sweep so I’m just going to address some critical topics.
The obvious first question is: “Does this settlement affect my business?” It’s certainly an important question. After all, the FTC was investigating Herbalife and analyzing Herbalife’s program, so why should it apply to any other company? The answer is two-fold. There’s the technically correct answer, and the real-world practical answer. The technically correct answer is that the FTC settlement with Herbalife has no binding impact on any other network marketing business. The real-world answer is quite different. The changes that Herbalife must implement offer a clear roadmap to the standards that the FTC expects all direct sellers to conform, and those are the standards that it will pursue in future cases against direct sellers.
There’s no law that requires direct selling companies to adhere to all of requirements in the Herbalife settlement. But those who stick their head in the sand and ignore the messages in the Herbalife settlement agreement do so at great peril. By now you’re certainly wondering what the settlement agreement requires. Here’s a high level summary of the most critical issues that will impact every network marketing program:
Note: See an overview of how this settlement affects network marketers, and watch out blog for detailed analysis and updates.
Herbalife International of America, Inc., Herbalife International, Inc., and Herbalife, Ltd. will restructure their U.S. multi-level marketing business operations and pay $200 million to compensate consumers to settle the FTC complaint that the Herbalife companies deceived consumers into believing they could earn substantial money their products.
The FTC complaint also charged that Herbalife’s compensation structure was unfair because it distributors were rewarded for recruiting others to join and purchase products in order to advance in the MLM program, as opposed to actual retail demand for the product, causing economic injury to many distributors.
The FTC recently announced that it has finalized the amendments to the Federal Cooling-Off Rule, (aka Door-to-Door Sales Rule). The amended Rule will go into effect on March 13. When the proposed amendment was published, there was some anticipation on the part of the direct selling industry that sellers would be granted some relief from the Rule.
For those not familiar, the Rule requires that customers (including new distributors or consultants) be given two copies of the 3-day Notice of Right to Cancel whenever a purchase transaction for consumer goods or services takes place at a location other than the seller’s place of business. While there are some possible exemptions, for the most part the rule covered many transactions between distributors and their customers and between distributors and their newly recruited distributors.
John Matthew Dwyer III, the former CEO of HealthyLife Sciences, LLC, has agreed to be banned from manufacturing or marketing weight loss products as part of a settlement of FTC charges of deceptive advertising. A separate settlement bans HealthyLife Sciences from advertising that its products cause weight loss.
U.S. District Senior Judge Charles Pannell Jr. has ordered the CEO and senior vice president of Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, Inc. be jailed for contempt of court for failing to recall four dietary supplements as directed by a May, 2014 judgment that found them in violation of a 2008 court order. The May, 2014 judgment also ordered them to pay more than $40 million for violating the 2008 order.
The May order directed an immediate recall of four dietary supplement products, Fastin, Lipodrene, Benzedrine and Stimerex-ES. However, the Judge Pannell found that the defendants, CEO Jared Wheat and Stephen Smith, senior vice president in charge of sales, have not complied with the recall order.
i-Health, Inc. and Martek Biosciences Corporation have settled Federal Trade Commission charges that they used deceptive advertising in marketing their BrainStrong Adult dietary supplement. The FTC complaint alleged that the supplement makers claimed BrainStrong improves adult memory and prevents cognitive decline, and that they falsely claimed they had clinical proof for the claims.
Television commercials for BrainStrong Adult showed a forgetful woman and a voiceover saying, “Need a memory boost? Introducing BrainStrong…Clinically shown to improve adult memory.” In addition to television, the product was advertised on Twitter and brainstrongdha.com.
A federal judge has granted the Food & Drug Administration’s request for a permanent injunction prohibiting BioAnue from making and distributing its dietary supplement products until they comply with FDA regulations.
While BioAnue sold the products as dietary supplements, the FDA maintained that they were “unapproved new drugs” because they were marketed without FDA approval as treatments for a variety of diseases, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart disease and diabetes. In addition, BioAnue failed to follow the FDA’s current good manufacturing practice regulations for dietary supplements.
The Federal Trade Commission has sued an operation selling green coffee bean extract as a dietary supplement for weight loss, alleging it made false and deceptive claims and used fake new sites and phony consumer endorsements to sell the product.
Named in the complaint are NPB Advertising, Inc., which also does business as Pure Green Coffee; Nationwide Ventures, LLC; Olympus Advertising, Inc.; JMD Advertising, Inc; Signature Group, LLC; Nicholas Scott Congleton; and Paul Daniel Pascual.
According to the FTC complaint, green coffee bean extract for weight loss began to become popularized after it was called “the magic weight loss cure for every body type” on a syndicated television show. A discussion on the show referenced a study that purportedly supported the claim, but no specific brand of green coffee extract was recommended.
Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing and additional defendants, settling claims by the Federal Trade Commission and three states that it operated an illegal pyramid scheme, have agreed to be banned from multilevel marketing and surrender at least $7.75 million in assets.
The surrendered assets will be used to compensate consumers enrolled in pyramid scheme. The original complaint, filed by the FTC and the states of Kentucky, Illinois and North Carolina, alleged that in addition to operating an illegal pyramid scheme and making false earnings claims, Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing provided consumers with false and misleading materials for recruiting new participants.