Multi-level marketer Herbalife will pay $200 million back to people who were taken in by what the FTC alleges were misleading moneymaking claims. But when it comes to protecting consumers, that may not be the most important part of the just-announced settlement. What could matter more than $200 million? An order that requires Herbalife to restructure its business from top to bottom – and to start complying with the law.
Advertising in English and Spanish, Herbalife pitched its business opportunity as a way for people to quit their jobs and make the big bucks. Other ads promoted Herbalife as a means for already hard-working people to provide a little more for their families: “When we worked in factories our earnings could only pay for basic needs, but now we can take our 12 grandkids on vacations.”
But don’t start packing the kids’ bags because according to the FTC, it’s virtually impossible to make money selling Herbalife products. As explained in the complaint, our analysis shows that half of Herbalife “Sales Leaders” earned on average less than $5 a month from product sales. For folks who invested the most to build an actual retail business – a brick-and-mortar store that Herbalife called a Nutrition Club – the majority made nothing or even lost money.
Which brings us to the inconvenient little secret about Herbalife that the FTC’s complaint alleges: The small number of distributors who actually made money made it not by selling products to people who wanted the company’s powders, pills, and potions, but rather by recruiting others to serve as distributors – and encouraging them to buy Herbalife products.
The lawsuit alleges that Herbalife deceived consumers into believing they could earn substantial income from the business opportunity or big money from the retail sale of the company’s products. In addition, the complaint charges that one of the fundamental principles of Herbalife’s business model – incentivizing distributors to buy products and to recruit others to join and buy products so they could advance in the company’s marketing program, rather than in response to actual consumer demand – is an unfair practice in violation of the FTC Act.
Under the settlement, that all has to change. The order requires Herbalife to drop its current system of rewarding distributors primarily for recruiting a “downline” of people who will buy the product at wholesale, without regard to whether there are customers out there who really want the merchandise. Under the new compensation structure, success in the Herbalife marketing program must depend on whether participants sell products, not on whether they can recruit additional distributors to buy products.
You’ll want to read the order for the detailed dos and don’ts, but they’re all closely tied to the law violations alleged in the complaint. Here’s just one example: The order requires a clear differentiation between people who join just to buy discounted products for their own use and those who join the business opportunity. For people in the bizopp, 2/3 of rewards must be based on verifiable retail sales, with no more than 1/3 coming from product designated as “personal consumption.”
And it’s not a “we’ll take your word for it” thing. The order includes teeth that will put a financial bite on non-compliance. To make sure everyone at Herbalife is on board with the new set-up, 80% of the company’s net sales will have to be real sales to real buyers. If that doesn’t happen, the rewards that high-level distributors pocket will be cut. What’s more, for the next seven years, Herbalife has to hire an Independent Compliance Auditor to monitor what the company is doing to comply with the new compensation plan. The Auditor will report to the FTC, who will have the authority to replace that person should it become necessary.
We’re glad to be returning $200 million to consumers. (Details about the refund program will be available soon.) But another key goal is to dismantle the alleged deception and unfairness built into how Herbalife does business. As the company rewrites its advertising claims and restructures its compensation system, we’ll be watching. The Auditor will be watching. And consumers should be watching, too.