The following has been adapted exclusively for Media Matters from The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama, the new book from Media Matters senior fellow Will Bunch. Published by Harper Books, The Backlash is in bookstores this week and also available in the Kindle format.
Federal agents called it “Operation Big Fat Lie,” and they probably thought they'd put the Illinois-based marketing schemer Bill Heid out of business in the summer of 2005 when they shut down his “Himalayan Diet Breakthrough” that promised customers they could lose weight not through diet or exercise but with a magical paste that oozed from cracks in the South Asian mountain range.
But the very same week that Heid agreed to pay the Federal Trade Commission $400,000 -- all he claimed was left from an estimated $5 million in diet-scam profits in the early 2000s -- he was already setting up a new company.
Heid's new firm was called Solutions from Science, Inc., and it offered arguably a much more audacious scheme: To profit off growing fears of a total collapse of U.S. society -- fears that exploded with the 2008 economic meltdown followed by the frenzy of apocalyptic media hosts, especially Glenn Beck of the Fox News Channel.
Over the last two years, Heid has ridden the rising popularity of Beck and his sometimes survivalist bent back to the top of the marketing game. His ads for indestructible canisters of “survival seed banks” to grow a crisis garden, and for solar generators in case the electrical grid falters, are regularly bannered across the top of the hugely popular GlennBeck.com website, and Solutions from Science also airs radio ads on Beck local radio affiliates and has even run a TV ad on Beck's FNC program.
And Heid is shockingly candid in acknowledging his motives and his methods of profiteering off America's economic misery and fear. In fact, to attract marketing associates Heid created a separate website called Hugewadsofmoney.com. He writes: "[I]t wasn't until the economic crisis began in 2007 that I found a vein of pure gold. As the world economy came to a screeching halt and the credit markets shut down, I stumbled upon the most successful formula of my 30 plus in direct marketing, and this is your lucky day, because I'm about to share with you exactly what that secret is."
The Hugewadsofmoney.com website is illustrated with young male speaker at a podium, in front of headlines like “137,000 jobs vanish.” The man is fanning himself with a wad of big bills. A headline reads: “Basically the worse things get, the more money you'll make!”
There are few advertising hucksters as flamboyant or as open as Bill Heid, but as I learned while researching my new book -- The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama -- he is far from alone in seeing fear and anxiety in heartland America not so much as the grounds for a political revolution but as an opportunity to rake in some big bucks.
The king and queen of these high-def hucksters of 21st century right-wing politics are indisputably Beck -- whose $32-million-a-year media empire is built on a foundation of peddling overpriced gold coins, freeze-dried food emergency kits, and now apocalyptic novels -- and Sarah Palin, who also became a multi-millionaire by abandoning her job as Alaska governor to become a brand instead.
But Beck and Palin are merely at the top of a broad pyramid of entrepreneurs -- an ever-swelling list that ranges from emailed-crazed peddlers of “Impeach Obama” T-shirts and bumper stickers or “tea bag” jewelry, to televangelists and conspiracy DVD merchants, to the sellers of a growing list of survivalists products like “heirloom seeds” in indestructible canisters and backpacks full of freeze-dried foodstuffs.
The Selling of the Tea Party 2010 has happy and willing accomplices in the likes of Beck, radio's nationally syndicated conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and online media like the far-right WorldNetDaily, where the editorial articles and rants about the looming collapse of American civilization blend seamlessly into advertising pitches for marked-up gold coins or cheesier products. In the case of his controversial advertiser Solutions From Science, there's no evidence that Beck is directly aware of the sponsor's past problems with the feds, his Hugewadsofmoney.com website, or consumer complaints.
But on a gut level, the political messages and the product shilling clearly share a low common denominator: Raw, unvarnished fear.
Indeed, the popularity and prosperity of Beck comes as experts in the newish field of neuro-marketing are developing a growing body evidence that fear -- with its powerful ability to stimulate the most primal area of the brain, called the amygdale.--is a much greater salesman than even sex.
“There's a baseline level of fear in this country -- and they're just plucking the strings,” David Altheide, a professor of social justice and inquiry at Arizona State University and the author of Creating Fear: News and the Construction of a Crisis, told me during my reporting for The Backlash. Undoubtedly, the climate of fear in so-called “middle America” is at a fever pitch in 2010: Some of that is cultural anxiety among whites as the United States moves towards a non-white majority in 2050, and much of it is economic, rooted in the erosion of jobs and the destruction of the American middle class.
Whatever the causes of fear, even Beck's many detractors acknowledge that his skill in entertaining and emotionally moving a large audience -- honed through years of studying the great entertainers like his idol, the late Orson Welles -- has made him a potent force with the power to turn public opinion against an official like ousted Obama “green jobs czar” Van Jones, or to draw tens of thousands to a D.C. rally. But frequently, as outlined in The Backlash, Beck uses his influence to promote dubious products.
The case receiving the most attention has been Beck's aggressive promotion of Goldline International, a Santa Monica-based, gold-coin merchant that Beck has touted for years as a radio host -- even taping a promotional video -- and is now a major sponsor of his Fox News show. Frequently, Beck has hyped a collapsing U.S. dollar and the need to buy gold in the editorial -- i.e., non-advertising -- segments of his TV or radio show, leading directly and nearly seamlessly into a Goldline pitch.
Recently, prosecutors in Los Angeles as well as Democratic congressman, Rep. Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn, have launched separate investigations of Goldline International and alleged high-pressure sales tactics and excessive markups on its gold coins, which sell for substantially higher than either its rivals or the so-called “melt” price of actual gold bullion. Critics says Goldline customers will need to see a substantial rise in gold prices --already at non-inflation adjusted highs -- to ever see a positive return on their investment.
A company with a different take on the apocalypse so frequently discussed by Beck is called Food Insurance. This Utah-based firm markets freeze-dried food and related products, in a shiny red canvass backpack. Beck even taped a several-minute video testimonial for Food Insurance, in which he talks about watching the planes from his office window in Manhattan, and how he once used to be able to see the World Trade Center from there. He says, “We live in a crazy world.I live in a nuts town where anything can happen, not just a natural disaster but a hurricane or a manmade disaster -- you just want to be able to have some piece of mind.” He said the Food Insurance backpack -- kits for sale on its website start at $199.99 -- has everything you need “in case the world goes to heck in a hand basket.”
Yet another product frequently touted by Beck -- at least until recently -- is a firm aimed at reassuring customers not about societal collapse but issues related to computer security. But like Goldline International, Arizona-based Lifelock has come under increasing scrutiny from regulators.
In commercials for Lifelock, the firm's current CEO Todd Davis gives out his real Social Security number, but doesn't reveal that a Texas man once successfully used that broadcast information to fraudulently obtain a $500 loan, one of 13 incidents recently revealed by the Phoenix New Times. Davis also acknowledged in 2008 that 105 Lifelock customers had been victims of identity theft; although the company also touts a $1 million guarantee, it's not spelled out in the commercials that the money only applies to the costs associated with restoring credit, and does not cover any actual theft losses. In March 2010, Lifelock finally agreed to pay $12 million to settle claims by both the FTC and some 35 states that it had overstated the value of its service. FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said “the protection it [Lifelock] actually provided left enough holes that you could drive a truck through.”
But no company perhaps better epitomizes the nexus of fear and hucksterism that swirls around Glenn Beck Incorporated than the saga of his major online sponsor, Solutions from Science.
In the early 2000s, Illinois-based Heid ran a company called AVS Marketing that placed ads in metro newspapers from coast-to-coast touting something called “The Himalayan Diet Breakthrough.”
Readers flipping through the pages of the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the San Francisco Chronicle encountered ads that showed grainy before-and-after pictures of women such as “Sara DuBerrier, Fashion Model” (who on Google has only one hit -- which is the later federal complaint against AVS). “New High Speed Diet Formula Used By Top Fashion Models Produces an Extremely Fast Weight Loss!” the ad announces in large type, including the aforementioned “Sara DuBerrier,” who claims to have lost 37 pounds in eight weeks without diet or exercising. AVS Marketing claimed its product was “a dietary supplement containing Nepalese Mineral Pitch, 'a paste-like material' that 'oozes out of the cliff face cracks in the summer season' in the Himalayas.”
The FTC alleged that Heid and his AVS Marketing had sold some $4.9 million of the product by the time its agents started investigating “The Himalayan Diet Breakthrough” under its crackdown on diet scams. But when the FTC finally reached a settlement with Heid's company some nine months after filing regulatory charges in October 2004, the agency agreed to a $400,000 payment because the remaining proceeds from “the Himalayan Diet Breakthough” were nowhere to be found. Under the agreement that was signed by a federal judge on June 13, 2005, the feds claimed they would go after the rest of the $4.9 million -- if the money could ever be located. Heid -- who along with AVS Marketing did not acknowledge any wrongdoing -- was also barred, according to the FTC regulators, “from making false or unsubstantiated claims about weight-loss products or other products in the future.”
But five days before the judge signed the order against Heid and AVS Marketing, the Illinois man had already registered a brand new company: Solutions from Science, Inc. (Heid did not return several phone calls seeking to learn more about the company.) The difference was that Heid's new venture wasn't seeking solutions to mundane problems like obesity, but rather to market products that would help customers cope with disasters, natural but also manmade, such as civil disorder or even a collapse of American society. And there was another important difference from Heid's past venture: With print newspapers experiencing accelerating losses in readership, Solutions from Science looked to the growing media of talk radio and the Internet -- particularly sites with a gloomy political outlook.
Heid's profile increased dramatically around the time of the worldwide economic crisis in the fall of 2008. By the following year, ads for Solutions from Science's first major product, the Survival Seed Bank, began popping up locally during the Glenn Beck Show on stations such as KTLK in Minnesota, on websites such WorldNetDaily, the conservative online news source run by the well-known birther Joseph Farah, and most prominently with banner ads on GlennBeck.com, which Beck himself claims gets “millions” of monthly visitors (although the available stats, not always the most reliable, suggest a smaller but still substantial figure of 750.000.)In 2010, Forbes magazine estimated that Beck makes some $4 million a year from his website -- if that's true then most of that money come from advertisers and a large wad that was from Bill Heid and Solutions from Science.
The online ad for the Survival Seed Bank -- written in the same over-the-top fashion as the earlier promos for the “Himalayan Diet Breakthrough” -- tells buyers that a $149.99 package of 22 varieties of not-genetically-modified heirloom seeds will grow an acre-sized garden that could produce thousands of pounds of food in the event of a catastrophe. The ad also notes that the seeds for products like “Giant Nobel Spinach” and “French Breakfast Radish” come in an “Indestructible” canister that “Can Be Buried to Avoid Confiscation.” The ad copy includes some over-the-top language that could have easily been borrowed from one of Beck's own monologues:
You don't have to be an Old Testament prophet to see what's going on all around us. A belligerent lower class demanding handouts. A rapidly diminishing middle class crippled by police state bureaucracy. An aloof, ruling elite that has introduced us to an emerging totalitarianism which seeks control over every aspect of our lives.
Of course, some experts question whether the seeds that Heid and his Solutions from Science are peddling are really that unique or worth $149.99. The same kind of questions have been raised about the other major project that Solutions from Science promotes on GlennBeck.com, an "'Amazing' Solar Generator" which “Is Like Having A Secret Power Plant Hidden In Your Home.”,a 1,800-watt solar generation that Solutions From Science sells for $1,597, plus a $95 shipping charge. Critics say the amount of power generated by this device could run a household appliance such as a freezer for a short period of time but 1,800 watts is not nearly enough to power an entire house, as the ad implies. (The ad also shows a line of police in riot gear on a burning city street, noting that “Civil Unrest Might Even Cut Your Power.”)
Beck fans might have been less likely to buy in the first place if they had seen another Web site operated by Heid -- the one called Hugewadsofmoney.com. It is here that this major sponsor of GlennBeck.com -- in searching for marketing affiliate partners -- reveals his plans for making, well, huge wads of money off the economic crisis.
“It doesn't matter whether you share the same world view as these customers or not ... but you'd be a fool to ignore the birth of a massive new industry right before our eyes!” writes Heid, who also mentions his partnership with the late direct-mail legend Gary Halbert, who served prison time in the early 1980s on a mail fraud conviction related to his marketing activities. “And the worse things get, the better you'll do, because many consumers are just now becoming aware of their dependence on a way of life which may be gone forever and which will require a dramatic process of education and preparation.”
By March 2010, Heid's enterprise was generating enough review to make a commercial for his Survivalist Seed Bank that aired on Beck's national TV show on FNC -- an ad that was satire on shows like The Colbert Report.
This summer, he was continuing to roll out new products like a solar-powered TV and radio...presumably so that Beck aficionados can still follow their favorite host even if the end of the world as we know it really does arrive.