Thursday 29 October 2009

Who has rights?

We’ve been getting phone calls at the office. Unfortunately none of them were offering us large quantities of money (hint), free brand new Jaguars (hint, hint) or anything romantic (hint, hint, HINT!). Instead a number of them seem to have been inspired by one of the issues we covered recently and which seems to have provoked a response. This issue began when a consumer called us asking about a vitamin company called GNLD. Her email said:
“What’s the difference between them and other vitamins and supplements as they cost anything from P300 upwards for one month’s supply which I find ridiculous! To me it’s clearly a pyramid style business or something like it, to my husband it’s an option for ‘better vitamins’ (that we don’t normally take anyway!) even though so expensive?”
My response was twofold. Firstly I don’t believe that we need to take vitamins or dietary supplements. Well, OK, perhaps you might need to if you’re pregnant, old or already unwell and your doctor has suggested it would be good for you. Maybe then you should. However, those of us who are basically healthy certainly don’t need to start popping pills. Instead we should spend our money on a healthy diet and lifestyle.

In fact I suspect that vitamins and supplements run the risk of making us worse off. Taking pills to boost their health distracts people from focussing on those things that WILL make them healthy. I can imagine people arguing that as they swallow vitamin pills their health is therefore guaranteed. They probably give some people an excuse to have an extra beer, burger or box of chocolates.

Other than the unnecessary vitamin pills there is a wider issue. GNLD is what is politely referred to as a network marketing company. It’s not, strictly speaking, a pyramid scheme because there is a product at the heart of the mechanism but it has the same structure. You recruit people beneath you to sell the vitamins and in turn they recruit more people beneath them. Add in a complex mechanism of commissions and payments and you get a pyramid-shaped selling scheme.

So what, you might ask, if people are making some money? The trouble is that they don’t. The vast majority of people DON’T make money from these schemes. The evidence from companies like Amway and World Ventures shows that about three quarters of the people who get involved either make nothing from the business or lose money. The quarter that does make some money on average only makes a tiny amount. On the World Ventures web site they confess that in 2008 70% of their recruits made no money at all from the scheme. Of those that did make money, the median earnings were a pathetic $114.60. Then, hidden away in the small print it says:
“These figures do not represent Representatives’ profits; they do not consider expenses incurred by Representatives in the promotion of their business.”
So that $114.60 is before they’ve paid their expenses, like their phone bill, internet charges, transport and materials?”

Don’t waste your money on these vitamins or pyramid-shaped get-rich-quick schemes. Spend your money on fruit and veg instead.

I’m convinced that many of the callers we had were actually involved in the GNLD scheme. Most of them refused to give their names but just asked questions about who we were. However I had a conversation with one of the callers who was prepared to talk. She claimed to be impartial but seemed to know rather too much about GNLD to be a disinterested bystander. The most interesting question she asked though was to do with us, not GNLD.

“What gives you the right to criticise them?” she asked.

At the time I couldn’t think of a smart, witty and entertaining answer. I couldn’t because I was stunned by the question.

I think the problem is that I’ve lived in democracies for too long. In fact I’ve never lived in a country that didn’t permit free speech. I think I’m so used to being able to say pretty much what I want that I’ve not given much thought to having a “right” to do so. Of course we all know there are limits to what we can say, even in a democracy like ours. The great American Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:
“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
Clearly there are some limits on what you and I can say. We have no right to endanger someone’s life, happiness or liberty by what we say.

Meanwhile we have an absolute right to criticise misconduct when we see it. So long as we don’t go too far and invade someone’s privacy or publish irrelevant personal information we have a right in Botswana to criticise companies when they get it wrong, we are permitted to tell them and to inform the public about their wrong-doings. In fact I’d go further. I think that we have an obligation to do so.

It’s not just newspaper columns that have a right to criticise and complain. We all do. Again I think we have a moral obligation to. It’s not just ourselves we’re defending, it’s our friends, families and neighbours.

So that’s where I get the “right” to criticise GNLD, their largely redundant products and their pyramid-shaped business model.

This week’s stars
  • Omphametse, Godfrey and Dineo at the Engen filling station at Square Mart. Our reader says they’re pleasant and helpful every time.

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