Why newspapers like The Times need to be more responsible when writing about MLMs

Find out why we believe The Times is guilty of irresponsible journalism by publishing apparently unchecked claims by an MLM rep.

If there’s one thing we’ve come to realise over the past few years investigating MLMs, it’s that their reps are known to lie.

They’ve been reprimanded by both the Federal Trade Commission (FTA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for inaccurate, misleading and even dangerous health and earning claims. And our own research has uncovered countless lies told by MLM reps – and even, apparently, the Director General of the Direct Selling Association.

Trethowans
Trethowans

One MLM whose reps we have caught countless times seemingly lying is Forever Living. (You can read about just some of these deceptions here.)

In recent years, thanks to documentaries like Betting on Zero and the BBC’s Secrets of the Multi-Level Millionaires, we’ve seen the media become much more aware of the predatory nature of many MLM reps, and the truth about the MLM industry as a whole.

It’s now widely known that, according to research published on the FTC website, an average of 99.6% of people who join an MLM will lose money when business expenses are taken into account.

We were shocked to see The Times ‘promoting’ an MLM

So we were shocked to read this in The Times recently:

This article was written by Imogen Tew, a senior money reporter for The Times and The Sunday Times, which automatically gives it weight and credibility. Especially as this claim is presented as a fact: “She works about eight hours a week, earning between £2,000 and £2,500 a month”.

But to us, it appears to be irresponsible journalism. Did Imogen verify that the person she interviewed (presuming she did interview her) genuinely earned between £2,000 and £2,500 a month by working just eight hours a week flogging aloe vera to her neighbours?

Even if you aren’t fully aware of the reality of MLMs, this sounds incredulous. And when you do even the tiniest amount of research into MLMs in general, and Forever Living in particular, you realise this figure is highly unlikely to be true.

Because according to Forever Living’s own figures, if her claims are correct, this retired woman in a small town on the south coast of the UK, working just eight hours a week, is in the top 3% of ALL Forever Living reps worldwide. And yet she’s not even one of the top UK Forever Living reps.

And even if you aren’t aware of how MLMs work, does it not seem odd that a pensioner working just eight hours a week selling aloe vera products to “people nearby” takes home between £2,000 and £2,500 a month from retail sales? Just the most basic calculation tells you she’d need to sell an impossible amount of products every month to achieve that income.

Why Dorothy Norris can’t earn “between £2,000 and £2,500 a month” – despite what The Times say

We have further evidence that claim made by The Times that Dorothy Norris earns “between £2,000 and £2,500 a month” can’t be true. Here are screenshots from a Forever Living internal presentation celebrating their top earners in January and February this year (we have blurred the images to obscure the names):

These lists show UK Forever Living reps who sold 4ccs each month. Forever Living measure their sales in something called ‘Case Credits’, shortened to ccs. In the UK, 1cc is worth around £159 wholesale and £227 retail.

So 4ccs are equivalent to £908 of retail sales. However, for Dorothy to earn “between £2,000 and £2,500 a month” she’d need to retail over £6,000 of products. And yet her name doesn’t appear on either of these lists. So it seems like she’s not even retailing £908 a month.

On these lists are Forever Living’s top UK reps – as you would expect. These are people who are awarded cheque’s at Forever Living’s global rally each year. We have never seen Dorothy Norris awarded a cheque.

If Forever Living are celebrating their top UK reps selling 4ccs a month, how likely is is that Dorothy, who is not a top UK rep, is selling over 26ccs every month, which we believe she’d need to be doing for The Times’ statement to be true?

According to Forever Living, as many as 88.6% of their reps lose money

The real truth about Forever Living is easily available to read on Forever Living’s own website here. And according to Forever Living, of all the people signed up to them:

  • 88.6% earn nothing.
  • 7.86% earn an average of $105 a month.
  • 3.42% earn an average of $1,493 a month.
  • 0.2% earn an average of $28,512 a month.

Given you need to pay money to join Forever Living, this means that, according to their own figures, as many as 88.6% of people who join the company apparently lose money.

But you don’t even need to have read these figures to see there’s something wrong with this woman’s claim. According to Forever Living’s First Steps to Manager brochure, once you reach assistant supervisor with the company you earn 30% commission on your retail sales, plus bonuses.

So to earn £2000 a month, it appears this retired woman working just eight hours a week needs to sell around £6,666 a month of aloe vera products. And to earn £2,500 a month she needs to sell around £8,333 a month.

Does that seem even vaguely credible to you? That someone working just eight hours a week can consistently sell between £6,000 and £8,000 of aloe vera products a month “to people nearby”? How many neighbours does this woman have?!

We certainly don’t believe her. And if The Times had done some basic calculations we don’t believe they would be printing these claims either.

The Express published the same story

It’s not just The Times who published this woman’s claims. The Express also published them in an article that the DSA contributed heavily to – and even provided the photograph of the woman (that was also used by The Times).

However, we are less surprised by The Express’ coverage as they often write about MLMs like Forever Living. And The Sunday Express have previously published advertorials by the DSA.

It seems odd that two newspapers feature the same pensioner with the same claims and the same photo, so we suspect that both were supplied by the DSA on a publicity drive.

Why are stories like this by The Times so dangerous?

As we mentioned, it’s becoming increasingly recognised that MLMs are toxic and damaging. We believe that you are more likely to lose friends, get into debt and damage your mental health by joining one, than you are to earn money.

MLMs are also known to prey on the financially vulnerable – like the people potentially reading this particular article by The Times, which is titled: How to retire without going broke, Is your pension big enough to see you through soaring inflation?

Can you imagine being worried about your pension and the soaring cost of living, and coming across this article, which leads with a story about someone just like you easily earning £2,000 to £2,500 a month working just eight hours a week?

The fact that The Times are reporting it lends weight and credibility to the claim. So it’s easy to see how you may be tempted, on the back of this article, to invest your own money to join this company. However, according to Forever Living’s own figures, you are more likely to lose money than top up your pension.

And it’s not just readers of The Times who risk being seduced by the newspaper’s claims. We came across the article because Forever Living themselves shared it on social media:

This means their reps will very likely be using it as ‘proof’ they are a legitimate business opportunity when attempting to recruit.

The Times are also promoting someone who shares untrue income claims on her website:

Claiming that you can make “£360 and more every single month” by joining Forever Living is not only untrue according to the company’s own figures, it also contravenes the DSA Code of Business Conduct:

“Any earnings claims must relate to actual earnings from the opportunity by an identifiable person and be capable of verification.”

We believe The Times should edit the article

So what should The Times do? It may be that they have indeed properly verified this woman’s claims and they are true. But given all the facts above, we very much doubt that is the case. Instead, we think it’s more likely that they have taken the claims made by this woman (or the DSA) at face value.

If they have not checked the claims they have published and they are an ethical, responsible newspaper that values accurate journalism, they will do their own research to verify them. (It is worth noting that the DSA is not a regulatory body for the MLM industry but, in effect, a PR lobbying group paid for by its members.)

And if The Times find these claims to be untrue – or unable to be validated – they should edit the article and remove them. If they don’t, they risk potentially being responsible for people joining Forever Living and possibly losing money.

If The Times don’t check these claims (or haven’t already), we would question their journalism standards and ethics. Here’s what The Times themselves say about ethics: “The problem is that, when it comes to ethics, many of us have a tendency to bury our head in the sand.”

It remains to be seen whether The Times choose to apparently keep their head buried in the sand when it comes to MLMs.

Update: What The Times said in response to our complaint

We made a complaint to The Times regarding this article. This was their response:

“Our reporter was put in touch with Dorothy Norris by a reputable multinational company, and as with all case studies we accepted what she told us in good faith. However, it is possible a misunderstanding occurred at some point.”

We have a few issues with this reply. Firstly, are we to believe that The Times just takes claims people make about money ‘in good faith’ and publish them as fact, as they did in this case? If so, how can we believe anything The Times publish as fact?

Secondly, it appears they assume that any multinational company is automatically reputable – which is a dangerous assumption. And in this case, appears to be a poor error of judgement.

Forever Living is a multi-level marketing company whose distributors appear to frequently lie and misrepresent their earnings and the benefits of their products. And it seems the company themselves are no better.

In May 2022, Truth in Advertising sent a letter to the Bureau of Consumer Protection regarding notices of penalty offences by Forever Living. Here is an excerpt:

“An ongoing Truth in Advertising, Inc. (“TINA.org”) investigation into Arizona-based multi-level marketing (MLM) company Forever Living Products International, LLC (“Forever Living”), which sells a variety of aloe vera wellness products, has identified more than 5,500 atypical income claims being used to promote the MLM’s business opportunity – all published directly by this multi-billion dollar company and its high-level executives.”

Truth in Advertising even have a database with nearly 3,000 income claims made by Forever Living.

And if Forever Living or the DSA put Dorothy Norris in touch with The Times regarding this financial claim, then we would question how reputable they are, as we believe they would know the claim is untrue.

We don’t believe this was a “misunderstanding”

We don’t believe that this was “a misunderstanding” on the part of a senior money reporter at The Times, but irresponsible, inaccurate and potentially irresponsible journalism.

It was also not a “misunderstanding” on the part of the DSA, Forever Living or Dorothy Norris, as an almost identical claim appeared in The Express: “Dorothy often rakes in between £2,000 and £2,500.” This article had significant input from the DSA, and they were credited on the photo accompanying it (The Times used the same photo).

The Times have now edited the article to read as follows:

“Dorothy Norris is boosting her retirement income by selling aloe vera products from her home. “It’s hard to avoid concerns about the rising cost of living,” said Norris, 73. “When I see the headlines I think, thank goodness I have the additional income.”

“While Norris, a retired midwife and lecturer from Worthing, was already working before inflation began soaring, over the past few months she has increased her hours and almost doubled her income. She now works about eight hours a week, marketing and selling aloe vera gels, drinks and other products to people nearby.”

However, we don’t believe this is adequate, as it still makes income claims and is deceptive about the opportunities (or lack of) for most people who join Forever Living – according to their own figures. It also doesn’t take much research to work out that the aloe vera products Norris is selling from her home are Forever Living.

We have emailed The Times in reply to the above and will update this article once we hear back.

Photo by Stanislav