Political satire is a beautiful thing, and no one does it better than John Oliver, who’s renowned for taking on controversial, often obscure, issues on his Emmy-winning Sunday night HBO comedy show “Last Night with John Oliver” —and having an impact that goes far beyond humor.
On Sunday Oliver eviscerated one of the thorniest and least understood economic calamities of our times: multilevel marketing companies, or MLMs, like Herbalife. Thousands of words have been written about the Wall Street battle over Herbalife between billionaire investors Bill Ackman (who has famously bet $1 billion it is a pyramid scheme) and Carl Icahn over the past four years, many of them by me. But while the war between the two men fighting over the company’s future has been covered ad nauseum by the business press (see my Nov. 3 post “Carl Icahn’s $51.50 solution: not”), most of the media has shown shockingly little concern over the millions of people apparently duped into the sleazy MLM business, not to mention an understanding of the structure of the fraud.
(Exception: One of my stories detailing the Herbalife scam : http://nypost.com/2014/12/17/top-herbalife-salesman-admits-deception-high-failure-rate/)
Enter John Oliver. His Nov. 6 segment nails the topic with the clarity only a Wall Street outsider can. Since he’s outside the finance bubble, Oliver’s not likely to be convinced Herbalife is a good company just because its stock has not gone to zero. (When the stock falls, editors think Herbalife may be bad, but when it goes up, they think it must be okay.)
“Oh fuck you,” Oliver says, in what has become almost a trademark line, to CEO Michael Johnson after the man makes the patently absurd claim that the settlement it reached with the Federal Trade Commission mandating it drastically change its business practices is actually good for the company. Sure, that’s why they spent millions of dollars fighting it.
An enraged Oliver then calls Johnson a “vampire” sucking the blood of Herbalife’s primarily Hispanic victims after a scene from the new documentary “Betting on Zero” details their pain. Even Julie Contreras, the Latino activist who has been fighting Herbalife for years and helped the FTC make its case by providing dozens of victims’ testimony along with canisters of unsold protein powder, couldn’t have said it better.
Oliver also hints at the regulatory capture that has allowed MLMs to become so huge and unchecked until now, with a hilarious video of Madeleine Albright and mug shots of the former FTC commissioners who now work for Herbalife. (He left out former Joe Biden chief of staff, Alan Hoffman, who runs its PR, but you can read more about the politics in this piece I wrote for Slate.
So, watch out, Herbalife. John Oliver isn’t a hedge fund manager the media loves to whack at like a pinata. He has millions of fans and has inspired legislation on everything from bail bonds to chicken farming, and railed against the FIFA scamsters long before the government took action. Now that the Hispanic vote is likely to put Hillary Clinton in the White House, it’s not for nothing that Oliver is putting out a Spanish version of his MLM pyramid show because, as he says, those companies are “hurting people.” He’s even got a plan for creating a pyramid scheme to take down pyramid schemes, calling it #ThisIsaPyramidScheme.
Here’s the clip, with cameo appearances by MLM critics Herb Greenberg, Julie Contreras and Robert Fitzpatrick.