CLEVELAND — A multi-level marketer who peddles pseudoscience—and whose product is endorsed by America’s leading conspiracy theorist—is scheduled to speak in a primetime slot Wednesday at the Republican National Convention.
Michelle Van Etten was presented by the RNC in a Sunday evening press release as a “small business owner” who “employs over 100,000 people.” That’s roughly 1.5 times the number of employees Apple employs in the United States, making it a highly unlikely claim. For such a supposedly large employer, she has flown under the radar—until the announcement of her speech at the convention, there was no record of her business work in the press.
Van Etten is involved in selling products that claim to improve health and even fight cancer, all based on dubious science. And as you peel the story back, every single layer is fascinating: there’s Alex Jones hysteria, pyramid-scheme-style marketing, and questionable Clemson University research.
“The whole basis of the products and the claims are pseudoscience,” said Janet Helm, a nutritionist and registered dietitian who writes frequently about diet myths, nutrition trends, and misinformation.
That the convention would invite such a speaker is a reflection of the organizational chaos that has engulfed it: the speakers’ list was promised for July 7, but has only been released in the last few days. Even on Monday morning, the day the convention begins, the convention app merely promised an “official schedule coming soon.”
While the convention did not indicate what Van Etten’s business involves, her Facebook profile, where she posted excitedly about her convention speaking slot—“I am speaking at 8:49 Wednesday night,” she writes—indicates that she works at a company called Youngevity. The Youngevity website lists her biography under the title Senior Vice Chairman Marketing Director, as do her Facebook and LinkedIn pages.
Youngevity is a multi-level marketing system focusing on selling nutritional supplements and other products. Multi-level marketing is a sales system in which a salesperson earns money on the sales of each subsequent salesperson he or she recruits.
“The company certainly appears to be a pyramid scheme, advertising unique opportunities through a ‘world class marketing system.’ Rather, it seems like a world-class scam to me,” said Britt Hermes, a former naturopathic doctor and author of The Naturopathic Diaries, a blog aimed at contextualizing the false information proliferated by the naturopathic profession.
Conspiracy theorist and Trump supporter Alex Jones (who is in Cleveland for the GOP convention) is an enthusiastic backer of the Youngevity brand. Its products can be found referenced in the online store of his InfoWars website, and at infowarshealth.com. One website even sells a package of Youngevity goods known as ‘The Alex Pack.’
“I want to stomp people… I like it,” Jones said in one video endorsing the product, claiming that the “Tangy Tangerine” made him more “crazed” and aggressive. “The only problem is that I’m 22 [years-old] again…The only side effect is that I’m crazed now. Now I can jog 8 miles instead of 4 miles…My testosterone is up.”
Youngevity was founded by a naturopath, not a medical doctor. Naturopathy is based on the concept that the body can heal itself through the use of various herbs and vitamins, and is dismissed by many medical professionals as pseudoscientific. But these types of supplements are only loosely regulated: The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 outlines that vitamins and supplements don’t require approval from the Federal Drug Administration.
“[The Youngevity] website is littered with red flags for bogus health claims. These types of statements seem incredible, but remain broad and nondescript, so as to not implicate the company in false marketing,” Hermes said.
The business has made varying claims of dubious scientific merit. It put out a pamphlet with what it claimed was research performed at the Institute of Nutraceutical Research at Clemson University. The pamphlet suggests that that two of its products, “Beyond Tangy Tangerine” and “Ultimate Classic,” had anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
“Clemson’s Institute of Nutraceutical Research did some limited preliminary laboratory research for Youngevity several years ago. No clinical trials were performed and Clemson has in no way endorsed any Youngevity product nor authorized the use of Clemson’s name or data in conjunction with any claims of efficacy. The Institute no longer exists,” Clemson spokesperson Robin Denny told The Daily Beast Monday evening.
“Don’t get your health advice from someone to sell you products. These are unproven and potentially dangerous, and they’re very expensive,” Helm told The Daily Beast. “There are a lot of products that are very cringe-worthy… They make a lot of claims: weight loss claims, products for kids that are very troubling to me—supplements and essential oils—they have packaged foods would not be what I consider nutritious meals.”
UPDATE: In an interview Monday afternoon with The Daily Beast, Van Etten first tried to distance herself from the 'nutraceuticals' sold by the company, saying she focused on fashion. But then she added, "I take them, I feel great. Give them a try and see if they make you feel good too." She has also posted about Youngevity supplements on her Facebook page.
"Our products: I love them. I take them, but I don't tell [customers] claims," she said, about the dubious science behind the supplements. "I am really anti-claim."
She said that the Republican convention had erred in saying she employed 100,000, but rather that she had 100,000 people in her multi-level marketing network, buying everything from supplements to "toxic-free makeup" to "pesticide-free coffee."
"I've been involved in the opportunity to help people grow their life… redefining retail and creating a new distribution avenue," she said.
Youngevity is not unlike the Trump vitamin multi-level marketing system that the new Republican standard bearer backed in the late 2000s and early 2010s, which was also centered on naturopathy and used a similar marketing setup.
The Republican National Convention and Youngevity did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday morning.
—Asawin Suebsaeng contributed reporting to this article.