Recently, ESPN the Magazine & Outside the Lines produced a scathing report on Advocare, the multimillion dollar supplements and healthy lifestyle company. It is a fairly lengthy read from Mina Kimes (access it here) but allow me to sum it up for you in one brief sentence: Advocare is taking advantage of people. Unfortunately, one-sided journalism like that seen in this article has become a very regular thing in large publications, but this ESPN article by Mina Kimes really takes it to another level. And before I really get going into my own sure-to-be far too lengthy blog entry, let me be up front and honest with you. Yes, I sell Advocare. In fact, you can reach my Advocare shop via this website! Just click on the Shop link above you if you’re interested in purchasing any! Or don’t. It’s really up to you and it’s no skin off my back if you don’t want to! Because like any responsible adult capable of a minimal amount of pragmatism, I didn’t plunge headfirst into a pool of debt by buying thousands and thousands of dollars of supplements and expecting myself to be able to sell them to random people off the street! Sorry… From here on out, I promise to try and avoid any of my own anecdotes because at the end of the day, they are just anecdotes and they would only show my point of view with the company which is almost guaranteed to be radically different than anyone else’s. (Side note #1: Anecdotal evidence alone does not prove or disprove anything, including but not limited to company culture and opportunity within a company).
“One weekend in early 2013, thousands of people trekked to the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas, gathering to celebrate a company that promised to liberate them from the drudgery of their 9-to-5 lives. They cheered through countless inspirational speeches, pounding energy drinks and pumping their fists as higher-ranking members spoke about how they had turned their lives around with the help of AdvoCare, which is short for Advocates Who Care.”
Soaked in sarcasm, that is the first paragraph in the article presented in the magazine. Right off the bat, anyone reading this knows what road we’re headed down. Just for kicks, let’s paraphrase this and act like we are drinking the Advocare Kool-Aid and we’re 100% on board with everything they stand for. They can do no wrong! ‘One weekend in early 2013, thousands of people traveled to the Fort Worth Convention Center in Texas in order to explore the tenets of a company who offers a chance to think outside the box, take home a supplemental income, and provide a true health benefit to people across the world. Throughout the convention, they were treated to product samples and inspirational stories from Advocare customers who made incredible life changes as well as appearances from former President George W. Bush and NFL superstar Drew Brees.’ (Side note #2: Writing stuff as slanted as EITHER of these paragraphs should make you frown as you write it. If it doesn’t, that means you have a problem detecting bias in your own writing. Work on it. And if you’re smiling as you write it, you are a sensationalist journalist. And what you are writing is not news. It is entertainment).
Though both of these paragraphs are accurate in their own ways, neither of them are really fair representations of the event. They’re introductory hooks used to grab a reader’s attention and get them thinking a certain way. These hooks are completely fine if what follows paints a complete picture of the subject at hand. To me, it is painfully obvious that the article published in ESPN did not even make an attempt to do this in regards to the company in question.
Gabriel Chavez is the first of a few different key ‘witnesses’ mentioned by Mina Kimes in the article. Gabriel had a rough go of things. He spent three years basically trying to recoup the losses of money he dumped into Advocare, doing things like taking out a loan on his 401(k), quitting his job, and spending over $15,000 on Advocare products. Now, at the risk of sounding judgmental (heaven forbid!!!), this is not a normal thing to do. In fact, it is very abnormal. Very, very, very, very, very abnormal. Seriously, as you’re reading this just ask yourself if you would do any of that. If you read the article and watch the video published alongside the article, you can see the lengths Gabriel went to in order to sell his product and recruit new members. He shamefully admits that he lied about the money he was making with Advocare so he could generate interest in signing up under him. Cool move, Gabe. Instead of recognizing your mistake and limiting it to yourself, you perpetuate it by dishonestly pushing it onto other people. Sounds like a personal problem with decision-making and ethics to me, not one to be shouldered by the company.
When someone goes out on a limb and starts their own company, we don’t truly know what influencers there are that push that particular person to do so. Maybe it’s social, maybe it’s familial, maybe they got the idea from something they read. It could be any number of factors x, y, or z. But, if that small business fails, the owner cannot blame those factors that drove them to open it in the first place, even if they lose a ton of money in the process! At the end of the day, you and only you are responsible for your actions. There will always be factors that influence you one way or another and although I do feel bad that Gabriel Chavez made what turned out to be a bad decision (or a number of bad decisions, more likely) the fact remains that it was still his decision, not Advocare’s. But, he is just an anecdotal outlier that probably isn’t representative of an entire population. (Side note #3: And we aaaalllll know that good research requires a data set representative of an entire population, which is why outliers on both extreme sides of a data set are often ignored and not capitalized on. Wait, we don’t all know that? OK, now we do.)
Let us forget for a minute about the two extremes. Forget about the Gabriel Chavezes of the article and forget about the multimillion dollar salespeople extraordinaire – “mostly couples, deeply tanned and in business attire” (because that’s important…) – and let’s look at real information, real data, and real statistics. The first thing that jumps out to me about Advocare is that it has had almost ZERO complaints about product quality, with only one (yes, only one) high profile case that is glossed over briefly in the article. As a strength and conditioning coach and a self-proclaimed decent dude, this is incredibly important to me. And no matter who you are or what your job is, it should be important to you too. The product quality is, quite frankly, rivaled only by a handful of other supplement companies and is a primary reason why coaches like myself recommend it to appropriate populations. Yes, it’s more expensive than many other supplements as pointed out by the article. There is a reason for that: the quality is better. I don’t go to a car dealership expecting to pay the same for a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee as I would for a 1994 Honda Civic. Because… Well, that would be dumb.
Now, onto some real number crunching. The above graphic was presented in the article as evidence of how you can’t make money with Advocare. I don’t even care how accurate the numbers are, but let’s assume they’re dead on. When you compare the numbers with US Census Bureau figures for 2014 and any commonly accepted economic wealth model, you can see that the numbers for the distribution of wealth within the company of Advocare are really not that different than the distribution of wealth in the United States! Yours or Mina Kimes’ or my opinion on wealth distribution matters not for this argument; I am simply providing a more complete view of the exact same data originally presented in the article ESPN ran. (Side note #4: Please present at least a teeny tiny bit of information in favor of the opposition when arguing for or against something. It lends credibility to your argument).
According to an academic model by Leonard Beeghley, whether we like it or not, the super-rich make up 0.9% of our population. Out of the 154,819 active distributors in Advocare (which for the record, I am not included in because I do not receive any checks from Advocare. I distribute directly which makes me one of the many nameless numbers on the outside of the radar chart above), only 318 are reported to have made over $100,000. This is 0.2% of the actively distributing Advocare population. Not a lot. I get it. And as the numbers of Advocare distributors increase, that 0.2% will most likely increase a few tenths of a percent. So temper your expectations, people! And, seriously! Are ALL the people that make up the numbers in those statistics dedicating their entire livelihoods to Advocare? Absolutely not. It is ridiculous to suggest they are. Yes, it’s possible that you can make that much money with Advocare! Just like it’s possible you can make it elsewhere. But, these 1% are outliers in Advocare just as they are outliers in the rest of our society. Not everyone can be at the very top and not everyone tries to be at the very top. That is how free markets and capitalism work! Which really brings us to the crux of the quasi-argument presented in the ESPN article.
Now I am not questioning the resume of Mina Kimes, her qualifications as a journalist, or her previous exposes on a number of different important topics, but her most recent article really shouldn’t be about Advocare at all. It should be about the pitfalls of the multilevel marketing (MLM) model. Or direct marketing. Or whatever it is you want to call it. I’m not here to argue semantics about business models because that’s out of my depth and out of my scope of practice. And honestly it doesn’t even matter because the end state is the same: some people are for it and some people are against it. Just like everything else in the world (except puppies). But, the beauty of Advocare (or really any other similarly modeled business such as HerbaLife Ltd, Avon, Mary Kay, Southwestern, Sunrider, etc.) is that if you don’t like it, you don’t have to take part in it! It’s really that easy. The fact that Advocare happens to conduct business within the realm of sports does not mean it should take the fall in an ESPN magazine publication of all places for other potentially immoral MLM practitioners, particularly when the article is more damning of the MLM model itself than it is of Advocare as a company, even if that condemnation is perhaps unintentional.
I am certainly no economist and therefore not equipped to talk legalities or corporate principles or any other number of subjects that are out of my league to tackle. However, with my background, I do believe I am equipped to talk ethics. I shouldn’t even have to mention that there is a very detailed code of ethics within Advocare’s company literature (I will since it wasn’t mentioned in the ESPN article) but I find it ironic that Mina Kimes’ shining example of the dangers of Advocare willingly admitted to breaking this code of ethics by misrepresenting himself and lying to people he was trying to sell to! This is literally the very first thing in the Direct Selling Association (DSA) Code of Ethics. Not to mention that if you need a book to tell you that lying to someone about how much money you’re making in order to get them on board and then make yourself more money is unethical, then you need to reexamine your basic concepts of right and wrong.
I’m sure there is more than enough literature out there that examines the pros and cons of an MLM. And, just like any big decision in your life, if you are going to participate in an MLM you should probably at least make an attempt to understand what it is you’re getting into. Most people wouldn’t choose what college to attend without knowing if they offered a major they were interested in, wouldn’t accept a job offer without knowing where it was located, and they wouldn’t ask someone to marry them without knowing at least a little bit about them. If you are about to undertake a commitment, especially one you are trying to turn into a career, do your due diligence and have a plan. Please. For your own sake.
Now, I am not so naïve to think that there are not sharks out there who try to take advantage of people like Gabriel Chavez. These people are everywhere. In fact, I bet you would be hard pressed to find any large company that makes its money primarily from sales that has zero unethical behavior going on anywhere throughout its staff. And ultimately, it is the staff’s responsibility to hold their leadership, peers, and subordinates accountable and protect the values of their company. Advocare is no exception to this responsibility and I find it refreshing that even with this article turning a lot of critical eyes onto him, Drew Brees has stood by the company as he realizes very rationally that the company’s core values align with his. Maybe Gabriel Chavez was unnecessarily and ruthlessly pressured into making a long sequence of terrible decisions and if so, that is truly despicable. And I completely agree that this type of behavior NEEDS to be regulated and disciplined harshly. But, if this is a truly persistent and permeating theme in MLMs, then there most certainly is a better and more scholarly form of media to examine it in than ESPN the Magazine. (Side note #5: How amazing and more effective would it have been for Mina Kimes to pour as much time, energy, and resources into the wild west of the deregulated supplement industry plaguing the athletes creating the highlight reels for ESPN rather than attacking one of the only trustworthy sources for athletes to turn to?!?!?)
As one of the ‘little guys’ that is NOT making a lot of money selling the products because I do not actively recruit people, I think it is important that the whole picture of Advocare is given to the public and not just the very inflammatory one painted in this most recent article in ESPN. Granted, there is no way to capture a perfect description of such a large operation in the scope of a few thousand words, but it can be done with at least a little less bias. If you don’t agree with multilevel marketing models, that is another thing entirely and I’m sure some braniac economists and philosophers (not me) will have a spirited debate with you on the ins, outs, and ethics of the system itself. But Advocare’s mission is special to a lot of people in the sports industry who are doing it the right way and their view needs to be represented as well.
I love the way Mina Kimes ended her article in the magazine, so I will end this post the exact same way: with this quote from Drew Brees. “Why are all these people involved in AdvoCare? Because it’s a viable business, and they believe in the products, what they are selling and in AdvoCare. And so do I.”
And so do I.
Opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and do not express the views of Advocare or any of its associates.