Former President George W. Bush, basketball star Kobe Bryant, and right-wing Canadian professor Jordan Peterson will lend their famous names this summer to a multilevel insurance marketing company that critics say is better at getting money from its own recruits than it is at selling insurance.
They are scheduled to speak in late July at the People Helping People Conference, an annual event organized by insurance sales company PHP Agency. They’ll be joined by Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane, who inspired the Michael Lewis book Moneyball. Representatives for the speakers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The conference lineup became public through the poster announcing their appearance, which features a logo that’s nearly identical to the symbol for the Autobots, the good robots from Transformers. The poster features the celebrities arranged around PHP Agency’s CEO, Patrick Bet-David, a star in YouTube’s business motivation community who has amassed more than 1 million followers on his channel.
PHP Agency is a multilevel marketing company, meaning that it makes money when people recruit lower-ranking members, who then funnel their sales commissions upwards. Agents move up through the ranks based on their recruitment rates, according to a 2016 PHP fact sheet on “compensations and promotional guidelines.”
But much of PHP’s income appears to come from fees paid by the recruits themselves, according to complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau. Its PHP page is littered with complaints. Multiple people complained that someone had persuaded them to join their insurance team and pay $150 for “training material,” plus a monthly recurring fee of $14.95. A Reddit forum devoted to discussions of multilevel marketing companies is filled with similar horror stories about the company, with tales of PHP agents pressuring friends and family members to pay initiation fees to join the company and savings squandered on PHP Agency trainings.
Bet-David, PHP’s CEO, told The Daily Beast that his company doesn’t do multilevel marketing.
“There’s nothing about our model that’s multilevel marketing,” Bet-David said.
Bet-David denied that his company participated in the practices that former sales associates complained about to the Better Business Bureau, citing industry regulations.
“Think about the most regulated industry out there, it’s this industry,” Bet-David said.
By lending their reputations to PHP Agency, experts say celebrities like Bush and Peterson are bolstering the business’s legitimacy in the eyes of recruits.
“That’s a big game the companies play,” said Douglas Brooks, an attorney who has filed lawsuits against multilevel marketing companies and who is a board member of watchdog group Pyramid Scheme Alert. “They find some celebrity endorser who will speak at a convention, so that gives them the air of legitimacy. People will say, ‘Well, I don’t really understand this business, but if Mr. X is involved, hey, it must be OK.’”
Multilevel marketing companies rely on recruiting endless new chains of subordinate sales associates, according to Brooks, meaning that people who have already paid to join the company are increasing their own pool of competition. A PHP Agency brochure promoting the company calculates that even a part-time associate could make more than $23,000, while noting in tiny print below that the income figures are "hypothetical and are not based on actual results."
“It’s like a lottery,” Brooks said. “A few people are going to win, but most are going to lose.”
Robert FitzPatrick, the president of Pyramid Scheme Alert, said big-name conference speakers like Bush and Peterson are key to reassuring members of multilevel marketing companies that they aren’t wasting their money on training fees.
The speakers’ reputation can lend the programs a sense of legitimacy that their own business models can’t provide.
“You’re not really thinking, ‘How in God’s name am I going to go sell life insurance?’” FitzPatrick said. “It diverts you from due diligence.”
Bush isn’t the first president to make money from a multilevel marketing company. Former president Bill Clinton gave a speech to Amway in 2013, and Donald Trump endorsed two multilevel marketing companies before becoming president.
Peterson is a psychologist who first made a name for himself by refusing to use transgender students’ preferred pronouns. In at least one conversation with a far-right YouTuber, Peterson invoked bunk “race science” tropes. He has since generated a massive right-wing following by becoming a sort of surrogate father for alienated young men. In his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, Peterson urges them to, among other things, make their beds every day and learn life lessons from the behavior of lobsters.
But while Peterson has built his reputation on offering life advice, his appearance at the PHP Agency convention promises to lend an air of respectability to a business that experts say nearly everyone involved will lose money on.
“The point of the meeting is to keep people involved in the business,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to recruit someone to start, but in order for the whole thing to work, you’ve got to keep those people in it for as long as possible, you’ve got to keep people in it until they’ve wiped out their bank accounts.”
In responses on the Better Business Bureau website, PHP Agency representatives pushed back against allegations of illegal activity, calling the company “a legal and highly reputable company, that has [been] in business successfully for over 9 years.” Many of the people who complained about an unexpected $150 charge said they received a refund.
One of PHP’s first celebrity endorsements came from then-Fox News host Glenn Beck, who declared that the company “empowers those who still believe in the American dream.” Previous PHP Agency conventions have featured comedian Kevin Hart and former hockey star Wayne Gretzky.
“These meetings are central to the messaging, and the messaging is a kind of utopian cult vision of life, with that financial scheme as the only vehicle that can deliver you into this heaven on earth,” FitzPatrick said.