"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Many a late-night channel surfer has been numbed to sleep by endless infomercials hawking ab machines, penis enlargers, psychic readings and baldness cures. But how about a 30-minute faux talk show featuring a slick “expert author” who promises natural cures for cancer, diabetes and chronic fatigue syndrome and who claims that the FDA, drug companies and food industry have withheld such cures from the public in order to keep making bigger and bigger profits?
Step right up folks, and tune in to the paranoid world of master huckster Kevin Trudeau, whose book “Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About” climbed to the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list for advice titles last weekend. The Federal Trade Commission virtually banned Trudeau from the airwaves last year in an attempt to “shut down an infomercial empire that has misled American consumers for years.” But by shifting his business model from selling supposed cure-all products to peddling books, which are protected by the First Amendment, Trudeau has been able to slip past federal regulators and continue to sell snake oil to the masses — first through his infomercial and now via mainstream book retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.
Reno R. Rollé, an executive consultant who handles U.S. retail and international distribution for “Natural Cures,” says the book has sold nearly 3 million copies since the infomercial debuted in September 2004, and he sees no end in sight to its success. “No one knows where this thing is going to max out. We’re just printing as many books as we can,” Rollé says. “We’re poised to make history here. What we’re doing could revolutionize the book publishing industry.”
Even before hitting the bestseller list, Trudeau, who is in his early 40s, had built a billion-dollar empire as a prolific infomercialteer, selling various health and self-improvement products under the cover of night. This despite a two-year stint in federal prison in the early ’90s after pleading guilty to credit card fraud, and a 1996 tangle with the Illinois attorney general, who accused him of running a pyramid scheme while working for a health-products company called Nutrition for Life. Trudeau and a co-defendant settled that case, paying $185,000 to Illinois and seven other states; during that time, the U.S. Postal Service and Securities and Exchange Commission also investigated his business dealings.
A close look at Trudeau’s later run-in with the FTC, in 1998, during which he and seven cohorts were accused of making “false or unsubstantiated” claims in advertisements on radio and television infomercials, sheds much needed light on his character and says a lot about how seriously (or not) we should take “Natural Cures.” Ads for the “Sable Hair Farming System,” Trudeau’s own “Mega Memory System,” “Doctor Callahan’s Addiction Breaking System,” “Action Reading,” “Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product” and “Howard Berg’s Mega Reading” all came under scrutiny they could not withstand.
“We’re going to be sharing Dr. Callahan’s revolutionary breakthrough that he discovered while studying quantum physics,” the addiction infomercial went, before claiming that the system cured compulsive eating, as well as alcohol, cocaine and heroin addiction, and led to weight loss without dieting or exercise. “This technique will take 60 seconds to apply and works virtually 100 percent of the time,” the FTC noted as another claim. It said that the “videotape sold in the infomercial showed Dr. Callahan demonstrating his technique — a series of gestures, including tapping the face, chest and hand; rolling the eyes; and humming, which, if mimicked, were the supposed addiction cure.” The claims were false, according to the FTC.
Another Trudeau product, “Howard Berg’s Mega Reading,” offered a home study program guaranteed to boost reading speed and comprehension 10 times over. “I have a letter here from a girl who has brain damage,” Berg confided in another infomercial. “She was in a car accident and half her brain stopped functioning. It was electrically dead.” According to the FTC, “he then claimed that after using his system for a brief period — as long as a coffee break — her reading speed increased from three to 600 words per minute…” Not surprisingly, the FTC deemed the Berg program bogus as well.
And Trudeau’s own “Mega Memory System,” which asserted that everyone has an innate photographic memory that could be tapped into with his help, was unmasked too. To show how fraudulent the system was, the FTC cited snippets of the infomercial, such as: “Kevin Trudeau’s breakthrough techniques were developed while working with blind and mentally handicapped students. Their recall ability increased from 15% to 90% in just 5 days,” as well as the infomercial’s claim that the system was “guaranteed to work for you.”
In the end, Trudeau settled the case; he was fined $500,000 in consumer redress and warned against making false product claims in the future. But this didn’t deter him. In 2003, the FTC charged Trudeau once more, this time citing another product, Coral Calcium Supreme. The FTC argued that claims made in Trudeau’s infomercial by Dr. Robert “Bob” Barefoot that calcium derived from coral reefs near Okinawa, Japan, could treat or cure cancer and other ills — such as multiple sclerosis and heart disease — went far beyond existing scientific evidence concerning the health benefits of calcium. Trudeau settled that case as well. But this time, in addition to being fined $2 million, he was also banned from “appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public” forever.
Afterward, Trudeau loudly complained that the FTC was censoring him and started a Web site called The Whistleblower, on which he tries to fashion himself as a new Ralph Nader — a selfless consumer advocate opposing powerful institutions and defending regular folk. But Trudeau’s claims of persecution and martyrdom are hard to swallow for many. “He wasn’t censored — that’s just total fantasy,” says Dr. Stephen Barrett, a health-fraud expert who runs a network of watchdog Web sites, including Quackwatch. “What’s happened is that he’s just not allowed to sell products with false claims. That’s the only censorship going on.”
“Trudeau is the undisputed king of false infomercial advertising,” he continues. Barrett’s alarm over Trudeau’s tactics heightened with the coral calcium infomercial. “It was just one lie after another, all orchestrated by Trudeau,” Barrett says. He isn’t any more impressed by Trudeau’s current infomercial for the bestselling “Natural Cures ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know About.”
The book, which Trudeau self-published, is a paranoid mixture of self-evident and widely known health facts with very few, if any, natural cures. It is almost amusingly campy — except that the information is so odd, and alarmist. “Natural Cures” is poorly sourced and peppered with jaw-dropping absurdities, such as “The sun does not cause cancer. Sun block has been shown to cause cancer” or “All over-the-counter nonprescription drugs and prescription drugs CAUSE illness and disease.” Or, this tribute to logic and language: “If you read the labels of everything you put in your mouth, you would see the name [sic] of various chemicals. All the chemicals listed are dangerous man-made chemicals. They are poisons. If you were to take any of those chemicals and ingest a large amount at one time, you would probably die. Therefore they are in fact poisons.”
His prose style mimics the gibberish favored by online spam advertisements, and he frequently uses SCREAM CAPS to emphasize OBVIOUS POINTS. At one point, Trudeau implies that he was an undercover government agent and that, because of his inside knowledge, the government and powerful corporations are out to get him — though he doesn’t share what any of his highly prized knowledge is. And always lurking somewhere is the nefarious “They” of the book’s title — the FDA and the FTC, who are in cahoots with the drug companies, which hold back the real natural cures because they won’t make any money if you’re healthy.
On every page, he stokes the paranoia and anger generated by recent high-profile corporate and government scandals, as well as the ire against the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. But don’t worry, not only will his book save you, but you can also go to his Web site, NaturalCures.com, for more information and for the “real cures,” all for a lifetime membership of $499 or a monthly fee of just $9.95. In essence, the infomercial sells the book, which sells the Web site –which nets Trudeau tons of money.
But there’s nothing strictly illegal about Trudeau and “Natural Cures.” Heather Hippsley, assistant director for the division of advertising practices at the FTC, who supervised the commission’s case against Trudeau, explains: “Books are fully protected speech. He can author a book and voice his opinions … The line is: Informational materials, OK. Products and services, banned.”
Peer-review systems — like the one in place on Amazon.com — do their best work in warning potential buyers of bad or faulty products. On the Amazon site, over 500 people have weighed in on “Natural Cures” so far. Yet, although reviews have been almost overwhelmingly negative — in Amazon’s “star rating” scheme, the book is averaging a two — sales haven’t slowed. Despite headlines like “‘Scams they don’t want you to know about”; “Trudeau is worse than the drug companies!”; “Left feeling totally duped”; “Natural Cures he Contiunous [sic] Not to Tell U About”; and “The Book Just Simply Sucks,” “Natural Cures” hovers at the top of the Amazon bestseller list week after week.
Indeed, all the negative Amazon reviews in the world probably won’t keep people from checking out “Natural Cures.” “What’s driving sales is not people buying the book but people buying the infomercial,” says Sam Catanese, president and CEO of Infomercial Monitoring Service, which tracks the direct-response television marketing industry. In fact, according to Catanese’s data, “Natural Cures” was recently the most-run infomercial on television — 139 times in one week. (The runner-up was a distant second, appearing 96 times.)
As for the television broadcasters’ responsibilities in this issue, they’ve turned a blind eye to Trudeau and his type. “[The Federal Communications Commission] has never been inclined to take anyone’s licenses away because the industry they nominally regulate actually regulates them,” says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. “The industry is too powerful to contend with, and regulation is largely farcical, except when there’s political teeth biting, as in the case of Janet Jackson.”
It was Reno Rollé who initially urged Trudeau to combine his extensive experience in infomercials with the book business. “I suggested he focus less on hard products, ingestibles, and more on information and newsletters,” he says. “That way he could find a safe harbor under First Amendment protections.” They teamed up to see if, and how, it would work. “No one knew how a book would behave,” he says. “Initially we treated the book as just a product that shouldn’t behave differently than a stomach exerciser or kitchen utensils.” It’s a strategy that paid off handsomely.
“The infomercial business is very standardized,” Rollé continues. “You put the product on TV first to create awareness and sell a large number of ‘units.’ Then, after a period of time, you pull trigger and head out to retail.” And once a product hits retail, as “Natural Cures” did just four weeks ago, Rollé says, the industry standard is to sell two to 10 times as many “units” as were sold on TV.
Although Rollé could not give figures about the amount of advertising time being purchased for “Natural Cures,” one source in the direct-response industry who asked not to be named estimated that Trudeau is spending a million dollars a week on national cable and could also be spending another half a million on broadcast channels. The source suggested that Trudeau’s return from that investment would be about $2 million to $4 million a week. “He’s got the formula down and he knows how to trick people,” says the source. “And he’s got enough money to do it. The FTC can’t stop him because the amount they fine him is nothing compared to what he takes in.”
Besides reader complaints on Amazon, there’s other evidence that buyers of “Natural Cures” are feeling ripped off. Tim Young, an Alabama-based publisher of community maps and local directories, has had trouble for the last four months because Trudeau’s marketing company that “publishes” “Natural Cures” chose the same name as his business, Alliance Publishing Group. Young has received hundreds and hundreds of calls about the book from booksellers, distributors and agents — but mostly from angry readers. “I don’t even answer my phone anymore if I don’t recognize the number,” Young says. “I’m getting all this e-mail from people who are pissed off because they bought the book for cures and there’s no real info in the book and they have to go to a Web site and pay money to learn anything.”
Trudeau isn’t hoping to cash in on only one book, either. A few months before “Natural Cures” was released for retail sale, Trudeau contacted publishing giant HarperCollins about an early-’90s version of his infomercial spin-off “Mega Memory” book, which was on their backlist. HarperCollins has repackaged the book to resemble Trudeau’s current bestseller and it will be re-released in mid-August, when “Natural Cures” will certainly still be hot. HarperCollins has also slapped “As Seen on TV!” and “By the bestselling author of Natural Cures They Don’t Want You To Know About” prominently on the book’s cover.
The FTC’s Hippsley told Salon that while her agency will continue to keep a careful eye on Trudeau’s publishing activities, the Constitution does offer him protection. “He can put that book out there, and if consumers choose to purchase it, that’s lawful. Unfortunately, there are individuals out there whose career is to do consumer frauds.”
But some First Amendment experts point out that there are limits. “Nobody has a right to engage in fraud, even when the fraud takes the form of speech,” says Richard H. Fallon, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. “What, if any, laws does someone break when [engaging] in false or misleading speech? Generally none, because the First Amendment wouldn’t allow punishment for [that]. But one of the exceptions is that false and misleading speech can be prohibited or prevented when that speech is closely tied to commercial activity,” he says.
Meanwhile, Trudeau recently filed a lawsuit himself — against the FTC. In it, he maintains that its September 2004 press release announcing his ban from infomercials contained false and misleading information, implying that Trudeau was banned from all infomercials and didn’t distinguish his literary allowances.
Trudeau continues to spin his career as a struggle against the censorship of a vengeful FTC and the tyranny of legal groups that won’t let him lie in commercials or bilk consumers. But now, Trudeau is shooting even higher than emulating Ralph Nader. He recently told BrandWeek, “Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez and Gandhi and Martin Luther King” are the figures he looks to for inspiration. We can only hope he has less success than those civil rights heroes.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)