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Modern snake oil salesmen
May 10, 2012 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Scamworld: in which the Verge investigates "a network of pitchmen who have used the internet and fear of a failing economy to play the ultimate long con."
posted by doublesix (61 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Scamworld is available on the Kindle Store. You can download it right here.

Only 99 cents.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:24 PM on May 10, 2012


You paid $5 to post this. Oh the irony.
posted by teppic at 8:27 PM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Internet Marketing is, um, a colorful subculture.

The Internet Marketing niche within internet marketing-- that is, selling products to internet marketers to help them market over the internet, often to other internet marketers-- has something of the quality of a Ponzi scheme.

Unfortunately, even outside of IM, when it comes to marketing online, in the vast, vast majority of cases, the bedrock element consists of pitching the products of quasi-friendly quasi-acquaintances-- products you yourself haven't actually tested-- to your trusting subscribers and customers.

That part is rather nauseating.

And of course the stream of Shiny New Things to market is unending, and in fact, rushing ever faster.
posted by darth_tedious at 8:28 PM on May 10, 2012


This is fascinating. I was introduced to Andy Jenkins and Video Boss several years ago when I took a job making corporate videos for a professional advice firm. My boss had big dreams of moving into the social media market to assist other professionals learn how to use the Internet, and wanted to emulate the video boss technique. (He was introduced to it by a guy who worked in the firm who loved all things shiny, and the idea of making a tonne of money quickly).
Having come from a film background, my role was simply to help with the technical aspects of it -- but I never really understood why these guys were lauded so much; all they do is teach people how to do what they do... so that those people can teach other people to do the same thing. It's absurd!
posted by AstroTurf at 8:32 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a great article, unfortunately it makes me want to punch certain people in the face.
posted by mrbill at 8:32 PM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


> You paid $5 to post this. Oh the irony.

Yeah, back in 2006. Anyhoo, I have no idea why they would be selling it on the Kindle Store, AFAIK it's the whole article.
posted by doublesix at 8:34 PM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm very impressed that a blog is doing this sort of investigative reporting.

Miles tells me he assembles “information products.” These are a staple of the Internet Marketing business, easy to manufacture and cheap to distribute data files (generally e-books, audio, video, or a combination) that can cover topics as diverse as affiliate marketing, training your parrot to talk, and how to start raking in all that “hot dog cash.”

Frauds disgust me. I'm not saying it's the worst thing in the world, but nothing angers me more than people that exploit desperate people by selling them easy answers.

That said, I am going to start using the phrase "hot dog cash."
posted by ignignokt at 8:41 PM on May 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


Protip Edge System has always been fighting an unregulated war with Sold to You, Sucka

- that's how they teach the story in Oceana.
posted by vozworth at 8:43 PM on May 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


This explains so much about the come-ons you get all over the place online/in email where you just can't figure out what the business model is.
posted by Miko at 8:50 PM on May 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


1) Like ignignokt, I'm 100% disgusted by these fuckwits. I remember almost getting a job as a vacuum cleaner sales dude (out of desperation more than anything). I wised up, thankfully, but watching this shit gave me the same damn feeling as going into that room with the sleezeball guy (it was actually Berkshire -- what is that Hoover? Kirby?) My mom got suckered into that Amway shit (as did my sister and her husband and all that). I almost got conned into it a couple times but both times woke up (thanks to sensible friends, and not really a desire to get rich or have money). I just hate that these poor people end up getting suckered into giving so much of what little they have away.

2) I got eerily creeped out by the dude drawing the syndicate diagram, with the mark in the center and the whole circle of the syndicate around. "Selling them value" (yeah, like, umm...) The minute I saw the circles being drawn I had that primal instinct of the predators encircling their prey, and even drawing the lines toward the mark made it seem like they were ready to leap. And then the terminology tries to make it sounds like they're just good ol' every day business men selling products to people who need it.

3) And just now thinking about it, I started to realize that it seems to exploit empathy (perhaps mirror neurons are involved?) I sit there thinking "how the fuck can someone get taken in like this shit?" But then they see the circle of predators, and in their mind THEY are the part of the syndicate, they're putting themselves in that position, somehow not realizing that they're the dude in the center. Their lust for power and money and all that shit leads them to ignore the fact that they're not even looking at the diagram properly. They are empathizing with the vultures, not the victims, and thus, by doing so, think they're one of the vultures (noble vultures, of course, clearly).

Just listening to that phone call made me want to punch that fucking dickwad in the mouth. The worst part is how much of it is one of the leaders and how much of it is just a guy trying to do what he heard he has to do to "get rich" and how much is he a victim and how much is he perpetrator?

And isn't that part of it? You get someone sunk in, time invested, money invested, sunk costs, moral costs, they have so much in play. And then sort of like blackmail as well, they have to get caught up in a web of moral dilemmas slowly eroding their sense of right and wrong so they can eventually prey on their own victims (but only enough to get the money flowing to the top, and never enough to actually be the top)...
posted by symbioid at 9:15 PM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


all they do is teach people how to do what they do... so that those people can teach other people to do the same thing. It's absurd!

Sounds like a fairly accurate description of an MFA program.
posted by eustacescrubb at 9:23 PM on May 10, 2012 [29 favorites]


That and confusion. The whole patter about the "platforms" and levels reminded me of nothing so much as buying a car - which is an extraordinarily simple transaction but during which the dealer is highly incentivized to confuse you into paying more, and more interest, than you need to. The verbal gyrations and diagrams on boards are really strange in that they look adn sound like information, yet they are absolutely not information. They're just a lot of handwaving. But you need to be confident in your own analytical abilities to spot that.

Reminds me that a friend once told me that the phrase "con man" comes about not because the guy is conning you - it's shorthand for someone who plays on your confidence. They make you feel confident about them; they manipulate you into feelings of trust. That's the "con" in confidence - you think they're smarter than you are.

Once you understand that all this language is empty, it's easy to resist and keep restating simple terms. But if you're a little insecure about your financial knowledge or your worldiness or whatever, you're not going to ask "can you explain about the platform one more time? What does this mean? Are you asking to draw money out of my account? Can you be more specific?" They prey, specifically, on people's insecurity with financial topics and on their emotional neediness.
posted by Miko at 9:24 PM on May 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


Sounds like a fairly accurate description of an MFA program.

Which is one of the con men's favorite arguments in the article itself. The author actually kind of traps him into having to deny some part of this observation, quite nicely.
posted by Miko at 9:26 PM on May 10, 2012


Getting a bit off the internet marketing track, but if you want to read an interesting book on running confidence scams, check out The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It was originally published in 1940 so a lot of the specific techniques are going to be dated, but the general spirit of being a good confidence man pervades throughout and you'll see just how many scams are still relatively current, with updated tools and such. Or if you want something more current, track down the BBC episodes of a show called The Real Hustle.

But yes, this, like a lot of hard sales, consists in winning over their confidence and getting the mark on your side. You want them to think they're one of the smart ones, they're getting this opportunity because they're special, and yeah, maybe they can pull one over on some rubes. Not like you and me, bub, we know what's going on.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:30 PM on May 10, 2012 [8 favorites]


I remember almost getting a job as a vacuum cleaner sales dude (out of desperation more than anything). I wised up, thankfully, but watching this shit gave me the same damn feeling as going into that room with the sleezeball guy (it was actually Berkshire -- what is that Hoover? Kirby?)

When I was 16, I "got a job" selling Cutco knives for Vector Marketing. Which means that I went to a seminar at their office, was shown college kids who were doing this, then reluctantly paid $116 to get my "starter kit" - a bunch of knives to sell. To whom would I sell? Well, to my friends and family, of course!

I knew something was wrong, but after making a big deal at home at how I was going to earn $17 an hour instead of $4.35 like the other dumbasses, so I felt I had to do this. I called up a friend and actually asked to talk to his dad, and did the pitch super awkwardly. He took pity on me and said, OK, I guess, come on by.

I went there with my kit, zombied through the bullshit they told me to say, mortified the whole time. It was the most humiliating thing I did in quite some time, and those days were packed with humiliation. My friend's dad declined to buy anything, and gently suggested maybe I should just get a real job.

At home, I talked to my parents about how it went, they nodded, and then told me to go get my money back. Which, fortunately, I did as this MLM business was far more mild than the Internet Marketing described in the article.

Years and years later, an Internet acquaintance who was really depressed and short on cash got involved in Amway, which I think was operating under the name Quixtar at the time. I sent a ton of links explaining how their scam works and of testimonials from people that had gotten out of it. She seemed to kind of understand it was a scam, but she felt she didn't have any friends outside of Quixtar, so she kept sinking her money into it.
posted by ignignokt at 9:46 PM on May 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yeah, scamming people, most often desperate people, is something I just don't understand how people live with themselves. They probably go to church on Sundays and think of themselves as upstanding citizens, too. Blergh.
posted by maxwelton at 10:20 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


They probably go to church on Sundays and think of themselves as upstanding citizens, too.

Oh, I doubt that. Unless they’re looking for marks.

I find this stuff fascinating and disgusting. I’m surprised these guys aren’t in danger from some of their clients.
posted by bongo_x at 10:28 PM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I went there with my kit, zombied through the bullshit they told me to say

Did you use the scissors to cut through a penny?
posted by fleacircus at 10:29 PM on May 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


> You paid $5 to post this.

WarriorForum charges $37 for lifetime access to the "War Room" private forum, $60/yr for the right to post articles, and $60/yr for an image in your signature.
posted by crysflame at 10:42 PM on May 10, 2012


They probably go to church on Sundays and think of themselves as upstanding citizens, too.

I have am estranged from most of my family, which includes a dyed in the wool conman BIL. Going to church is part of his persona, he's helping people (not taking advantage of the downtrodden). I think he believes it too, but I don't speak to that part of the family anymore so I never dived deeper. But plenty of people have olympic level cognitive dissonance, and I suspect it holds true for con artists.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:50 PM on May 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


The self-development industry is morally interesting. The thing is, self-development actually works. Yes, you can live a better, happier, more fulfilling, wealthier life. You actually can do that.

Want to know how?

It's really simple, and I'm going to tell you. For free. This is how.

Decide to actually do, that which it will actually take, to actually achieve what you want.

There you go. I just saved you $10,000+ each for seminars and prayer breakfasts and self-empowerment weekends and whatever. However, like most people, you probably think that's way, way too simple for you. It doesn't appeal to your inner attraction to complication, and you need it explained in more detail. I'll throw that in, 'cos I like you and want you to succeed. (Yes, I really do.)

Think about yourself in five years. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be doing? What do you want to have? Who do you want to be? Now write all that down in detail.

Next, back-port that, a year at a time, to a year from now. If your life plan doesn't make sense, or there isn't enough time to achieve what you want, or whatever, edit it. It's only ever a draft. Stuff will come up that necessitates re-drafting it; inability to accept that we cannot precisely determine the course of our lives is one of the major barriers to self-improvement. It will help with this if you subdivide your life plan into areas such as family, career, fun, money, health etc; whatever makes sense to you. You can google for example goal-setting lists.

The purpose of this exercise is to clarify what you want, and in turn, clarify exactly how, as in by what real actions, you are going to get what you want. If there's a logical gap, fix it.

Having done this, frequently review your plan. You need to become somewhat obsessive about it. Your subconscious is powerful but it is lazy; unless you become subconsciously driven to achieve something, you probably won't. You'll find excuses to avoid it.

The "Law of Attraction" is a mystical name for what are basically three real things. The first thing, is clarity of intention. If you're sitting around wondering who you are and what you're going to do, thousands of opportunities and possibilities will pass you by unnoticed. The second thing is confirmation bias: if you're clear that you want this, any opportunity that you see that in some way approximates to this, you will notice. Same way that if you drive a red Honda, you will see red Hondas everywhere. They were there all along; you just didn't care. The third thing, is motivated action. The scope of your possible actions is enormous. You are overwhelmed with choices and consequent analysis paralysis. If you just pick something you want, even if it's a bit silly, and it's motivating enough to prompt you to some action, then you will greatly increase your chances of getting it.

There you go. Simple as that. If you don't get it, or having got it, wish that there were some "easier way", by all means pay the snake oil salesmen to re-explain it to you with different metaphors and in greater detail and including money. Also it is a proven fact that most humans value their experiences and possessions more, the more they paid for them, regardless of their actual utility, and accordingly paying a snake oil salesman thousands of dollars to receive advice you could get from reading an internet forum, may actually have the genuine and real effect of making you more likely to take that advice.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:26 PM on May 10, 2012 [204 favorites]


I am sad that I only have the one favourite to give to Aeschenkarnos.

I think it was Brian Aldiss (but could have been any one of a number of similar spiky new-wave SF writers) who was asked to give a talk on 'how to write a novel' to a bunch of wannabes.

"How many people here want to write?" he asked the audience, as an opener.

Everyone raised their hand.

"Then what the hell are you doing here?"
posted by Devonian at 12:04 AM on May 11, 2012 [11 favorites]


Here's what's funny to me about this world:

IME, the people who spend their lives obsessed with enriching themselves by SELLING, SELLING, SELLING, are also some of the easiest people to convince to buy your crap.

Case-in-point: The dudes in the SoCal phone room where I (god help me) worked during undergrad used to buy the most ridiculous stuff, all the time. From door-to-door salesmen, no less: You know, the kind that most people shut the door on? And once, the big boss took me in his office and showed me one of his greatest treasures: A looseleaf binder, covered in gold-embossed leather, which held issues of something that I believe was called "The Winners' Success Journal." This was staple-bound, black-and-white thing that seemed to be just sheets and sheets of one inane sales platitude after another. "Not everyone can get this," he told me.

No. Of course not. Only winners. Very, very gullible winners.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:12 AM on May 11, 2012 [19 favorites]


I dated an internet marketer for a few years, and learned more than I ever want to know about Scamworld. I will die happy if I never again see "LEARN MORE" between two arrows in bold +4 red on white background, centered.

Affiliate links are the only reason any of this spreads beyond the A-list at all, I suppose. Amazon pays 6% to affiliates. I've seen as high as 50% in various marketing offers from the Kern-class folks. All of the Amway things about "building your network" are here. If not for those, there'd be no "quick" in the "get rich". I made a brief foray into affiliate revenue to fund college, but it was so squicky to me that I quit and got a job instead.

Credit card processing is very difficult to set up if you're selling e-books and coaching calls. I overheard months of phone calls with banks and card processors detailing how it wasn't an "online marketing business". It turns out that the chargeback rate for this sort of thing is extremely high. It turns out that there are step-by-step guides for exactly how to scam card processors into considering it a legitimate business.

All of the things people selling actual products hate about Paypal make perfect sense when you're dealing with IM operators. A marketing campaign for a cookie-cutter e-book that's promoted by one of the A-list folks can pull in $20,000 or more in 24 hours, at least until everyone starts filing complaints and chargebacks. If Paypal doesn't freeze the account in the first 24 hours, the money is withdrawn and they'll never recover it.

Various conferences would invite guest marketers to come on stage and sell their product. So you'd see a day where 20+ people go up, sell an e-book or a conference series or coaching calls or whatever. She found one time that removing a picture of the two of us smiling while on vacation increased sales to men by 15%. Tested it with the same revealing outfit on stage. It turns out that seeming single is more profitable.

I attended a couple hours of various events with her: internet marketing seminars, Millionaire Mind workshop, etc. They all share the same brainwashing methods. Drone people into submission, shatter their defenses with a confidence "building" exercise, sell them something, bio break; repeat 5-10x a day. Two cycles of this was enough to send me into social withdrawal for days while I healed. It reminded me of Landmark and Scientology: avoid at all costs.

Cheap online labor helps keep the time investments are kept to the absolute minimum necessary. CSS bug on home page? Video to subtitle? Sales letter to proofread? $8/hour. Coding a self serve site that takes a thousand bucks and a URL and farms out the forum link spam work automatically? $8/hour, times a hundred hours. No need to pay employer taxes when you can outsource.

Our unresolvable arguments were about her businesses. I spent years working in anti-spam, and to see someone I loved spamming and doing NLP sales manipulation was deeply disturbing. I eventually had to ask her not to talk about her work. Success at business meant the world to her, and so this meant the end of us. I wish her all the happiness in the world personally, but also look forward to the day her forum spam business dies due to rel="nofollow" on user-created profile pages.
posted by crysflame at 1:06 AM on May 11, 2012 [32 favorites]


IME, the people who spend their lives obsessed with enriching themselves by SELLING, SELLING, SELLING, are also some of the easiest people to convince to buy your crap.
Damn right. Every life coaching, business coaching, etc event I've ever been to is full of life coaches, business coaches, etc. It's hilarious. About a quarter of the industry is taking in each others' washing, and any client who gets the actual meat of the matter pretty quickly figures out which side of the microphone they need to work towards being on. For the meat, see my post above, plus a few more tidbits most of which you can get from Michael Gerber's "The E-Myth Revisited" and Jack Canfields "The Success Principles". No other books or courses are actually necessary to learn this stuff.

As best practice, someone in the coaching industry takes a basically a secular pastoral role in their client's lives, and profits only to the extent that the client succeeds. One of the business coaches I respect most has a rule: find his own fee first. He goes through the client's financial figures, and helps them to identify savings, and extra revenue and profit, with which to pay for his own fairly substantial ($11K per year last time I talked to him) fee. If he can't do that, because the business is too small, he offers an introductory course for about $1500 over six weeks; alternatively, he refers them on to coaches who are happy to work with smaller businesses. Business coaching is a tiered industry; the coach who helps someone go from $20K turnover to $200K (probably charging $300 a month) is not necessarily the coach who will take them from $200K to $1M (probably charging $1000 a month).

While the advice is genuinely useful and most of the clients didn't actually know most of the information they get, what is more useful, is the accountability, and the fact that, having paid, the client desires to get value. It's the same reason why a personal trainer is far better for someone who wants to get fit, than simply going to the gym alone; unless you're an extraordinarily disciplined person, you won't do what you know you need to do.

The primary purpose of the good part of the industry is assisting clients to overcome akrasia; the difference between what we know we should do, and what we actually do.

The bad part of the industry are scammers and woo merchants. There isn't any clear algorithm for determining reliably who is who in advance of working with them, unfortunately. This is my basic checklist: (1) do they walk the walk, not just talk the talk; (2) are they humble, listeners to people, engage in a respectful way with their clients, giving credit and acknowledgement to their own mentors; (3) are they modest in their personal habits, and respectful to those around them especially venue staff and subordinates; (4) do they give information of real use and value for free, or at a very low cost (as a rule of thumb, this will be about 1/3 of of what you will get for paying them the big bucks, so if they give out practically nothing, you will probably get 3 times of practically nothing from them, if you pay); (5) do they recommend other coaching instead of their own, where their own coaching speciality is inappropriate to the client; (6) is their system compatible with ordinary everyday human life, eg can they help a client working say sixty hours a week with not much money left after essentials to improve their lives; (7) are there measurable, testable, repeatable results that are objectively visible to persons other than the client; (8) do they explain their teachings in ordinary language, with minimal use of jargon or cant; (9) does an internet search show legal disputes or significant criticism (everyone gets some criticism; douchebag clients do exist); (10) do they handle requests for refunds with grace and generosity; (11) how do other clients treat each other, ie are they encouraged to discuss whatever they want whenever they want, to form friendships, business partnerships etc, or are they kept separated and busy?

I could probably go on for pages about that. One other really interesting point worth bringing up is NLP (Neurolinquistic Programming) - pretty much everyone in the industry uses it or principles related to it. The ones who are honest will teach you to use NLP techniques for your own purposes; the dishonest ones will use it on you, to persuade you to give them money.

Pricing in the industry is absurdly difficult to objectively assess and it's very, very arbitrary. Ask questions, look at case studies, ask the coach about their own activities, etc. Honest people are open people. Waffling or "taking offense" (assuming you weren't outright rude) is a sure sign of a lack of integrity. If someone proposes to charge you $10,000 to teach you something, it is entirely reasonable for you to expect to get at least $20,000 back from their teachings. That may come in the form of better health; capacity and self-worth enough to get better employment; marketable skills gained from the course; opportunities to do transactions; increased business turnover; whatever; but it must be reasonably foreseeable that you would get at least double the value in benefit that you pay out in money. That said, you may get $10K value from a $100 seminar. It's ridiculously arbitrary. Don't spend other people's money, don't put it on your credit cards unless you can pay the whole thing back within 6 months, and don't spend money you need for essentials. (It would help in that regard to know how much money you actually need for essentials on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. That's a hint. :D)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:09 AM on May 11, 2012 [25 favorites]


> I am sad that I only have the one favourite to give to Aeschenkarnos.

.

> Your subconscious is powerful but it is lazy; unless you become subconsciously driven to achieve something, you probably won't. You'll find excuses to avoid it.

The draw of "The Secret" and "Law of Attraction" and "Millionaire Mind" appears to be that no effort is required to achieve one's goals. If you simply visualize a cherry red Ferrari, an opportunity will land in your lap and you'll get one! And so they wrap actual useful tips ("have a plan") in a very profitable coating ("your imagination is a replacement for hard work").

It turns out that you can achieve goals far more reliably by looking for ways to take action and then actually taking action. Many people use "The Secret" as an excuse to avoid difficult work towards a goal until an easier the perfect opportunity comes up. It's very easy to be suckered into idle waiting when the alternative is work.

> I started to realize that it seems to exploit empathy (perhaps mirror neurons are involved?)

One of the workshops had some sort of arrow breaking exercise. I will never do that in a room full of strangers. I can't think of an easier way to force trust where it has no right to necessarily exist. Every fiber of my being resents the manipulation. I'd've loved to experience the endorphin rush of surviving it, but it simply wasn't safe to lower my defenses in a sales-focused environment. I think they pulled in five or six figures that day.
posted by crysflame at 1:36 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


The transcript of the call with 'Leigh' is some triple-distilled evil.
posted by kavasa at 2:32 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Aeschenkarnos, your post is brilliant, and I wish I could favorite it more. I was always an "underachiever" – not a slacker, but I didn't take the actions that I needed to take in order to go where I desperately wanted to be. Many people over many years gave me "just do it" advice, but it wasn't until I woke up one day and realized: "I want to have a long-term relationship, move out of this terrible town, and get a better-paying job."

So I did the things necessary to achieve those goals, and am now married, live in a city I like, and more than doubled my salary.

Just by deciding to do it.

If I'd never had this epiphany, I can see myself eventually becoming the type of person who could be victimized by the type of scams that prey on the desperate.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:52 AM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Decide to actually do, that which it will actually take, to actually achieve what you want.

I can testify this actually works. You don't even have to be obsessive about it. Just keep moving in the direction you want to be going.
posted by DU at 4:16 AM on May 11, 2012


This reminded me of Teresa Nielsen Hayden's take on scams, which really rang true to me at a point where I was just "PEOPLE. WHY ARE YOU STUPID AND/OR EVIL."
These scams take the forms they do because they’re parodies—no, a better way to put it: they’re cargo-cult effigies—of the deals the ruling class cut for themselves. If you’re an insider, if you have the secret, you can have a job where you make heaps of money for very little work. You can avoid paying your taxes. You can inherit a pile of money because an ancestor of yours left a moderate fortune that’s been appreciating ever since. You can be your own boss. You can have other people working for you, who have other people working for them, who all pay you a percentage of the take.

Of course people believe it. After all, they vaguely know this sort of thing happens. It just doesn’t happen to them. But why shouldn’t they be the lucky ones, this time around?
posted by Jeanne at 4:45 AM on May 11, 2012 [17 favorites]


But then they see the circle of predators, and in their mind THEY are the part of the syndicate, they're putting themselves in that position, somehow not realizing that they're the dude in the center.

If you don't know who the sucker is, it's you.
posted by valkyryn at 5:44 AM on May 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Cutco is a kind of interesting example, because for the end consumer of the knives, there's a real, quality product. The knives are actually quite good, if a little overpriced, and the lifetime guarantee is actually worth something. I have Cutco knives that I've used for 15+ years and are still going strong.

The con, to the extent you consider is a con, is between the marketing company that sells the knives and the college kids that sign up to sell. You have to pay for your sample kit, you get paid only a commission, not any sort of hourly rate or salary. A lot of people barely break even on the kit, if that. I'm not sure that really qualifies as a con so much as obfuscating how you actually make money trying to sell the knives.

I sold Cutco knives during college, though, and actually made decent money doing so. Of course, I kind of cheated the system. After I ran through the list of people I knew that might be interested, I discovered that I could actually obtain a list of previous purchasers of knives from the company for each zip code. Being in a big college town where Cutco had been around for awhile, it turned out there were a lot of previous purchasers. I called these folks up, reminded them of the lifetime guarantee, and offered to come out and sharpen and polish the knives for free.

I was amazed by how much these folks LOVED their knives. I'd hang out in the kitchen with these folks, talk about their knives (some of which were more than 30 years old), cooking, and whatever. And while I was sharpening away, I would just mention that Cutco had a bunch of new stuff, and hey, here's a catalog if you want to take a look. I'd say I sold more knives to 80% of these people, with very little effort on my part. It was far more rewarding than the cold calling a lot of the other kids were doing. That being said, I quickly got out of sales after the whole experience.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:44 AM on May 11, 2012 [13 favorites]


If you can't baffle 'em with brilliance, befuddle 'em with bullshit.

This hucksterism has been around forever; nothing's changed but the delivery system. It's human nature and it will never go away. It is made worse, though, by our actual legitimization of a subgroup of these con men : Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil and Deepak Chopra and Joel Osteen and all the other "legitimate" "motivators" are every bit the criminals these internet slimeballs are.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:45 AM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


Interesting article... one minor problem. The Crystal City Marriott is in Arlington, Virginia not Arlington, Maryland.
posted by smoothvirus at 6:31 AM on May 11, 2012


Aeschenkarnos, Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:55 AM on May 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


crysflame: One of the workshops had some sort of arrow breaking exercise.

Penn & Teller's Bullshit had a great episode on self- help gurus and the showy techniques that are practically ripped from carnival tricks (firewalking, walking on glass, board breaking,etc) and specifically showcased the arrow technique.

Basically, the tough cartilage above your clavicle and the force exerted on the bamboo arrow splinter it to bits. You don't want to repeat that with a steel arrow, however.....
posted by dr_dank at 7:04 AM on May 11, 2012


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posted by Rock Steady at 7:19 AM on May 11, 2012 [45 favorites]


The con, to the extent you consider is a con, is between the marketing company that sells the knives and the college kids that sign up to sell.
Both CUTCO Cutlery and Vector Marketing are subsidiaries of CUTCO Corporation.
No, Cutco is aware of this practice.

I'm not sure that really qualifies as a con so much as obfuscating how you actually make money trying to sell the knives.

Kids show up thinking they will work to get paid an hourly rate they could not get otherwise. When they show up, they get pressured into handing over money instead. They are given the hard sell. And Cutco/Vector know by now that most kids do not go through their kit, leaving Cutco with the profit from it.

A high-pressure hours-long sales pitch disguised as a promise of a job is pretty classic scam. I later learned that at legitimate job, the job pays you, not the other way around. Fortunately for me, this scam was pretty mild, unlike the ones in the Verge story.

I'm glad you made it work for you, though.
posted by ignignokt at 7:23 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This also reminded me of Merlin Mann's "Cash Duke" parody video.
posted by mrbill at 7:33 AM on May 11, 2012


Internet marketing is one of those things that has so many layers of jargon and meta-fuckery going on that it actually hurts my brain to try to figure out what any particular phrase means. A lot of the concepts, and even criticism of certain concepts by other internet marketers, seems to be recursive to an extent deliberately designed to make it incomprehensible.

I'll be happy when the whole thing burns.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No, Cutco is aware of this practice.

I never said it wasn't. It's still one of the most frustrating things to me about Cutco, because it really is a quality product, but the huckterism involved in selling it undermines that image.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 7:39 AM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does this explain that "I Will Teach You to Be Rich" website?" I followed a link there once from some blogger who claimed it was full of excellent financial advice and got sucked into a rabbit hole of searching for content. So many words! So little content! I could not figure out how this dude made his money - or why his blog posts would get thousands of comments. Like, what were all those people seeing that I didn't? But, I never plugged my email into any forms, so I suppose I missed out on the true angle.
posted by newg at 7:43 AM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I liked those guys whose angle seemed to be they were making an rad and edgy documentary on the whole thing... I went to their website, which is just a trailer and an immediate pop up asking for my email address... yeah sure guys, here it is! What can possibly go wrong!?
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:47 AM on May 11, 2012


You paid $5 to post this. Oh the irony.

Yeah, back in 2006. Anyhoo, I have no idea why they would be selling it on the Kindle Store, AFAIK it's the whole article.
posted by doublesix at 10:34 PM on May 10


Talk about the long con!
posted by Reverend John at 8:07 AM on May 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Now that aeschenkarnos told you the secret of life, the universe and everything, it'll be interesting to come back in a while and see it if made any difference to how you actually live your life at all.

My guess is it won't.

It's interesting that so far 100 people favorited his "really simple... free" explanation, but only 6 favorited the follow up that explained:

unless you're an extraordinarily disciplined person, you won't do what you know you need to do

Btw, if you actually were an extraordinarily disciplined person, you would pretty much not have needed his initial explanation either.

Actually maybe for most people it's not about some quality called "discipline" at all. Maybe it's more about what sonic meat machine described as having an epiphany. Not some kind of knowledge or analysis or strategy, but something that hits you in the gut and has you vow that you don't want to live that way any more.
posted by philipy at 10:51 AM on May 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Does this explain that "I Will Teach You to Be Rich" website?" I followed a link there once from some blogger who claimed it was full of excellent financial advice and got sucked into a rabbit hole of searching for content. So many words! So little content!

The thing is, IWTYTBR was indeed full of good advice a few years ago; a little smug, a little too heavy on the rah-rah-rah-entreprenerial guff, but basically sound. But then at some point Ramit disappeared down the internet-marketing rabbit hole and now it's all sales pitches for his bullshit courses: all short sentences and bold face and bullet points and no content.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:26 AM on May 11, 2012


I went there with my kit, zombied through the bullshit they told me to say

Did you use the scissors to cut through a penny?


I would go the advanced route and turn the penny into a spiral. I gotta say, I sold some scissors. I landed at Cutco knives one desperate summer and gave it up after shilling to a couple friend's parents. I never bought the "sample case" ... the whole thing was confusing by design, I think.

I also gotta say, as sleazy as Cutco is, it does not compare with these scams. Cutco at least had an actual (fairly decent, I think) product line. My friend's mom still talks to me about how great the serrated sandwich spreader I sold her ...

or on review, what monju_bosatsu said. ...

After I ran through the list of people I knew that might be interested, I discovered that I could actually obtain a list of previous purchasers of knives from the company for each zip code. Being in a big college town where Cutco had been around for awhile, it turned out there were a lot of previous purchasers. I called these folks up, reminded them of the lifetime guarantee, and offered to come out and sharpen and polish the knives for free.

Yeah, that's really the scam, getting young kids to sell knives and get their own leads (the LEADS!). The $X for the sales kit is the final straw, though. If they would have given me the knives for free, I probably would have done my own legwork (though not as intelligently as you).

I thought it was a pretty good product too, and was disappointed as well by the business strategy.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:32 AM on May 11, 2012


It's interesting, after reading about weight loss for a while (inspiring threads on redditt and something awful, reading about the paleo diet) , one afternoon I said, "fuck it, right now (not tomorrow, not next week, etc...) I'm going to change my diet! and I did and I lost nearly 60 lbs. I guess that was the epiphany. I'd never tried to diet before and I hadn't thought I was that fat (although clearly, I was.)

I guess I just need to do the same for the rest of my life!
posted by vespabelle at 11:38 AM on May 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


>They probably go to church on Sundays and think of themselves as upstanding citizens, too.

>>Oh, I doubt that. Unless they’re looking for marks.


I read a comment somewhere that some churchgoers are quite happy with this kind of work, because either a) they've learned to accept a lot of ambiguity in life by studying various contradictory doctrines, and can just get on with what they're told to do, or b) they really don't have any qualms about earning money this way, because "Hey! I'm saved!"

I used to work with a guy who was probably the latter, although he worshipped more at the Church of Amway. Underneath though, he was quite a decent, open person. I think his parents and his church filled his head with dumb ideas, and he was painfully trying to come to terms with life in the big city. Too bad he didn't meet Aeschencharnos first.
posted by sneebler at 12:24 PM on May 11, 2012


sneebler,

I don't think it's either of those two things. Most people don't think of themselves as bad people. I'd guess their rationalization is probably something like like the uncle [insert clever name here] describes: they're just making a buck and helping out their customers by giving them an opportunity. If their customers get burned it's on them, glossing over their own part in the burning.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:34 PM on May 11, 2012


er, "like the one used by the uncle"
posted by Sangermaine at 1:35 PM on May 11, 2012


Goal-setting and living "on purpose" (as if your life mattered, and you got to affect how it turned out) is hardly something that I thought up, and neither did the snake oil merchants; it's the closest thing this world has to a "magic system", and it's there in that context if you look at prayer, incantantion, and ritual throughout human history. Sadly, pretty much every spell is "mind-affecting, range: self or other, Will save DC2 to avoid effect", and "or other" only works by them casting it on themselves, although they may blame or praise you for suggesting that they should.

While I'm pleased that my offhand comment seems to have struck a chord with people, and like anyone else I am egotistical enough to smile as I bow for the applause, I find it a bit poignant that it did garner applause, as it ought to be standard practice. IMO this stuff needs to be taught from kindergarten upwards. Imagine the kind of world we could live in if it was.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 2:43 PM on May 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


After people I know became involved in some of this stuff, there was far more guilt-tripping in every conversation about how bad it was that I wasn't focusing every iota of my attention on getting pants-shittingly rich so I could leave billions of ducats to future generations. Don't I love my family?

It's really a shameless way to rip people off, especially your friends and family, whether we're talking about the MLM scams, the new age woo seminars, or the internet phishing marketing. Most of the people I know engaged in this kind of nonsense were hoodwinked by other people higher up the food chain than they are. They're not evil as far as I'm concerned. They've had a sip of the Kool-Aid and they're sold. They just make me sad.

What really makes me sad is how effectively the sharks rip the limbs off the people on the other end of the phone in those boiler room tapes. I don't think the people getting eviscerated by this douchenozzles are weak-willed or stupid. I just think the pitch is repeated so much that someone that isn't a total hardline skeptic might find something of value in what they're pitching.

The fact that much of this is legal is the far more troubling fact. That the FTC doesn't have a roving army of regulators stomping these guys out of existence makes me want to start emailing every member of Congress.
posted by phoebus at 2:56 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


A google search on (impossible, swindle, honest, man) site:wikiquote.org does not get me what I was looking for. Who said, "it is impossible to swindle an honest man"?

Everybody knows who said "if you are in marketing just kill yourself right now."
posted by bukvich at 4:33 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"it is impossible to swindle an honest man"?

I've always hated that quote. Look at the guy at the beginning of this piece: lost his job due to a freak accident, seriously ill, desperate for work. He turned to this because it seemed like he had nothing else and the scammer had spent months gaining his trust by preying on his weakest spot (said he had a brother in the same condition, really helped him out, etc). The scammer even visited the guy in the hospital.

I guess you could still say an honest man wouldn't have fallen for it, but I feel like desperation and despair are more of a factor with these things.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:07 PM on May 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


bukvich: "Who said, "it is impossible to swindle an honest man"?"

It's "You can't cheat an honest man". from the same-named W.C. Fields movie.
posted by dejah420 at 7:04 PM on May 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I find it a bit poignant that it did garner applause, as it ought to be standard practice. IMO this stuff needs to be taught from kindergarten upwards. Imagine the kind of world we could live in if it was.

Well, that might honestly be the world we have. The thing is, early on I wasn't sure exactly which way your comment was going to go. What troubles me is that when you begin with this as the essential question:

Think about yourself in five years. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be doing? What do you want to have? Who do you want to be?

Then you begin with a standard of "right" and "correct" which refers only to "what you want," and accepts any action required for you to get there - because we've assumed that "What you want" and "what is right" are the same thing.

I think that's where these folks go wrong. Someone mentioned that they are dealing with "cognitive dissonance;" but in fact, these folks don't have cognitive dissonance, which is the unsettling feeling resulting from an inability to resolve two conflicting sets of values. You frankly don't experience cognitive dissonance if your value set covers your actions and their results - you feel like you're doing it exactly right.

"What you want" isn't always a great guide to what is moral, honest, and creates a greater good for you and society. It often is, and I'm not about to say people shouldn't pursue what they want. But when "what you want" is the highest goal, and all other considerations fall to it, you have an excellent recipe for exploiting and truly hurting other people who are simply less smart at getting what they want than you are. Listening to and acting on your own wants, unrestrained by any other moral parameters, is not an honorable act in and of itself and shouldn't be praised as a strategy leading to a fair, respectful existence. I am in full agreement that we are to some degree the architects of our fate, at least as far as birthright and resources and support networks allow, but at the same time that our actions should be constrained by values that determine what is and isn't acceptable based on the consequences for our fellow human beings - not just us as individuals.
posted by Miko at 9:06 PM on May 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, that might honestly be the world we have.

It's not exactly the world we have because a lot of people are in drift mode, and for a lot more there is a huge gap between what they're doing and what they would need to be doing to get where they say they want to go.

But it is the world we have to the extent that people are asking the "me, me, me" questions rather than some other kind of question. They ask those questions partly because it's the way humans are wired, partly because that's the culture they've absorbed.

Those aspects are somewhat independent, as the folks with noble goals are often in drift mode as much as anyone else.

The techniques that aeschenkarnos described as about as useful, or about as useless, whether the purpose they're serving is ridiculously materialistic or magnificently selfless.

If anything they're probably more useful for a goal that has a deep meaning for you, because it takes a lot of emotional commitment to sustain the work and discipline involved.
posted by philipy at 8:08 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The techniques that aeschenkarnos described as about as useful, or about as useless, whether the purpose they're serving is ridiculously materialistic or magnificently selfless.

Yes, exactly. I'm certainly an example of someone who has said "I want to have/be XYZ" and has made a lot of it happen, and have become better at connecting goals to strategies and actions as I've grown up. But it's worth noting that that strategy is an amoral one, as you've pointed out.

The methodology works to some extent (noting again that not everyone has access to what they need to put together a workable success formula), but it doesn't tell you what actions and strategies fall within or outside of any moral framework. That is something you have to decide as you set goals and make strategies, and I wouldn't let these "win win win no matter how" folks off the hook for having made that decision. They've already decided what they're willing to do before they've started to do it, and it's clear that they do anything they can to thoroughly rationalize and/or avoid overtly acknowledging consequences.
posted by Miko at 10:19 AM on May 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Does this explain that "I Will Teach You to Be Rich" website?"

That site used to be a lot better when it wasn't his primary source of income, which is one problem with all these self help guys, they all made their money from... selling self help.
posted by atrazine at 3:00 PM on May 12, 2012


As much as I disagree with the snake-oil of the original post, aeschenkarnos post as well-meaning as it is, is essentially valueless for me*.
It's a repeat of the the "Just Do It" mantra which has made Nike millions, and the favoured 'go to' advice of the world, and essentially, it's just another meaningless slogan, because it ignores any of the obstacles or barriers that people have to doing that.
It's another 'pull yourselves up by your bootstrings' - and when, oh when, was the irony of that statement lost on the world? It's supposed to be sarcastic. Gravity doesn't work that way, unless you're Baron Munchausen.

How about the millions of kids, and then adults, who grow up in poverty, or abusive childhoods, who more-or-less train themselves out of wanting things, out of dreams and goals?
Sound like that's hard? Like it'd take more to 'crush the human spirit' and all that? Bullshit. All it takes, is the look on your parents face, when over and over, you both know they can't give you the things that you want, and you can see it hurts them to 'fail' you like this, to start squashing down thoughts like that, to care acting like you don't want or need anything 'extra' when even the essentials are so hard to come by (food. Toilet paper. Electricity), until you don't realise yourself what it is you want or need.

Guess what I did last month - I bought myself a pair of skinny black jeans.
I realised I've wanted a pair for about, oh, a decade? I'm not kidding.
And in all that time, I had the money, and I didn't buy them, because I just don't buy things unless I absolutely have to, and I don't *think* about the things that I want that are actually achievable.

For all the hatred I have for things like The Secret (Hatred? Why yes, because seriously, it becomes just another form of victim blaming, because if you *don't* have the things you want/need, obviously you aren't having enough positive thoughts, or it's your karma. The actual response I got to asking about people in war and/or famine torn regions, like africa - "It's their karma". Wealth = spiritual advancement. That one thread in the New Age movement poisons it, and makes it deeply, deeply unhealthy). Still, most times I read something really airy fairy about say, 'poverty consciousness' it still hits very, very close to home. Authors like Barbara Sher (I could do anything, if only I knew what it was!), Neil Fiore (The Now Habit), Tom Limoncelli (Time Management for System Administrators), Judith Kolberg (ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life), are just the 'self-help' authors who are have been helping me a lot, right here, and right now. Others on basically, how to be a nice person, and boundaries, and all that - also so useful.

I mean, I'm the success of my immediate family, and it's all down to a hell of a lot of bibliotherapy. I am stuck now with the fairy tale idea that one day I'll find the right book in the library that will fix all my problems, but on a more prosaic level, so often I have read something that has hit really close to home, identified a particular dysfunction (because they tend to be so, so common), and really been able to start working on it. And step by step, other books come open, and become useful to me.

The Secret and stuff like that, is bullshit, but the idea that our subconscious is goal-oriented towards the things we think about, is pretty obvious and true when pointed out. I'm thinking about food? Oh, I'll be a lot more aware of opportunities for food in my environment.


* Except for the bit where aeschenkarnos mentions that people value things more that they paid money for, even if they are inherently valueless. I found that fascinating when I read that, in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdani. Yet another book that I read about a zillion times that I think of as self-help!
posted by Elysum at 2:59 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


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