...why you'd be high-fiving, too.
Fasten your seat belts, folks. It’s gonna be a long ride.
Mark Victor Hansen isn't just about chicken soup (or souls, for that matter). He’s about money—serious chunks of it. His marquee partner nowadays is Robert Allen, a real-estate guru in his own right who in 1980 hit real paydirt with Nothing Down, often touted as the best-selling guide to investment property, ever. In 2002, Hansen and Allen collaborated on The One-Minute Millionaire: the Enlightened Way to Wealth. The “enlightened” part refers to the authors’ professed belief that people should do well by doing good. Not to be cynical, but it also makes for a very appealing hook—and attempt at market differentiation—in these touchy-feely, pay-it-forward times. In fact, the book is peppered with the sorts of feel-good stories you might expect from Mr. Chicken Soup. And it brims with insight. Key example from early on: “At this very moment you are standing in the middle of millions.”
But they’ve clearly got a handle on this marketing thing, down to the finest details. F’rinstance, both of the “spotlight reviews” for One-Minute Millionaire on Amazon sound more like jacket copy than honest critiques, complete with bulleted sales points. Don’t know how they engineered it, but I can’t deny an ounce or two of envy (especially since both of the spotlight reviews Amazon persists in running for my own book are at least two full stars below its average customer rating… Come to think of it, I wonder if Hansen or one of his comrades-in-SHAM had a hand in those as well). And there’s that ego-stroking, characteristically SHAM-inspired way they use language on their various websites: In the world of Hansen/Allen, people who subscribe to one or more of their programs aren’t mere customers; they’re protégés.
Yes, Hansen/Allen get the most possible mileage out of every word, phrase, or title. Linking like mad to all of their other products (jointly or severally, as one says in legal documents), they offer myriad wealth-building materials, including seminars and tele-coaching and e-conferencing, for those who want to become instant millionaires. (Again, you wonder, though: If the transformation is that easy, why is so much support necessary via so many sales channels?) Prominent among these is their new co-authored book, Cracking the Millionaire Code: Your Key to Enlightened Wealth. Order the book and you get an astonishing $4,900 worth of bonuses! Personally, I’m curious about why they capped it at $4,900 and not $5,000-something. But I’m sure there’s a good, focus-group-tested reason having to do with plausibility… Oh wait, I get it... Who’d believe that a $23 book would come with $5,000 worth of freebies? In any case, Be aware that the enticing goodies are “available TODAY ONLY!” [emphasis in original.] Yes indeed. “This offer will EXPIRE AT MIDNIGHT Pacific Time—TONIGHT. So be sure that you don’t miss out.” For the record, the same offer was also available when I checked yesterday, and, I’m betting, will be available in substantially the same form if you click through tomorrow.
Hansen/Allen are also big on getting site visitors to register for things (presumably so that they can compile a juicy, pre-qualified mailing list). One of the more elite of these is their Millionaire Hall of Fame, which supposedly is the honor roll of students who have used Hansen/Allen's methods to accrue that lofty sum. Helpful hint: Make sure you’ve got all your records at hand you when you sign up, because the fine print says that by joining, registrants certify “that the information submitted is ture and correct” [sic, click here, scroll down to the disclaimer, and check out (b)].
OK, time for my own disclaimer. Some of this, by now, may have begun to sound like nitpicking—and maybe vengeful nitpicking at that. Certainly some of what follows is going to sound that way. Just remember two of my key goals for SHAM (the book, not the movement). I wanted to know, Do the gurus deliver on their promises? And, Can they prove it? Nobody told Hansen to start in with this millionaire stuff. He could’ve picked a more realistic hook—“Fix your finances!” “Make more money than you’ve ever made!” But such promises are insufficiently dramatic to capture the popular imagination. Hansen/Allen picked the number they picked because it’s catchy, it’s exciting; it's salable. And that’s my point about the whole of SHAM. It too often sacrifices accuracy (otherwise known as honesty) in the name of marketing. Pointing out such faults is not nitpicking. It is simply holding the gurus’ feet to a fire that they started. I didn’t promise to make you a millionaire, after all. They did.
With that out of the way, what say we take a closer look at the Millionaire Hall of Fame.
A Flash page from the overview titled Millionaire Hall of Fame Data, says, in consecutive lines: “The data for the millionaire hall of fame is voluntarily reported by students. The data represent only a portion of all students. The data have not been verified. The data is [sic] deemed reliable but is not guaranteed.” As I write this, according to a banner atop the page, the 3,080 success stories submitted to Hansen have generated $837,583,808 in revenue and $18,374,128 in charitable giving. That averages out to $271,942.79 in income and $5,965.62 in charitable giving per success story. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of money. A lot of us—me included—wouldn’t mind having an extra $271,942.79 on hand this holiday season, and I would gladly donate $5,965.62 of it. Actually, I’d donate more. Suffice it to say I am underwhelmed by these people’s notions of charitable giving, considering their windfalls of about $272,000 apiece. But $272,000 is not a million dollars. And depending on the time it took each person to accumulate his individual $272,000 (we don’t really know the answer to that), it might not be an especially remarkable feat.
But it gets worse. Remember Hansen’s own caveat on the data? They represent “only a portion of all students.” I could be wrong, but I suspect that the folks who enroll themselves in the Hall of Fame are the ones who’ve gotten significant results—results they’re proud of. Now, I could really go for the jugular here and bring up the time-honored 80/20 rule, which tells us that in any given endeavor, 20% of the people create 80% of the positive results. It’s just a rule of thumb, of course, but it often proves to be an accurate barometer of the performance skew in any one environment where productivity is measured. It’s hardly outside the realm of possibility that Hansen’s figures, as quoted on his site, represent just one-fifth of his students—to wit, the one-fifth, or 20%, who are generating virtually all of the money. So, if we multiply the 3,080 success stories by five we get 15,400. If we give the additional students credit for coming up with 20% of the total pie, that ups the pot from $837,583,808 to $1,046,979,760. Divide that sum by 15,400 and you end up with $67,985.69 as an average yield per participant. Assuming the 80/20 rule applies. I don't think that's what most protégés had in mind when they bought the book(s) or registered for the course(s).
But let’s be more fair than that to Hansen/Allen. Forget 80/20. Let’s simply assume that there are at least another 3,080 not-as-successful stories—students we haven’t heard from. And even though this new body of 3,080 students hasn’t reported a dime in incremental earnings, let’s assume that they’ve generated, collectively, a quarter of what their more successful peers have made. (Keep in mind that almost certainly, some reasonable percentage of students didn’t make squat.) That’s an additional $209,395,952. Add that to the aforementioned total of $837,583,808, divide by the new total pool of 6,160 (3,080 times 2) case histories, and we have a new average payday of $169,964. Again, not bad. But nowhere near a million now. And in fact, not that far outside the realm of what an awful lot of reasonably successful people are already pulling down these days in their day jobs.
Is this whole argument supposition on my part? Sure. But it’s no less flimsy than the rest of Hansen’s data, which—remember—have not been audited, and rest upon voluntary reporting. Hansen himself tells us that his data, though “deemed reliable,” are “not guaranteed.” Duh.
What’s more, I’ve got evidence. In a fascinating piece for MSN Money, reporter M.P. Dunleavey followed a number of hapless folks who thought they were going to become millionaires using Robert Allen’s system. (He also works as a solo act.) She points out that in one recent year, after pledging to create “1000 new millionaires!” through his seminars and support materials, Allen fell short by only, oh, 950 or so. And even in the case of the 50 who qualified, an Allen spokesman conceded that “not all of them exclusively used the Allen method of real estate investing.” Dunleavey also notes that the level of commitment required to follow most of these “get rich quick” schemes is such that people would almost have to quit their regular jobs and devote their entire lives to scanning the classifieds, driving around neighborhoods, attending foreclosure sales, filling out papers, juggling money between accounts, and so forth.
Another pertinent question (though I’m sure Hansen/Allen would consider it impertinent): How much does it cost people to not become millionaires? How many books and seminars and other items of reinforcement do they need to buy, over and over, in order to keep getting their $4,900 worth of free stuff? One is reminded of that classic Honeymooners episode where Kramden is out to recruit Norton for his latest money-making scheme. “We’ll get rich!” he exhorts. And Norton’s forlorn reply? “Ralphie-boy, I can’t afford to get rich with you anymore…”
So what do we have at the end of the day? The typical SHAM house of cards: one uncertainty piled atop another, in a nice, gift-wrapped package.
Wanna know how to really build wealth through real estate? Sell books on how to build wealth through real estate. Better still, hold seminars. As Dunleavey points out in her piece, if Allen averages two or three such seminars a week, thereby attracting a total of maybe 1200 protégés per month, at $2,495 per—that’s a fast $2.9 million, folks. Month after month after month…. And he never has to fill out a single one of those pesky, time-consuming mortgage apps he’d have you filling out, day after day…
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
...why you'd be high-fiving, too.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Something just occurred to me. If, as Mark Victor Hansen alleged during our CNN debate, Dr. Laura ("honor thy father and mother") Schlessinger was indeed aware, in a timely fashion, of the death of her 77-year-old mother, Yolanda... Well, are we then to conclude that the talk-show host knowingly left her mom's corpse to rot in a Beverly Hills condo for several months, till police found it on their own in late December 2002?
Why do I think Dr. Laura would prefer the original version of the story...?
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
By now, some among the SHAMblog faithful know that I appeared last night on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. (I know this for a fact because at least two former students emailed me about it…and bless your heart, Jordana, for asking if I’ve been “sick or something.” No, I’m afraid that’s just how your old journalism prof looks these days.) If you didn't catch the segment—which aired after Cooper dutifully covered the gay priest, the pregnant, unmarried Catholic school teacher, and the Florida teacher who slept with her 14-year-old student, as well as the demise of the world's ugliest dog—then count us both lucky.
I didn't mention the Cooper appearance in advance because we've had our major-media misfires, and if it all fell apart at the last minute—as it almost did, when my originally scheduled on-air nemesis, The Big Guy, Tony Robbins himself, backed out—I didn't want to end up looking foolish. Not that I could’ve ended up looking much more foolish than I did by actually doing the show...
The pinch-hitter for Robbins was Mark Victor Hansen, whose resume as a five-tool SHAM artist is capped by his formative role in the Chicken Soup for the [fill in the blank]’s Soul line of books, almost surely history’s best-selling book series after the various editions of the Bible. The last-minute Robbins-to-Hansen lineup switch was doubly disconcerting to me. I’d prepped for Tony for two full days and felt ready, really ready, to take him down. There’s just so much about Robbins that symbolizes SHAM at its worst. The Chicken Soup franchise, on the other hand… Let's face it, of all the wild and woolly elements of self-help that are ripe for attacking…how much can you really say about Chicken Soup? Besides, since I found out about this switch just an hour or so before game-time, there was little opportunity to prep anew. I consoled myself with the fact that Robbins is known to be a handful in give-and-take settings, whereas I figured Hansen—whom I’d never met, or even seen—would be something of a teddy bear. How could the father of Chicken Soup be otherwise?
Well, he could, and was—and he succeeded at knocking me off my game. Hansen has an air about him that suggests he regards himself and his Works as only slightly more important than the Old Testament. In marked contrast to the syrupy-sweet tone of his trademark product line, he was obnoxious and condescending throughout; at one point, when I said I could never write a self-help book because I’m “too realistic,” he barked, “You’re incompetent.”
He also showed an almost complete disregard for even the most minimal standards of journalistic accuracy. The most egregious example was when, in the course of his general disparagement of me and my book, he alleged that I’d gotten it all wrong about his pal Dr. Laura. Readers of SHAM will recall that I impugned Schlessinger’s professional credentials, pointing out (among other things) that her doctorate was in human physiology, not psychology, as most of her trusting listeners assume, and also that this shining paragon of family values didn’t even know her own mother had died till months later—a fact that I repeated on Cooper’s show. The latter tidbit in particular seemed to light a fire under Hansen: “You’re giving her a bad rap!” he lectured sharply, contending that Schlessinger “did know” her mother had died [that is, when it happened]. And, he continued, “She’s been educated. She has a Ph.D. that’s legitimate. She's a marriage and family counselor.”
And whom did Hansen consult in order to establish these truths? Why, none other than Dr. Laura herself, that’s who! Yes, he said he had “just talked to her” that very day, and she set him straight. (This, of course, represents journalism at its finest: If you want to know the facts about someone, you go to the person himself or herself, right? That way you know you're sure to get an objective opinion...) I never got a chance to revisit this topic. I would have asked Hansen, “So why didn’t Schlessinger sue me? And by the way, I guess I was also the one who put all those nude photos of her on the internet.” Cooper took us off in another direction, then gave my opposite number the last word. Suffice it to say I was somewhat disconsolate leaving the studio.
I’ve gotten some nice emails since then, and a handful of radio stations have contacted me—even during this, Thanksgiving week—to arrange follow-up interviews based on what they saw last night. So maybe it wasn’t the unqualified disaster I thought it was.
Still, one hates to leave things on such a downbeat footing. And so, in our next episode, we’ll take a closer look at Mark Victor Hansen, his vast financial SHAM-pire beyond Chicken Soup, and how you, yes you, can “learn how a dollar a day can become $2,700,000…”
Happy Turkey Day to you and yours. Have an extra helping of stuffing in honor of SHAM's overstuffed rhetoric...
Saturday, November 19, 2005
Click the links that follow, and you'll be taken to pages 1 (click here) and 2 (click here), respectively, of a feature on me in Lehigh Valley Living, a new magazine supplement put out by my local newspaper, the Morning Call. (Depending on your browser and other considerations, you may have to select the "view full screen" option in order to read the text.) Leaving aside the fact that I won't be 59 till March 2009 (unless Dr. Phil finds me first, in which case I may not get there at all), and that The Book of Sex was not a best-seller (at least not when judged by bookstore sales, the usual criterion for that honorific; as I write this, TBOS lolls at No. 1-million-something on Amazon), and that I professed journalism only at Indiana University, not Muhlenberg (where I was writer-in-residence, attached to the English department), and that my controversial article in PW appeared a dozen years before I took the job at Rodale and thus had nothing to do with my hiring (in contrast to the linkage implied in the piece), and that my title upon said hiring was Managing Editor, not Executive Editor (a promotion I would not receive until some months later), and that the 300 jobs axed at Rodale in the fall of 2001 were not a "management shake-up," but an overall downsizing that affected mostly line employees, and that in any case I lost my job about a month before that event, for unrelated reasons (having mostly to do with the aforementioned Book of Sex)...it's a damn fine piece of writing, I think.
By the way, if you're new to SHAMblog and have no idea what I mean by the title of this item, click here to read about another stellar work of journalism, by the iconic Post.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:29 PM
Friday, November 18, 2005
Calvin Tintle is a former student who now has forsaken the cloistered environment of the campus—as all college students inevitably must, one day—for the dread Real World. Alert readers may recall that Cal has figured in previous editions of SHAMblog; he’s back on the scene now with the following commentary, sent originally via email, which we’ll regard as “Cal’s guest column” (though I’ve taken the liberty of providing minor narration from time to time). In it, he describes for me his first live encounter with a motivational guru--someone his employer brought in to "pump up" the troops:
“I had a very interesting lunch meeting this afternoon and I had to give you a shout because the person that came into the office was a motivational speaker—or I should say, ‘Personal and Business Coach.’ (If a noose was within reach, I might have used it). After corresponding and reading your stuff I realized just what a joke it is. And when I say ‘joke,’ I mean it was literally funny. There were times when I almost burst out laughing.”
Cal goes on to characterize his guru as “an evil beast who was out to tell me all my pitfalls, and actually had the audacity to tell me how I feel. I'll tell you how I felt: I felt like, ‘Who is this person telling me how I feel?—the audacity!’ ”
At this point, however, Cal started looking around him. And that’s when he “realized that over 80 percent of the people in the meeting were buying into this load of S***! [Cal is a very polite fellow.] And asking ‘Can I have your card?’, ‘When can we get together?’, ‘Do you have any plans right after the meeting?’…. She ended with some books that we should read, and I told her I had a book for her to read… SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless...” [Whether or not you actually said this aloud, bless you, Cal!]
Cal’s experience—in particular his annoyance at the speaker’s presumed knowledge of what drove him—points up, again, the twin fundamental paradoxes (paradi?) of self-help: 1. The question of whether “self-help” can really come from outside the self, and 2. The question of whether people can maximize their highly individual selves by following a generic formula that distills complex behavioral issues into a seven-step program and prescribes the same actions (even the same attitudes) for all comers. If I walk into a room and somehow brainwash everyone into thinking (God help them) just like Steve Salerno—even if they enjoy some success thereafter—have I really helped them maximize their “selves”? Or have I converted them into something they didn’t used to be—specifically, into clones of me? This is not a purely philosophical question. For a movement that is supposed to celebrate individuality, SHAM spends an awful lot of time selling its own orthodoxies, and enforcing the idea that if you don’t want to do it their way, there’s something basically wrong with you. Go to the discussion boards of any leading guru—say, Tony Robbins. (You’ll have to register to join the give-and-take, and even to see certain site features. This will entitle you to get spammed by AR every so often.) It won’t be long before you notice that the participants all share the same world-view, and even converse in the same trademark Robbinsisms. Far from “actualizing” themselves, they have largely surrendered themselves.
To me, this is less “self-help,” in the true sense, than the creation of a homogeneous cult—the Cult of Tony.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 3:42 PM
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Hmmm. Trying to figure out why my previous item (on the latest anger-management guru) seems to have struck such a chord--an unprecedented 10 responses already, including a nice give-and-take between several posters. I'm particularly intrigued by the sub-theme that has emerged involving free will, personal choice, and the like. I tend to be pretty cynical in such matters, essentially subscribing to the "determinist" school of human behavior, as outlined in brief in a prior post, and fleshed out in the link therein (though I do differ with some of the conclusions drawn in that link, and I'm about as far from a Marxist as you're apt to find). I know, I know--it's an odd stance, as some acquaintances have observed, for a guy who takes the positions I appear to take in SHAM, vis-a-vis personal responsibility. Sit down with me for, oh, a few years and I'll try to resolve it all for you, if you like. (Just know in advance that no one with whom I've ever had this discussion, at any length, still talks to me. Then again, few people talk to me anyway.)
What say we try to keep this going, folks. Any other observations out there regarding free will, choice, and related matters? The relevance in a discussion of self-help--and, indeed, the self itself--should be obvious.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 12:47 PM
Friday, November 11, 2005
Comes a press release on PRWeb November 8 announcing a new self-help product that vows to rid America of bad feelings. Yes indeedy. The Anger Busting Workbook, by James A. Baker, is a “breath of fresh air” that “actually makes sense,” which will not only provide “practical and accessible” help for brooding males, but also includes, as a special bonus, an “innovative” section written for “women who love angry men.”
I grant you that I haven’t read the book. But judging from the press release--which, I strongly suspect, was written or at least shaped by Baker himself--here’s something else that can be said about The Anger Busting Workbook: It’s a tour-de-force in the sort of specious rhetoric that has come to define SHAM--a puffed-up promise that sounds so very, very good on the surface, but breaks down just a few microns below.
Let's take one not-so-small example. "Relying on hard-nosed, no-nonsense language that is reminiscent of Dr. Phil," writes the blurb's author, apparently unashamed about making this admission, the book "proceeds to lay out a very specific, rigid recovery plan for anger addicts." Want to hear step one? Here it is: The Workbook sets forth "16 angry behaviors that men must commit to abstain from immediately..."
Question: If a rageaholic--or any "-holic"--could really commit to abstaining from any of his unproductive behaviors, let alone 16 of them, "immediately"--then for what, exactly, would he need a recovery program? Isn't this at least a little bit like going to a doctor for treatment of chronic pain and having him simply tell you, "OK, now step one is, feel better..."
I don't know. Maybe it's just me; maybe I'm the only one bothered by this crap. I sure hope not.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 8:01 PM
Monday, November 07, 2005
People often ask me to document the self-help movement's wider damage to society; they particularly want to see evidence of SHAM's sinister influence in political process. My piece in today's National Review Online makes what is, to my mind, one of the more important points about SHAM, and its role in eroding American self-reliance over the past quarter-century (aided and abetted by political demagogues who saw its vast potential as a tool in determining electability). Follow the link, and please, as always, let me have your thoughts.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:14 AM
Friday, November 04, 2005
I've been asked to do a reading from SHAM at Sebastian Junger's joint, the Half King, this coming Monday (November 7) at 7 p.m. My agent tells me this is quite a coup, since most of those invited to present at the Half King are authors of "significant" fiction or at least linear nonfiction--like, say, Junger's own The Perfect Storm, on which he made a Hollywood-sized killing a few years ago. Back in 1991, I was fortunate enough to have a TV movie adapted from my true-crime book, Deadly Blessing. It still shows up on Lifetime or Court-TV now and then under the title Bed of Lies, and boasts an enviable pedigree: It was made by Warner Bros. in cooperation with The Wolper Co., best known for such classic miniseries as Roots (arguably the classic miniseries of all time) and The Thorn Birds, as well as its uber-slick production of the 1984 Olympics. Nonetheless, they must have run out of creative steam by the time they got around to my flick, since Lies essentially is a two-hour excuse for Susan Dey to vamp about in lingerie and other skimpy outfits. Which is why it always does well in the ratings, no doubt--that, and some fine (if genuinely disturbing) work by Chris Cooper, post-Lonesome Dove but well before his Oscar-winning turn in Seabiscuit.
Suffice it to say I did not make a Jungeresque killing, and these days I have absolutely no idea what became of the money.
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Took the liberty of posting on Bernie Goldberg's site today. Yes, I mentioned SHAM, and said it may be of interest to his fans--and I've now heard back from a couple of Goldberg's registered users who seemed majorly incensed at my having done so. This, I don't quite get. For one thing, Goldberg, in his latest book, 100 People Who are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is #37), covers many of the same themes I cover in SHAM. However, he tends to view such topics through a more political prism, whereas I look at them in terms of their social/sociological underpinnings, specifically as manifestations of the "logic" and all-pervading influence of self-help. I thought that this alternative take on parallel topics might interest some of Goldberg's readers (and in point of fact, I saw an immediate Amazon spike within hours of making that post). I do not apologize for this, or consider it unseemly; so far as I was able to determine, I violated none of the site's policies in composing my post and referring people to my own site(s). So what are these people so ticked about?
Now, I'll give a straight answer to the question that no doubt has occurred to some of you: Was this a shameless attempt on my part to hitch my wagon to Goldberg's star? In a word... sure! At least to some degree. Isn't that the nature of the beast in this business, which--if it's about nothing else--is about getting out the word? Otherwise why even write a book? Why should I feel any shame about it? Nobody is forcing people to buy SHAM, after all. (Clearly.) I'm certainly no threat to Bernie himself, whose 100 People, for the record, is Amazon's No. 126 at this writing--a mere 15,872 slots ahead of SHAM...and that's with the Goldberg Spike. (Also consider that, probably to a man or woman, his registered users wouldn't be his registered users if they hadn't already bought his book.) So I choose to regard my post as a form of public service: that is, letting thoughtful, irreverent, somewhat iconoclastic people know there's another product out there that may suit their tastes, and even do them some good. Why, it's the American thing to do.
© Copyright by Steve Salerno at 11:19 PM