Thursday, March 15, 2007

A better name would be Kevin Falsedeau.

IF YOU HAVE A TV SET, undoubtedly at some point during the past decade your screen has been graced, late at night, by the pleasant, open visage of the individual at left. His name is Kevin Trudeau, and he's been on the periphery of the SHAMscape for a while now, thanks largely to an ambitious infomercial schedule in which he once invested more than $1 million a week, say those who would know. What began with 30-minute faux gab-fests touting Trudeau's "mega-memory system" of early-90s vintage segued into a host of other "miracle cures" for everything from chronic fatigue syndrome to cancer. Various government agencies deemed Trudeau's remedies not quite so miraculous, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) eventually vowed to shut him down after labeling his ventures "an infomercial empire that has misled American consumers for years." None of which stopped Trudeau from coming to the fore in earnest (or maybe not so earnest) in 2005 with his self-published mega-best-seller, Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About. The specifics of how that project came to pass, the place the book occupies on Kevin Trudeau's dubious resumé—and what all of this tells us about the grim realities of SHAMmarketing—are illuminating and, in my view, worth some time and detail. We'll be spending a few posts on this.

Leaving aside the sad and cynical truth of the familiar quote attributed to PT Barnum, it can be hard to fathom why the American public would repeatedly put its faith in a character like Trudeau, whom Quackwatch founder Dr. Stephen Barrett once dubbed "the undisputed king of false infomercial advertising." Following are a few highlights from The Kevin Trudeau Story that, while little-known, could be uncovered by any given consumer without an inordinate amount of digging. As The Wall Street Journal reported in January 1996, Trudeau kicked off the decade of the 1990s by pleading guilty to depositing $80,000 worth of rubber checks in a Massachusetts bank. Then, for 21 months beginning in late 1991, Kev made his home in a federal lock-up after pleading guilty to about $128,000 in credit-card fraud. He was barely back on the street when the Illinois Attorney General's office alleged that the health-products company he was now shilling for, Nutrition for Life, was in fact a pyramid scheme. (The U.S. Postal Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission were also interested in the precise nature of Trudeau's business model.) Trudeau and a co-defendant ponied up $185,000 to settle that case with the eight states in which N-for-L operated. That was 1996. By 1998, Trudeau and several accomplices had run afoul of the FTC, which took exception to the "false" and "unsubstantiated" claims for his memory system as well as other products/projects in which our boy had a stake. The ad copy for "Dr. Callahan's Addiction Breaking System," for example, pledged that the regimen took a mere "60 seconds to apply and works virtually 100 percent of the time"—an astonishing promise given that many addicts spend years in AA or other types of recovery therapy and emerge at the end with their addictions intact anyway. But it's another ad for another product that reveals just how little conscience Trudeau and his partners have about descending deep into the Ick Factor: This ad described how a "mega-reading program" not only helped restore cognitive function to a girl who was supposedly brain-dead after a car wreck…but also boosted her reading speed from three words a minute to 600 words a minute. (Both of the foregoing examples are from Salon's eye-opening exposé on Trudeau.)

Trudeau settled these cases, too, reports Salon, paying out another half-million dollars in purchaser refunds and agreeing to avoid such patently false advertising in the future.

Nonetheless, as one millennium gave way to another, Trudeau was at it again—and so was the FTC, now defying him to prove that his latest gambit, Coral Calcium Supreme, could in fact cure cancer or multiple sclerosis (as he alleged). This time, the fine was $2 million. But the FTC in 2004 took an additional, remarkable and unprecedented step, banning Trudeau—permanently—from "appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public [emphasis added]."

Faced with this, Trudeau did what any self-respecting scammer would do: He shifted to print (books generally enjoying far more expansive protections under the First Amendment than do infomercials, which, as ads, must meet higher standards of proof, at least in theory). The result, the following year, was the aforementioned Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About. Trudeau's writing makes clear that the "They" refers not just to doctors and drug companies, but to the venal government agencies that have conspired with the medical establishment to suppress well-meaning whistleblowers like, well, him. By July 2005, NC"T"DWYTKA had reached the top of the New York Times' best-seller list for advice books. Total sales figures are hard to come by because, in addition to the usual sales channels, the book was available via direct marketing, Web "kiosks"—and, yes, even infomercials. (His FTC consent decree carves an exception for long-form ads that strictly promote his literary endeavors, a loophole that—some observers feel—undercuts the entire point of the 2004 ban.) Nonetheless, evidence suggests that at least 3 million copies ended up in consumers' hands before all was said and done. And really, it's not said and done: Today, and despite a plethora of horrific reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, Natural Cures is making a strong comeback (#578 on Amazon as I write this), owing to the high profile of Trudeau's latest book, which has a familiar ring to it: The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About (currently #33, though it doesn't officially pub till April). Almost needless to say, he's also promoting this new best-seller via infomercial.

Next time around, we'll be looking more closely at some of the content of Trudeau's work.

16 comments:

a/good/lysstener said...

Hey Steve, I know you know your stuff, or at least I sure hope so, because this sounds like you're almost daring this Trudeau guy to sue you. Meanwhile in the category of shameless confessions, my mother just shared with me yesterday that she'd ordered his diet book, and she offered to let me read his Natural Cures book because it comes as a freebie, supposedly, with the purchase of the diet book. So maybe I'll take her up on the offer, and I'll have something more specific to add to the discussion in a little while. I almost don't have the heart to point Mom to your blog, though I know she reads it occasionally on her own, just to see what you're up to!

Steve Salerno said...

I definitely urge you to read the book, Alyssa (as long as it came as a "freebie"). If you know anything at all about health and medicine, and/or are willing to do the slightest bit of independent research, you'll see what Trudeau's growing legions of critics mean when they say things like "this is a scam to get you to pay for a website subscription that is also a scam" or "I read this drivel and I'm just glad I wasn't the one who paid money better spent on something else."

Cal said...

Steve,

I look forward to your analysis of Trudeau. I'm curious...are the publishers of these books liable if people take the advice of people like him or Suzanne Somers and they fall ill? I believe in free speech and hate that we have such a litigious society, but when people's lives are potentially in danger that raises other questions.

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, I am so glad you're tackling this joker. As I said in a previous discussion, I'm amazed Kevin wasn't hand-picked for "The Secret," since he is obviously so successful at "attracting" new customers, no matter what he does.

Anonymous said...

This is terrific stuff, I applaud you for having the guts to put it all together like this. I saw the comment you posted on Trudeau's book, we can only hope this stops a few people from getting suckered who otherwise would.

Anonymous said...

What about Kevin Makes-Dough?

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: I, like you, would love nothing more than seeing these people called to account for their bad (or just ineffective) advice. But there are a number of problems here, beginning with the fact that liability laws in this area are very tricky and open to interpretation. Most SHAMmers fill their books with disclaimers, and are careful to present their material as "just another way of looking at things," i.e. an alternative to the status quo. Many of them purposely couch their programs in such vague terms that it's hard to pinpoint exactly how someone could claim damages: What specific promise was breached? (Trudeau has proved to be a particular master at this; indeed, some of his harshest critics allege that his books are little more than come-ons in their own right--extended ads designed to drive traffic to his subscription website.) The First Amendment, ironically, makes it easy for non-professionals to use their lack of credentialing as a shield: A guy like Trudeau could say, in his defense, "Hey, what do you want from me? I'm not a doctor! I'm just another guy with an opinion. Who told you to follow MY advice, anyway??" Finally, the First Amendment also allows authors a TON of leeweay in presenting unorthodox or counterintuitive ideas. Bottom line, as the FTC's ongoing struggles to rein in Kevin Trudeau demonstrate, a climate of caveat emptor still very much applies here.

All that said, I'm going to try to get a better answer for you in the days ahead, after I contact the FTC directly.

Cosmic Connie said...

Good one, anon... although Kevin is full of false promises, he's definitely raking in True-dough.

Even books by M.D.s and other credentialed lawyers contain disclaimers, generally in the front matter, to the effect that the book is for informational purposes only and is not to be substituted for the services of a qualified professional. There's usually something about the author and publisher being held harmless, no matter what the reader chooses to do or not do as a result of reading the book. They generally have their legal butts covered.

I would hate to see all "non-experts" silenced and am glad that First Amendment protections exist. But I really am surprised that Truedough keeps popping back up with new nonsense, and that people keep falling for it.

Rodger D. Johnson said...

As much as we hate Trudeau and others like him -- I just watched a snipet of Vitale on Larry King that almost made me vomit -- their 's gives us something to gripe about.

I've known people, my mother too, Alyssa, who have bought into the nutrition sham scam. I remember her drinking apple vinegar, touting its purifying qualities and pointing to Trudeau's book for the source of her knowledge.

Seems to me the larger issue isn't the sham, but the American retreat from rational thinking, valuing emperical evidence, and bona fide professionals' opinions. The FDA didn't promote the four food groups because they wanted a nation of overweight, unhealthy people.

Our self-reliance has turned into a narcissistic emancipation from reality.

a/good/lysstener said...

Well I hope you're happy, Steve, because my mother is furious at me over this Trudeau thing! ;) She seems to feel that together we have "personally ridiculed" her and her willingess to buy the guy's latest book. I tell her it's not personal, it's strictly business, which is a quote from one of her favorite movies, The Godfather (and yours, I think?), but she's still not too thrilled.

Rodger, I agree with you about the retreat from rational thinking. I see it even in my classes. Professors have preconceived notions, esp. in the political realm, and cling to them no matter what facts you want to bring into the discussion. Life is more and more about picking out the facts or so-called facts that prove the case you want to prove, and rejecting anything and everything else.

Rodger D. Johnson said...

Alyssa,

You present an very interesting point -- that people are picking and choosing the "facts" they want and ignoring FACTS that don't fit their worldview or perception.

Form one graduate student to another, it's an interesting phenomenon. We fashion our worldview based on our values. While some of use value factual information and tend to be more pragmatic, others (and this group is growing rapidly) have taken a hiatus from reason to embrace their emotions and self without keeping them in check. I think what we're seeing is an exit from the last vestiges of Enlightenment thinking, into a new post, post modern era.

Cosmic Connie said...

Alyssa, it occurred to me only after I posted my snide remarks about Trudeau that someone such as your mother might be offended. That wasn't my intention at all. Most of us have fallen prey at one time or another to infomercial hype, and not everyone is aware of Trudeau's background. And Steve was certainly correct when he mentioned in an earlier post that Trudeau comes across on his infomercials as very likable and sincere. I just happen to have had the advantage of having previously stumbled across unfavorable information on Trudeau, and that's why I knew about him.

If you took a look at my own bookshelves, you would probably laugh. I have a couple of books from "Bottom Line Personals" Publishing whose titles almost sound like something Trudeau would have written. There's some useful info in these books but a lot of stuff I already knew. I will say this, though: they're good bathroom reading.

(Confession to Steve: I also have quite a few titles from Rodale Press / Prevention Books, on everything from sex to nutrition to pet care.)

Anyway, Alyssa, I hope the rift between you and your mom heals soon. You might even encourage her to write a review of Trudeau's book for Amazon. She'll see she was far from the only person who was duped.

Anonymous said...

Connie and Steve, just so you know, I didn't mean to overstate, my Mom isn't really furious at me, it's more in the way of a good-natured ribbing kind of thing. At least I hope so. Although, I do think she'd be happier if I didn't embarrass her, as she put it, by mentioning her as an example in my comments. And now here I go again!

Btw it's Alyssa (if you haven't figured that out) but for some reason I couldn't log into my account this time.

Anonymous said...

You people have to be kidding me, do you work for the drug companies or something, have you even read any of his books? I am a biology major in college and any science text book can verify what he says about naturally curing your body is true. In my opinion a lot of what he says makes good sense. I don't take everything he says literally, but that is something everyone must decide for them self. I urge everyone to at least read the book and judge it for themselves. And if you are to cheap to buy the book you can rent them for free from your local public library.

David said...

I'm a well-educated business owner, and Kevin Trudeau's books on debt have really helped save my business. I don't know much about his legal problems in 1988 to 1998, but I do know that the government of the last 50 years tended to ignore real criminals and go after whistleblowers. But Steve, this article sounds more like you are trying to come up with content for your blog. Give Trudeau a little credit for his recent successes, you are so cynical and negative that I would not want to read the rest of your sham/scam reports.

Steve Salerno said...

David: Even taking your comment at face value--because I'm certain there have been cases where self-help gurus posted comments here under false names (or had friends/associates post comments) in order to defend their "honor"--why are you taking issue with me, and acting as if I'm the problem? How do you, for example, dismiss all of this:
http://tinyurl.com/yf7r7uz

Those aren't instances of my being "cynical," David. Those are cases where the government fined Trudeau or otherwise held his feet to the fire, or where other regulatory agencies found (extreme) fault with his products/promises. And it has happened over and over again, as you can readily see.

As for your being helped by his advice, look, as the old saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.