With his open, honest-seeming Midwestern face and interview-show format, infomercial king Kevin Trudeau has been ubiquitous on television for well over a decade, peddling products that claim to extend life, stop pain, shed pounds, expand memory power, and cure lupus and multiple sclerosis.
No more. Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission largely kicked Trudeau off television.
The agency banned him "from appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public," meaning Trudeau can no longer appear on television except to sell products that make no claims.
The extraordinary prohibition, believed to be the agency's first, puts the same limits on Trudeau's presentations in newspapers, magazines and direct mail and on radio and the Internet. In addition to the ban, Trudeau will pay $2 million to settle an FTC lawsuit against him for claiming that a product called Coral Calcium Supreme can cure cancer and a piece of plastic called Biotape can stop chronic pain when stuck to the skin.
To satisfy the fine, Trudeau will pay $500,000 in cash and hand over one of his Southern California homes and his $180,000 Mercedes-Benz. If Trudeau is found to have lied about his wealth, he could be liable for up to $20 million in damages.
"We felt the ban was a necessary remedy because he is a recidivist as well as being prolific," said FTC lawyer Heather Hippsley. A court found that Trudeau violated a 1998 FTC order banning him from pitching spurious products.
The settlement includes no admission of guilt or wrongdoing, said Trudeau's lawyer, Chicago's David J. Bradford.
"Everyone would agree that these products are good for you," Bradford said in an interview yesterday. "There may be disagreement over how good they are and he may be accused from time to time of being hyperbolic about how good they are, but there is no dispute that calcium is good for people. So this is not somebody who's selling cigarettes or anything else alleged to be harmful."
The Biotape Web site includes the following disclaimer: "We make no claims on this Web page that Biotape will stop, heal, or relieve pain. It is offered for sale only for research purposes -- to explore the Chinese definition of pain. The only claim we make is that Biotape connects the 'broken Chi' (endogenous electrical signals in living tissue) which traditional Chinese medicine defines as the cause of pain."
The marine coral, which costs about $20 for a month's supply, comes from the Japanese island of Okinawa and allows residents to live to be 140 years old, claimed the infomercial.
The FTC settlement spotlights a pitchman whose career has been a remarkable string of moneymaking marketing ventures. The FTC estimated that last year's sales of Coral Calcium Supreme alone ran into the tens of millions of dollars. In May 2003, Trudeau's Coral Calcium infomercial -- a 30-minute interview with a self-described scientist named Robert Barefoot who claimed to know the cause of cancer -- was the top earner. In addition to his direct-mail and infomercial business, he owns four television channels that air in Britain.
Trudeau, 41, also has left a wake of felony and questionable dealings. In addition to paying previous fines for hawking bogus products, he served a two-year jail sentence for credit fraud when selling his Mega Memory System.
"I got into legal trouble by cutting corners and I pleaded guilty," Trudeau told an Australian magazine in 1999. "Before I went in [prison], making money was the objective. When I came out it was helping people."
In 1996, Trudeau's pitches helped propel Nutrition for Life International Inc. -- an Amway-style health product business -- to record sales. But a Wall Street Journal story on the company revealed that Trudeau served time in the early '90s for credit card fraud and knowingly writing $80,000 in bad checks.
Trudeau misappropriated the credit card numbers of his customers for his own use and even posed as a doctor to fool bank officials, according to court documents cited by the Journal.
In the days following the story, the value of Nutrition for Life's stock dropped by half. Later that year, the company paid $185,000 to settle charges that it ran a pyramid scheme.
In 1998, Trudeau paid the FTC $500,000 for citing unproven scientific studies when selling his Mega Memory System. Also, said his lawyer, there have been "a number" of settlements with state attorneys general over the years.
Under yesterday's FTC settlement, Trudeau can continue to sell products such as the book for sale on his Web site, www.naturalcures.com, "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You To Know About" ($29.95), unless he makes claims favoring one cure over another.
It says on his Web site, "Learn about the low carb scam and how the Atkins and South Beach diets are some of the greatest frauds being perpetrated." In 2002, Trudeau's infomercial for the "Atkins Answer" was a top-earner.
Trudeau claimed to have made his first million by 16 after starting a business selling information on how to get loans. According to public records, Trudeau is listed as owning an $800,000 Ventura County house and a $1.6 million piece of property about six miles away.