This morning I was reminded of an insightful movie from 1957.
I would invite all Blog readers to watch 'A Face in the Crowd' (Written by Bud Schulberg. Produced and directed by Elia Kazan).
At approximately 44 minutes, the movie begins to take the piss out of the original 'MLM' wampum, 'Nutrilite (aka 'Vita- 6' or 'Vitasol') which Schulberg thinly disguised as 'Vitajex.'
In 1934, Carl F. Rehnborg (aged 48) created ‘California Vitamins Inc.’, allegedly to manufacture and distribute what he arbitrarily defined as' the ‘World’s First Multi-Mineral/Multivitamin Plant-Based Food Supplement - a Unique Combination of Vitamins and Minerals in a Special Base.’ At first, this so-called ‘Health Tonic’ was brewed up, and peddled as 'Vita-6' a.k.a. 'Vitasol,' in insignificant quantities. Consequently, it was of no particular interest to regulators. However, anyone with an ounce of common sense could immediately tell that Rehnborg’s ‘invention’ was just another essentially-inert potion (in the absurd tradition of the medicine show); a random mixture of cheaply-procured common substances with an expensive price tag. It had probably taken Rehnborg 6 hours to concoct, not 6 years.
Carl F. Rehnborg circa 1939
By 1939, Rehnborg had spotted the existing term, 'Nutrilites' (probably in an old scientific magazine). So he legally-changed the name of his pay-to-play game of make-believe to the technical-sounding ‘Nutrilite Products Company Inc.’ and moved his quackery onto an almost unprecedented scale. Soon, Rehnborg was legally employing dozens of white-coated workers in purpose-built industrial buildings in Buena Park, California. He also acquired an alfalfa farm near to the city of Hemet in California's San Jacinto valley, but it is unclear exactly where he suddenly found all the necessary capital to pay for these impressive sites and their modern equipment. To his followers and casual observers, Rehnborg’s activity looked like any other lawful enterprise. His staff were ordinary honest folk, to whom the truth was also unthinkable. At this time, Rehnborg rechristened his potion ‘Nutrilite Double X (‘XX’) Supplement.’ He now proposed to offer it as two ‘complimentary products’ in one pack - comprising little green bottles of bright red ‘Multivitamin Capsules’ and boxes of pale-coloured ‘Multi-Mineral Pills.’ The product was deliberately designed to look modern and scientific (like a proprietary medicine), but, tellingly, the price was fixed at just less than $20 a box (the equivalent of several hundred dollars today). Rehnborg claimed that the ‘XX’ brand-name was derived from the Roman numeral representing twenty. It should have been read as ‘double cross;’ for when the former toothpaste salesman’s pricey wampum was routinely analysed by independent chemists working for the FDA, it was discovered that (although it contained essentially what it said on the labels and was quite harmless) ‘XX Supplement’ really did mostly comprise a random mixture of cheaply-procured, common substances (dried vegetable extracts: alfalfa; parsley; watercress; yeast; etc.). FDA experts later estimated that ‘XX Supplement’ cost no more than a few cents a pack to produce. Thus, FDA lawyers must have known that Rehnborg was, in fact, using authentic pharmaceutical equipment to mass-produce a precisely-measured, harmless placebo, but labelled as a ‘Health Tonic’ (a meaningless term), and peddling it at an exorbitant mark-up (certainly, more than 1000%). This crack-pot pseudo-scientific swindle, which was tantamount to a self-styled 'alchemist' stamping a valueless amalgam of base-metals, 'Pure Gold,' and selling it for the price of pure gold, could have been quickly nipped in the bud, simply by charging Rehnborg with criminal fraud. Apparently, prosecutors never considered the possibility that they might be dealing with someone with severe psychological problems whose own inflexible delusions were contagious. Instead, at first, FDA lawyers felt obliged to take no action; reasoning that, by truthfully listing the banal ingredients, but avoiding making any specific therapeutic claims, on his packaging, Rehnborg had found a loophole in federal laws concerning criminal misbranding of medicines. As result, an up-dated version of an age-old fiction was permitted to be mass-marketed as fact to an unsuspecting public. Unfortunately, the lack of any rigorous, official challenge only brought its author more credibility. Not surprisingly, a host of copy-cat 'Unique Vitamin and Mineral Health-Tonic’ scams quickly sprang up.
As WWII drew to its close, ‘Nutrilite’ had lost its novelty, so Rehnborg (who was approaching 60) had teamed-up with two respectable-looking associates, Lee S. Mytinger and William S. Casselberry (later described by FDA officials as a ‘cemetery-plot salesman’ and a ‘psychologist’). The result was ‘Mytinger and Casselberry Inc.,’ a second corporate structure peddling ‘Exclusive Commission-Agency Rights’ to ‘Distribute XX Supplement’ using (what was first defined by the company’s owners as) a ‘New Business Model.’ In theory… you could try to sell ‘XX Supplement’ to your social contacts for a small profit, but, if you wanted to make big money, you didn’t need to sell anything… you could buy a monthly quota of ‘XX Supplement’ yourself and sign-up your social contacts to do the same… your ‘Sponsored Recruits’ would then ‘Sponsor’ their own social contacts, etc., ‘compensation’ would automatically multiply in an infinitely-expanding geometric progression. ‘Mytinger and Casselberry Inc.’offered a mind-numbing ‘contract’ in which the ‘company’ undertook to pay its ‘Independent Distributors’ an escalating ‘monthly commission’ on the totality of their escalating ‘Business Volume’ [i.e.their own regular monthly purchases (falsely defined as ‘sales’), added to the regular monthly purchases (falsely defined as ‘sales’), of their ‘Sponsored Recruits’, and those of the recruits of their recruits, etc. etc. ad infinitum].
In reality, the new set-up was merely the original lie with a second chapter added, but to casual observers ‘Nutrilite Products Company Inc.’ appeared to be exclusively manufacturing for, and wholesaling ‘XX Supplement’ to, ‘Mytinger and Casselberry Inc.,’ whose commission agents, in turn, appeared to be retailing it to the public for a profit. Although ‘XX Supplement’ was presented as ‘Unique,’ it mostly comprised substances which could easily be bought at a fraction of their exorbitant, assembled fixed-price, in traditional retail outlets. The product was effectively-impossible to sell to the public for a profit on the open market. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of its final customers were merely the non-salaried agents of the second corporate structure, which itself was the sole agent of the first corporate structure. In order for them to maintain the false hope that if they signed-up further contributing participants they would automatically become rich, the participants in this dissimulated money game were obliged by its rules to keep handing-over a monthly payment to Mytinger and Casselberry, to be shared with Rehnborg. From all points of view (medical, economic, legal, etc.), ‘XX Supplement’ might have well not existed. It was just a convenient means of laundering illegal payments in a closed-market swindle based on the crack-pot theory of endless-chain recruitment. New victims were supplied with a $49.50 ‘Business Kit’ (i.e. a large cardboard box stuffed with a month’s supply of ‘XX Supplement’ and a fat folder containing page after page of mystifying pseudo-economic/medical presentations and diagrams, and instructions in how to go about remembering, contacting and recruiting everyone they’d ever known during their lives). These presentations contained the concrete evidence which FDA lawyers could use to prosecute Rehnborg, Mytinger and Casselberry. Contributing participants were being instructed to smile, project excitement and enthusiasm, and to recite a precisely-worded script which proclaimed ‘Nutrilite XX Supplement’ to be ‘good value,’ because it could ‘cure or prevent,’ virtually any known human illness.
Even though it wasn’t his area of responsibility, FDA Legal Counsel (1939-1971), William H. Goodrich, was probably the first senior US law enforcement agent to deduce that the innocent baby that Rehnborg, Mytinger and Casselberry had baptised a ‘New Business Model’ (later to become known as: ‘Multi-Level Marketing’) was actually the same old delinquent previously known a 'pyramid scam.’ Again, anyone with an ounce of common sense could work out immediately that, since Rehnborg had been peddling medical alchemy, the strong likelihood was that Mytinger and Casselberry were peddling economic alchemy. The sinister trio of quacks were obviously acting in association, but agents of the Food and Drug Administration and those of the Federal Trade Commission acted independently. At this time, anti-racketeering legislation did not yet exist in the USA. However, in the late 1940s, the rapidly-expanding ‘XX Supplement’ dossier was already in the hands of FTC lawyers. Apparently, prosecutors still never considered the possibility that they might be dealing with persons suffering from severe psychological problems and whose own inflexible delusions were contagious. Instead, they still felt obliged to take no action; this time reasoning that Mytinger and Casselberry appeared to have found a loophole in federal laws concerning pyramid scams and Ponzi schemes. As a result, another updated version of an age-old fiction was permitted to be mass-marketed as fact to an unsuspecting public. Yet again, the lack of any rigorous official challenge only brought its authors more credibility. Not surprisingly, a host of copy-cat 'income opportunity' swindles (camouflaged by banal, but pricey, wampum) quickly sprang up.
Faced with more litigation and fearing that their monopoly of information might be lost, in 1954, Rehnborg, Mytinger and Casselberry hired a leading advertising agency which handled the clean-cut Hollywood star, Alan Ladd. Along with his wife and children, Alan Ladd then briefly-featured in kitsch 'Nutrilite' advertising material published in various mainstream magazines.
The charlatan-trio also paid a team of professionals to produce a 20 minute colour propaganda film, ‘From the Ground up’ (featuring themselves as three nice ordinary American guys turned philanthropic scientists and industrialists), and they began to publish their own propaganda magazine, ‘Nutrilite News’ (stuffed with colour photos of happy, healthy and wealthy ‘Distributors’).
|Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel (2nd and 3rd from the right, front row), Carl F. Rehnborg (immediately behind Van Andel, second row), circa 1950.|
Soon, they were organising ‘Rallies and Seminars’ (addressed by ‘Successful Christian Distributors’ like Rich De Vos and Jay Van Andel). No quantifiable evidence (in the form of audited accounts) was ever produced to prove what percentage of claimed ‘sales’ were authentic retail transactions to the public for a profit, or how many people who’d signed a ‘contract’ with ‘Mytinger and Casselberry Inc.’ had actually received an overall net-profit from the operation of what its instigators arbitrarily defined as an ‘MLM income opportunity’. Excluding the tiny percentage of grinning shills at the top of the pyramid, the hidden, rolling insolvency/churn-rate was 100%. Since there was no significant or sustainable external revenue, participants were actually buying infinite shares in their own finite money.
David Brear (copyright 2016)