Selling the Bro Dream: Are Frat Boys Peddling Vemma Suckers?
Despite openly admiring a convicted felon – who in Morton’s eyes is merely a great salesman – the YPRers feel they get treated unfairly by the press. “I’ll give you an analogy,” says Bryce Majdick, a blond former frat boy from San Diego State University and one of YPR’s leading spokesmen. “You’re on the highway and everyone’s rubbernecking, looking at an accident, but missing the beautiful sunset behind it. A lot of the attention on Vemma gets drawn to negative aspects of what we do. If you look at anyone who’s great – Gandhi, Jesus, whoever – there’s insecurity. People are afraid of them. We’re shifting our generation’s mindset away from partying, smoking weed seven days a week, to doing something more with their lives.”
Yet according to Vemma’s own federal income disclosures, that “unfair” coverage has more to do with the reality on the ground than any squeamishness with a new generational mindset. More than 97 percent of the people who sign up for Vemma never advance past the rank of Diamond, which means that 97 percent average less income than someone who works 40 hours a week at a minimum-wage job, without even accounting for expenses. Sloppy is a member of that fortunate three percent. But he’s also Exhibit A for why there’s so much distrust of the income claims made by multilevel marketers. Sloppy says he spent every last cent he made last year on travel and the costs of “helping my team.” That doesn’t include the multiple surgeries he had to pay for when he broke his ankle. (Vemma, as is typical of multilevel marketers, does not offer health insurance to its distributors.) Morton’s rank alone should make him almost a millionaire, a dollar figure he never fails to share in his pitches. But this weekend’s trip to Las Vegas has already cost him a small fortune. “I’ve spent probably $40,000 on hotel rooms and flights for my team,” he says. And in the smoke-and-mirrors world of multilevel-marketing incomes, “millionaire” means something different to everyone. “Some people say they’re millionaires just because they’ve made seven figures over the course of their lifetimes,” says one Vemma member who’s critical of YPR’s boasting. “They don’t even take into account the fact that they spent that much or more. It’s all bullshit.”
That tendency toward extreme exaggeration is why an anonymous figure named YPRPariah first started blogging in the spring of last year. Pariah’s identity is a hotly debated mystery to those within Vemma. “I think he’s a girl,” says Chiarelli. “I think he’s Canadian,” says Sloppy. But in a couple of anony-mous Gchat conversations, Pariah insists he is neither. He first encountered Vemma on the campus of the Midwestern university he attended after a friend of a friend invited him to a dorm room and played a video featuring Morton. Impressed by Morton’s claims of wealth, he signed up online, paying $560 in order to get a variety pack of products. The drinks were fine, he says, and persuading others to buy the product was easy. “I pretty much got my first 200 people in a hurry,” he says. His network began with a few friends on campus before branching out among several states. Some months he made $800, minus the $160 he spent constantly reupping products. It wasn’t bad money for a full-time college student, but he had reservations. Some of the people he signed up were unable to make money. Pariah shared his problem with a fellow Vemma distributor over lunch, someone more successful than him, and that’s when he heard the line that persuaded him not only to quit but to become the company’s most outspoken critic: “People have to fail for us to make a profit,” he says his friend told him.
That line cuts to the heart of the multilevel-marketing industry. Robert FitzPatrick, the crusading owner and operator of PyramidSchemeAlert.org, says that who the companies target and what they sell may change – the derisive catch-all for the industry is “potions and lotions” – but the underlying structure never does. “Vemma’s ingenious lures for young people are nothing more than a natural adaptation of multilevel marketing to the student market,” he writes. “MLM’s focus on young people is not special or more significant than its attacks on blue-collar (Amway), Latinos (Herbalife), African-Americans (Pre-Paid Legal, ACN), women (Mary Kay, Avon, Arbonne, etc.) and many others.” What really matters, say FitzPatrick and critics like him, is the fact that Vemma’s own disclosures prove that the claims made over and over again by distributors like Morton can’t actually be true. Not everyone can “retire their parents,” a goal Morton preaches constantly in his talks. What Pariah’s friend told him that day was a distillation of a fact that has been known for years, says FitzPatrick, but seems to be forgotten each time a new company appears on the scene: When a small number make money, many, many more lose.
Pariah became an unexpected resource for exasperated parents who’ve watched their kids become swept up in Vemma, and for the kids themselves. Payton Carlucci was a tall, shy freshman at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College when a friend introduced him to the company. What came next followed a pattern that would be familiar to many who have been exposed to Vemma.
Carlucci was first teased with a vague idea. “My buddy said, ‘I wanna tell you about this opportunity that’s bigger than ourselves,’ but he didn’t actually tell us what the name was.” Morton and his fellow acolytes preach that no new prospect should ever be told too much too fast, a strategy meant to avoid what the organization has called “Vemma vomit”: the attempt to explain what the company does in one sitting. The first goal is to get a target like Carlucci to come to a meeting, without actually calling it a meeting. To do that, Morton says, “always be in a hurry.” He adds, “Your friends and family are going to tell you it’s a scheme, it’s a scam, these things don’t work.” Avoid telling them what the meeting is about, and you avoid having that conversation too early, before you’re properly equipped with a counterargument.
Carlucci heard enough to be intrigued by the pitch. So the following evening, he and three friends he’d invited went to an off-campus apartment, watched a presentation and joined. His sudden success – three recruits in 24 hours! – impressed Vemma so much that within a couple of days of signing up he was given the ultimate reward: a Skype call with Morton.
“I heard about you out in Pittsburgh,” Carlucci says Morton told him. “You’re exactly the kind of leadership we need.”
Carlucci was encouraged to make a list of everyone he knew. Each and every one of them would become a potential recruit. He went to local home events, where other leaders singled him out in the crowd. “They would point me out and say, ‘This kid is on the path to making big money,’ ” says Carlucci. “Which felt great, but then I would think, ‘I haven’t even made $5 yet. This is all just a lie.’ ”
Carlucci would give out free drinks on campus in an attempt to get people to come to meetings. He constantly texted – he now says harassed – people he barely knew, in an effort to get them to join. As it became apparent that he wasn’t replicating his early success, the encouragement he’d received from his Vemma friends soured into something else. “You suck at this,” was a message he received more than once.
All the while, Carlucci had been advised to avoid telling his parents what he had been up to. But he couldn’t hide it forever. After five months, Carlucci was flat broke. In total, he was out $1,500, or everything he had. That was bad. What was worse was what had happened to his reputation on campus.
“I had become extremely cocky,” he says. He had also spent months treating potential friends as potential prospects, which meant that even though he was now out of Vemma, his calls and texts still weren’t getting returned. “Losing money was the easy part,” he says. “It may take a lifetime to win those friends back.”
In some ways, Carlucci is lucky to have run out of money. Quitting is seen by Morton and others in Vemma as the ultimate failure. Yet for families torn apart by a son or daughter’s insistence on sticking with the company, it also seems like the only possible solution. Diane’s son underwent a similar transformation while away at school. Diane, who requested a pseudonym for fear of alienating her child, says she’s tentatively hopeful that after her son spent $9,000 chasing the Vemma dream, he may have finally realized that pitching friends, trash-talking school and blowing through a savings account may not be the right way to spend his final year as a teenager. But she also doesn’t think that it will occur to him that it wasn’t his fault. “That’s the genius of these companies,” she says. “They convince these kids that if they fail, it’s because they didn’t try hard enough.” A decade ago, the Federal Trade Commission discovered much the same thing when it found that victims of multilevel marketing were the least likely to complain to authorities. “When he went off to college,” says Diane, “we made sure to warn him about drinking, drugs, disease, all those sorts of things. We didn’t think to warn him about this. I wasn’t talking to my son anymore. It was as if I was talking to someone in a cult.”
Because it has such a strong foothold on college campuses, Vemma has also become a test case for some professors. Kim Clark, a lecturer in the University of New Hampshire’s economics department, says her students began studying Vemma after a few “muscly, frat-boy guys” started pitching it on campus. That’s when she discovered that the lease of the fancy BMW a Vemma student distributor was driving was put in the student’s own name, and “if you don’t hit your sales goals, then you get stuck with the bill,” she said.
The parody Twitter account @YPR-broYPR, run by five or six anonymous college students, is more proactive in its anti-Vemma advocacy. Every seven days, it nominates a “Vemma Douchebag of the Week,” someone who the feed’s operators think best embodies all the worst qualities they’ve come to associate with the company. Its members have also attempted to classify the ways in which their fellow college students change once they join the company. “The stereotypical Vemma Douche can be recognized by the following characteristics,” one of the account’s owners writes. “Brags about wealth . . . refers to those who won’t join as ‘broke-minded haters,’ ‘slaves or peasants’ . . . wears bro tanks, fake jewelry and hair gel (optional) . . . constantly posts inspirational quotes implying that they have somehow become enlightened . . . constantly bothers friends after they were told no the first time.”
In response to this wave of criticism, Vemma affiliates have started an online counteroffensive. Some have created websites in an attempt to ensure that a simple Google search, often the first line of defense for worried parents or skeptical college students, returns more positive results. They’ve also managed to silence their biggest critic. In late August, the entirety of YPRPariah’s website was scrubbed save for a single message that suggested he had either been spooked by a cease-and-desist letter from the company, received a settlement or something in between. “The blog you are looking for has ceased publication,” wrote the “Vemma Home Office” on his site. “Any disputes or misunderstandings between the publishers or authors of this blog and Vemma Nutrition Company have been resolved to the satisfaction of all involved.”
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