The third night of the 2016 Republican National Convention starts off with a number of business leaders, including billionaire casino owner Phil Ruffin and fracking billionaire Harold Hamm. But the most surprising name on the list is Michelle Van Etten, who sells products through the multilevel marketing company Youngevity. If you think that job description sounds sketchy, you'd be right.
Multilevel marketing is the sales technique used by companies like Herbalife or Amway, in which the company itself sells large quantities of a good to independent marketers to sell in turn to others, either for further resale or for consumption. If this sounds like a pyramid scheme, that’s because it sometimes is, and the line between legal multilevel marketing and fraudulent pyramid schemes is fine indeed. Independent estimates suggest that as much as 99 percent of multilevel marketing participants lose money due to unsold stock, participation fees, and other costs.
The practice is particularly sketchy when it’s used to sell bogus products that don’t help people.
Enter Youngevity: As The Daily Beast's Tim Mak found in investigating the company, Youngevity sells health supplements approved by a naturopath, not by medical doctors; most reputable health scientists regard naturopathy as pseudoscientific quackery, and supplements in particular are basically useless.
That doesn’t stop the company from making some truly extraordinary claims. Here’s Mak:
[Youngevity] put out a pamphlet with what it claimed was research performed at the Institute of Nutraceutical Research at Clemson University. The pamphlet suggests that that two of its products, "Beyond Tangy Tangerine" and "Ultimate Classic," had anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
"Clemson’s Institute of Nutraceutical Research did some limited preliminary laboratory research for Youngevity several years ago. No clinical trials were performed and Clemson has in no way endorsed any Youngevity product nor authorized the use of Clemson’s name or data in conjunction with any claims of efficacy. The Institute no longer exists," Clemson spokesperson Robin Denny told The Daily Beast Monday evening.
In any case, that’s apparently good enough for conspiracy theorist and Trump backer Alex Jones, who is an enthusiastic Youngevity customer. In addition to believing that Youngevity products are good for you, Jones believes Bush did 9/11 and the Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag meant to promote gun control.
RNC press materials gushed about Van Etten’s work with Youngevity, declaring, "Michelle employs over 100,000 people and is a strong supporter of Donald Trump, knowing his policies will support businesses all across America."
The 100,000 figure is bogus; Van Etten told the Guardian's Jon Swaine "she was in fact part of a network of 100,000 sellers in the US, Canada, Mexico and other countries, in which distributors work to recruit other distributors. 'Nobody works for me, because we are all individual contractors, and we all have our own individual businesses,' she said."
For what it's worth, Van Etten also told Swaine that she focuses on selling womenswear, rather than dietary supplements. But by speaking at the convention, she's nonetheless providing a huge dose of publicity for Youngevity and its whole slate of products.