“Pills in a bottle, brother.”
I frowned. Was he serious?
“It’s pretty sick, right?” Anthony said with a sideways grin.
Anthony (named changed) has a simple business. His supplement company spends about $2 million per month on pay-per-click advertising and brings in close to $4 million in sales.
And what is he selling, exactly?
“Pills in a bottle, brother.”
“Right,” I said. “What kind of pills?”
I’m serious. He couldn’t even tell me a single ingredient.
What he did know, though, was this: each bottle cost him $2 and sold for $39.99.
And his shady (and illegal) rebill platform swiped an average of $89 from customers before they were any wiser.
And his million-dollar renovation of his multi-million-dollar mansion was coming along beautifully.
When I first got into the supplement game, I thought Anthony was an anomaly. A bad apple in the orchard.
Well, I was wrong. When it comes to selling supplements, guys like Anthony are more the rule than the exception.
Don’t believe me?
- GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart have been happily selling you “herbals” comprised of powdered rice, asparagus, and houseplants.
- Driven Sports was secretly giving people a taste of the ultimate pre-workout stimulant: meth. (And the CEO of this racket was previously busted for selling illegal steroids and weight loss drugs.)
- USPlabs’ fat loss product OxyElite Pro was embroiled in a liver failure fiasco. Their pre-workout Jack3d contained a dangerous stimulant called DMAA. Oh and their CEO was also kinda into steroids.
Even more pitiful than the Anthony’s are the people that can’t face the fact that they’re actually scammers. The ones that seem to think that simply saying they’re selling high-quality products and helping people makes it true.
Ironically, I have less contempt for the brazen criminals in this space than the self-deluded weirdos. There’s something slightly disarming about the person that can look you in the eye and say “I’m a scumbag and I just don’t care.”
The sad lesson I’ve learned is the majority of supplement companies are first and foremost marketing companies.
They’re like wheedling politicians that shake your grubby hand and kiss your unwashed baby with their fingers, toes, and balls crossed.
They aspire to, as one supplement company CEO I spoke with put it, “tell you what you want to hear to sell you what you probably don’t need.” (He thought that was pretty clever.)
Or, as someone else explained, “I didn’t think I could rip people off for a living but I have to provide for my family.” (Why take the trouble to figure out an honest living when selling sawdust pills is so easy?)
And why all the skulduggery and shenanigans?
The accumulation of “small green pieces of paper,” of course.
Money makes people weird and shitty, and the more money that’s on the line, the weirder and shittier people get about it.
Let’s face it: when you’re presented with an unethical opportunity to make millions of dollars fast, you quickly learn who you really are.
I like to believe that at least some of the depraved people I’ve met and observed in this space didn’t get into selling supplements with the explicit goal of lying, cheating, and stealing.
Morals have a funny tendency to become…supple…when plied with enough cash. And people can start sounding like bemused philosophers (“What’s right and wrong anyway, man?”).
One of the easiest ways to influence people is to appeal to science. For some reason we’re just hardwired to tuck our tails go compliant when we hear the words “research shows.”
This means money in the bank for supplement sellers. So much so that if a company isn’t misusing science to sell their asparagus pills, well, they’re not even trying.
These days everyone is all “scientifically proven” this and “clinically effective” that. It’s like a high-stakes poker game between sociopaths…
“I’ll see your bet of 3 rat studies,” company A says, snarling and frothing at its competitor, “and raise you this inconclusive in vitro research AND one fraudulent human trial!”
And what do you do if you’re trying to hock your wares and you can’t even find any animal research to incorrectly extrapolate from or any biased or poorly designed human studies to cherry pick?
Wait for it…
Just cite anything. Less than 1% of customers are ever going to look it up anyway and a sizable portion of them are going to assume you just know something they don’t.
The reason supplement science is so loopy is simple:
When it comes to losing fat and building muscle–which is what people are willing to spend the most money on–there just isn’t much you can do beyond eating and training right.
- Creatine works.
- A handful of molecules can accelerate fat loss.
- A handful can improve the quality of your workouts.
But that’s about it.
No natural substance will ever begin to approach the effectiveness of the anabolic steroids and cutting drugs that pervade the fitness scene.
Which brings me to my next point…
You know you’ve arrived as a supplement company when you have a front line of chemistry experiments pretending you’ve found the secret to gainz.
And you know you’ve become a true muppet when you believe their puffery about hard work and dedication and buy whatever it is they’re selling.
Look, I’m not anti-steroids, per se–I don’t recommend them but support people’s rights to do whatever they want with their bodies–but I’m against using steroids to sell supplements. And a whole lotta that goes down.
So much so that, in many cases, supplement companies are paying for some or all of their “athletes'” drug cycles so they can keep flexing on Instagram and fleecing their followers.
That pretty much sums up the moral of this article.
If you’re not careful with supplement purchases, you’re probably going to get screwed.
And how do you be careful? My personal criteria for judging a supplement company looks like this:
- I want to see a genuine interest in helping people get fit and healthy…
- I want to see honest (sober) marketing claims…
- I want to see no history of ridiculous scandals or scams…
- I want to see proper and transparent use of science…
- I want to see no proprietary blends…
- I want to see ingredients and dosages backed by good research…
- I want to see no unnecessary artificial junk or fillers…
There are brands that more or less meet these criteria. The list is short but it includes companies like Optimum Nutrition, NOW Foods, and Jarrow.
I’m also leading by example with my own line of supplements. I want to set a standard by which other supplement companies can be judged and am working hard to continually raise the bar in terms of product quality, consumer education, and customer service and engagement.
So, in closing, do yourself and your fellow fitness folk a favor and choose wisely when you buy supplements. You vote with your dollars and can force shady supplement companies to change for the better, even if it’s only to get your business again.