AdvoCare is a health supplement company that distributes it’s products through multi-level marketing (or MLM).

I have two key reservations about AdvoCare: Their product itself, and their business model.

The Product

AdvoCare products are unregulated dietary supplements. This is a multi-billion dollar industry. What this essentially means is that, unlike most of the food and conventional medicine you may purchase, “supplements” do not need to provide any evidence of efficacy and can avoid standard testing that would provide evidence of harm before bringing their products to market.

AdvoCare is no exception to the dangers of the unregulated dietary supplement industry. If you look at AdvoCare’s product page, at the very bottom in tiny print you will find the following disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

In fact, although AdvoCare has a consulting board of experts, most of them appear to have no training or credentials in diet and nutrition and none of them appear to have any training in product development and research.

On a side note: Many shady pseudo-scientific and alternative medicine operations often employ panels of credentialed “experts” who have a lot of fancy letters by their name but no expertise in the relevant field. This inspires a false sense of trust because most people think that if someone became a doctor or received a higher education degree then they must be a trustworthy source. More education does not inoculate people from basic human foibles such as the Dunning-Kruger effect. In fact, more education can often give people a false and inflated sense of expertise in areas where they have little to no knowledge. Higher education is often extremely specific and limited to a specific field. It is important to be extremely cautious of well-educated people offering advice and expertise outside of their field. They are very likely victims of their own pride and hubris.

As for the actual products, there are some serious concerns about their ingredients and how they work.

Let’s take Spark, for example. Spark is a powdered energy drink that essentially contains artificial sweeteners, caffeine, synthetic vitamins, and some amino-acids.

I have heard distributors claim that there is less caffeine in a pack of Spark than a cup of coffee and that they take Spark twice a day. This is patently false. Spark contains 120mg of caffeine. A typical cup of coffee contains 95mg of caffeine and a shot of espresso contains 40-75mg of caffeine. Taking Spark twice per day may not be dangerous in and of itself, since it falls well below the maximum recommended amount of 400mg of caffeine per day, but if you are taking Spark it is important to carefully monitor your caffeine intake in other foods so that you are not putting yourself at risk.

Spark’s artificial sweetener, sucralose, is also a controversial ingredient. The product has not been on the market for a very long time and reported adverse health affects of the ingredient include seizures, migraines, and blurred vision.

As for the synthetic vitamins and amino-acids, aren’t those good for you? Well, yes, vitamins and amino-acids are good for you, but there is a general misunderstanding about basic nutrition among consumers of supplements. Your body can only absorb a certain amount of most of the “good for you” nutrient’s per day. If you have a deficiency, you have a problem and a supplement is helpful. But if you are getting enough through your normal diet, increasing how much you ingest isn’t going to give you added benefits.

The vitamins and amino-acids contained in Spark are these kind of nutrients. If you are eating a healthy and balanced diet, you are probably getting more than enough of these nutrients for your body. If you are taking extra nutrients through supplements, you aren’t getting any added benefits – you are passing them through and they are going to waste. Most people aren’t suffering from deficiencies in the nutrients that AdvoCare products offer. This is especially true for their health conscious target market.

But does Spark actually improve exercise performance as it claims? Probably not. A recent study of the effects of Spark on Division I NCAA football players concluded that Spark “did not statistically improve repeated sprint times, fatigue index, and anaerobic power.”

If you take a magic pill that someone tells you will give you more energy and improve your performance, subjectively, since you expect it to work, you are going to think it is working. But objectively, there is no evidence that it actually does. In the same way that when some people are so high on drugs that they think the gibberish they are spouting is actually genius, if you are hyped up on caffeine because you just ingested the equivalent of a triple espresso, it is easy to think your “energy levels” and performance during your workout have increased and you are getting better outcomes as a result. You aren’t.

AdvoCare also has a special diet called the 24-Day Challenge. This essentially consists of taking a supplement that functions as a laxative, making temporary (and admittedly healthy) changes to your diet, and drinking tons of water. Most people don’t drink enough water, so increasing water intake would actually be a good thing for most people and that alone will give you some health benefits. When you are taking the laxative supplement that AdvoCare is selling you, this becomes essential because the laxative is, of course, going to massively dehydrate you.

Most nutrition experts agree that using a laxative to lose weight is fraught with health risks. It may yield temporary results since your body is robbed of it’s ability to absorb calories. In the long run, the risks are just not worth it, though. Dietary specialists and nutritionists who have studied the 24-Day Challenge have concluded that it is likely that all the benefits of the challenge are in the increased consumption of water and changes to the daily diet, but the risks associated with the supplements are not worth it.

Many pseudo-scientific and alternative medicine practices actually work like this. They sell you a miracle product and then tell you to make standard, well established and accepted modifications to your diet and/or exercise regime, and then claim that the benefits you felt were from their product when they were simply from the diet and exercise changes you made. Kind of insidious right?

Right now, AdvoCare’s 24-Day Challenge and Spark are the subject of a federal lawsuit for false-advertising. From what I have read by experts in the field, this is not at all surprising.

For more information about the health risks of AdvoCare products, please refer to the following:

The Business Model

If you read any of the linked articles above, you will start to notice that the AdvoCare business model is called into question multiple times. Advocare is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company. MLMs often come under fire for being pyramid schemes, a criticism that these companies staunchly defend themselves against on the technicality that they actually sell a product or service and a “true” pyramid scheme only operates by funneling money up the chain to those at the top. I’d call that a distinction without a difference.

And the U.S. justice system is catching onto this as well. The main problem is that, despite selling a product, the main way distributors in MLMs make money is by recruiting a “downline” of people under them and then earning commissions from their downline several levels down. Like a pyramid.

Marketing through referrals isn’t a horrible way to go. However, in MLM’s since this is often the primary or only way that they market their products, the unfortunate result is that unlike conventionally marketed products, the overwhelming majority of the price that the consumers are paying for the product is in commissions up the chain meaning that consumers are often massively overpaying for low quality products that can be found elsewhere for lower prices and at a higher quality.

John Oliver did a wonderful job of debunking many of the MLM claims and why they are essentially pyramid schemes (where he name drops AdvoCare). I recommend giving it a watch – it is vastly more entertaining and informative than anything I am going to write here:

Oliver spends a lot of time talking about Herbalife, but the company is basically the same as AdvoCare, and the connections between the two companies is a lot closer than one would think.

The founder of AdvoCare, Charles Ragus, was once a distributor for Herbalife (which was recently determined to characterize a pyramid scheme by the FTC and forced to restructure). And AdvoCare wasn’t his first MLM. In 1992, he had to shut down Omnitrition International after he lost a lawsuit that determined it characterized a pyramid scheme. Out of the ashes of Omnitrition and with his Herbalife training – two pyramid schemes – he founded AdvoCare.

The unfortunate result of these MLMs is that most of the distributors who get involved in them either make no money at all or even lose money. AdvoCare is no exception: 95% of their distributors fall into this category. That doesn’t sound like very good odds.

This is probably because AdvoCare doesn’t adequately invest in training their distributors how to get leads, yet requires them to purchase a monthly minimum amount of product from day one (after paying a $79 set-up fee for the privilege of buying their product as an official distributor or inappropriately named “expert”). Often times, distributors end up stuck with vast inventories of product that they were unable to unload – or were returned to them as their own expense. Because of the sunk cost fallacy, most people are reticent to admit they are in over their head and wind up burning through all their savings and racking up substantial debt before having to pull out.

If the vast majority of your sales reps end up losing money by purchasing questionable products they are unable to sell but your company still makes a profit off of them, I’d call that a pretty morally dubious enterprise. Remember, 95% of AdvoCare distributors lose money or break even. That could wind up being a pretty massive chunk of AdvoCare’s revenue. On that basis alone, even if you think, “I’m better than most people. I’m going to work harder. I’m going to work smarter. I’m going to be part of the 5% who make money doing this,” you are still supporting a system that does harm to 95% of their workforce.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. Even if you are part of the 5% who actually makes money, you aren’t actually doing that well. Most of those people are making such little money, that if they divide their income by the amount of hours they are working to make that little amount, then they are actually making far below minimum wage. This is a small detail that is easily overlooked by distributors who are making money. Their sense of pride and accomplishment in making a profit often blinds them to harsh realities of how much time they traded away to earn that profit and how much they could have made through alternative investments of their time.

It feels really good to be you own boss and take control of your income, so it is easy to lose track of what that good feeling is actually costing you and whether or not it is actually financially worth it. And none of that accounts for the amount of money that successful AdvoCare distributors invest on their own into paid placement advertising.

So, it turns out that less than 1% of AdvoCare distributors are making more than minimum wage. And they all have one thing in common: they accomplish this by successfully regularly recruiting enough people into their downline to earn commissions off of. The problem with this is that since 95% of AdvoCare distributors aren’t making any money, the model of a “successful” AdvoCare distributor is someone who constantly burns through people who are being harmed by the “opportunity” you sold them and are profiting off of.

There is no disincentive to recruit people who are actually qualified or “have what it takes” to be successful as sales reps – just signing someone up is a money making opportunity whether or not that person succeeds. Obviously, you can make more money if they succeed, but if you are one of the few people who are really good at signing up new distributors, then who cares? You make a little money off of someone while they buy mandatory minimums of product that they are incapable of selling and then when they crash and burn you just sign someone else up to replace them.

Essentially, as an AdvoCare distributor, you either fail despite your best efforts, or you succeed – at the expense of many other people’s failures. And you get to absolve yourself of guilt by saying “they just didn’t have what it takes.” Well, apparently 95% of people don’t have what it takes, but that didn’t stop you from successfully identifying in advance their chances of failure at the job and rejecting them in advance like a normal company would handle unqualified applicants. Can you imagine a company that recruited people who were unqualified to work for them because they could still make a small profit off of those people’s failures anyway? Those companies exist. They are called MLMs.

And I haven’t even touched on the scandals involving celebrity endorsements of AdvoCare and the criticism the company has received for their extremely shady practices in that area. Check out the ESPN article at the end of this article to learn more about that.

Because of this, AdvoCare, like many MLMs, is currently the subject of some pretty serious legal action from rightfully disgruntled former distributors who felt the company oversold them on the money making opportunities and sucked them in with false promises only to leave them broke and in debt. It isn’t uncommon for any company to have it’s share of bad eggs who didn’t work hard and now wants to blame someone else for their failures.

But, if you dig into the criticism, the reviews, and the lawsuits, you will find that AdvoCare has a LOT of people who are disgruntled and feel cheated. Either this company does a terrible job of filtering out the “bad eggs” by relying on recruiting through it’s own woefully under-trained distributors (the blind leading the blind), or they are taking advantage of a lot of good, hard-working people who don’t have the luck or time or extra money to invest to make the “AdvoCare opportunity” work for them. I suspect it is a combination of both. Either way, it is a pretty bad way to run a business.

For more information on the shady practices of AdvoCare’s MLM business model and the harm they have done to hundreds of thousands of former distributors, refer to the following: