I’m not into horror films, but Betting on Zero is excellent. It’s a documentary that focuses on nutrition supplement giant Herbalife, which incorporated in 1979 in the Cayman Islands. As in, the tax haven Cayman Islands.
One of the subjects of the documentary is Bill Ackman, a poker faced hedge fund manager with a net worth of 1.7 billion. Rather than investing in the success of Herbalife, he invested in its failure. The documentary follows him as he tours the country shitting on Herbalife, exposing their multi-level marketing (MLM) business for what it really is: a pyramid scheme. By doing this, he’d benefit whenever their stock drops, as he does something called short selling, which is not this:
Short selling is when an investor borrows shares of a stock that they’ve forecasted to go down in value, sells the shares at market price, and then–if they’re successful in their prediction–purchases the shares at the reduced market price, netting a profit. To sort of simplify it, it’s the opposite of investing. Betting on Zero’s malevolent protagonist, Ackman, was counting on Herbalife’s stock to go all the way down to zilch.
Herbalife tried fighting the bad press caused by Ackman in various ways. In an instance, they paid poor people $200 each to stand outside a church backing the brand, while Ackman was inside meeting with the victims of their pyramid scheme.
They were counting on the public to be fooled into believing that there were people who felt so passionate about a brand that they’d willingly stand outside in the cold with signs of support.
I better not get sacked for writing this, but I would not do the same for my employer, for free. Nor would I use their hashtag on my personal social media accounts. I refuse to get baited into advertising for free; any accolades I dish out are by my own will.
Before the documentary ended, Yann raised a good question, “It’s obvious Herbalife is a pyramid scheme. So, why isn’t the government intervening?”
I gave it my best shot, “Because those on the top of pyramid schemes work in the government.”
Sure enough, Betsy DeVos, the US Secretary of Education, made her fortune off another MLM company, Amway. Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, was one of Herbalife’s brand ambassadors. Carl Icahn owns 19 million shares of Herbalife (10% of this totally legit Cayman Islands-based company). He is the Special Advisor to the President (Trump!) on Regulatory Reform. In Icahn’s case, he hated Ackman enough to invest $214 million to see Herbalife’s stock climb. Yup, that’s a $214 million vendetta. Who better than a guy like this to oversee regulatory reform?
Herbalife also purchased a bunch of bogus domains to force off any attempts at exposing their corruption from the first page of search results. One of the domains they bought was BettingOnZero dot com before the production company could grab it. There, you can read a 1200-word piece disputing the film’s allegations, written by none other than Herbalife.
The piece concludes with Herbalife reminding their members that they’re “the number one brand in the world in weight management” and that they’ve been bringing health and wellness to consumers around the globe for 36 years. They shoehorned that self-endorsement in there like it wouldn’t be transparent.
(I’m going to make a sweeping generalization here, and say that I don’t like anybody who wears a gold watch.)
When you watch Herbalife’s training and recruitment videos, you get the sense that their supplements are a cover for their real business model: selling people hopes and dreams. They host seminars in packed football stadiums, where their speakers exhibit televangelist-level enthusiasm to an equally spirited audience.
But wait, it’s not just a seminar, Herbalife calls it an extravaganza! Some of their devotees have spent years slogging through the silly-named ranks in the Herbalife hierarchy, collecting pins along the way. If one is so lucky as to reach the President’s Team level, for every ten thousand people in their downline (any recruits originating from them), they get rewarded an extra diamond set in their chintzy pin. It’s like a military ranking for Herbalife’s good soldiers.
How can a company so blatantly tacky maintain that they’re not a pyramid scheme?