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Don Lapre: Death of a Salesman
Don Lapre was an interesting and tragic figure in American business. His incredible enthusiasm was contrasted starkly by the deep depression he suffered in his later years. Accused of marketing a scam of get rich quick schemes across the country, even after his death, he continues to be a divisive figure. Either you loved him or you hated him. Either “Don Lapre was the biggest con artist on the planet.” – or “He sparked a dream in thousands of people.” So, which is it? This article will briefly explore the life and troubles of this controversial man. In the end, I leave the final decision up to you.
Who Was Don Lapre?
You may remember Don Lapre, 'The King of Infomercials', from his late night tv commercials during the 1990s. Don became famous for his super exuberant personality, motivational speeches, and claims of making $50,000 per week by placing “tiny classified ads” in newspapers across the country – all from his “tiny one-bedroom apartment”. Don Lapre's Making Money Secrets product package of books and videos became so well-known, he was spoofed on Saturday Night Live and even The David Letterman Show. In the early 2000s, he began selling a business model based around a product called The Greatest Vitamin In The World, wherein would-be business owners would purchase vitamins to re-sell for a profit. The Greatest Vitamin business model proved to be the final pitch for Mr. Lapre. In June 2011, he was charged with 41 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and promotional money laundering. In October 2011, he was found dead in his jail cell of an apparent suicide, just two days before his trial was set to begin. He is survived by a wife and two children.
Legal History to 2008
Before we talk about the sinner or sainthood of Don Lapre, it is important to discuss his history of legal troubles, which stem back to 1994, when he was forced to pay $45,000 in back taxes. In 1997, he was again fined for not paying taxes, and the IRS issued a lien against he and his wife for nearly $1 million. As the success of his Making Money infomercials dwindled late in the decade, he filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999.
In 2004, he reappeared on the scene, selling The Greatest Vitamin In The World, but by 2006, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) had warned him about the claims made in his new series of infomercials and advertisements. In them were suggestions that the vitamins would combat various diseases, which the FDA found to be unsupported. Under pressure of the FDA, The Better Business Bureau, and U.S. Postal Inspection of his product shipments, he closed the vitamin business in 2007. However, by 2008, consumer claims were surfacing, along with State charges that he was unregistered to sell these products in the first place. It wasn't until 2011 that the final legal charges were brought against him, including 41 counts of fraud.
2011 Legal Charges
The crux of the 2011 lawsuit was that consumers who purchased Don's Greatest Vitamin In the World did not make money as they were promised. Over 200,000 people had invested $51.8 million in the program, but only $6.3 million in total was generated for those clients. In response, a remoreseful Don posted a now-chilling message on his website, which said the following:
I tried to create the best product on earth, paid out millions, made very little trying to make it a success, had attorneys review my entire company, paid out millions in refunds, tried to make the commission and products better every single year, and in spite of all that, I have been accused of something I did not do. I did not have the perfect company but never once did I allow one thing to be done that would violate any law. Nevertheless, because the majority of people did not make money, in spite of everyone of them being able to make as many $1000 checks as they wanted, I am left to fight a battle that will for sure destroy what energy I have left inside.
In June 2011, he was arrested for failure to appear in court and jailed until his trial date in October.
My Experience With Don Lapre
Like many others, in the late 1990s, I saw Don Lapre's late night Money Making Secrets infomercial series, and I started to think about what it would be like to go into business for myself. Now, Don Lapre and I couldn't be more opposite personalities. In his business persona, he was energetic, eager to network, and a great talker. I am laid back, low key, and private. Still, his message of career independence spoke to me. So, I shelled out maybe $50 for the product kit, and anxiously awaited it's arrival. When I got it, there was a lot of various material to comb through, but the thing that stood out the most was a list of potential home businesses, along with the supporting materials for how to market that business. That's when I realized, “Oh! This whole thing is more about marketing an existing business”, which was something I didn't have yet. Sure, at the time, I was a bit frustrated by the seemingly huge task ahead of me. You mean, I wasn't going to make money right away?! I was going to have to work for it?! Ugh. Later, the list of home businesses turned out to be great starting place for me. It pointed me toward my first home business venture, which lasted about one year. It wasn't some huge success, but I broke even, and I learned a lot along the way. I did not, however, blame Don Lapre because my business didn't take off. He sold me some tools, and it was up to me to do the building.
Over 10 years later, I am the owner of a small business that I consider quite successful, in that I have been self-employed for nearly 5 years. My final business model didn't come out of an infomercial, a book, or a video tape. It came out of my own personal passion and ingenuity, just like Don's. He was passionate about making money and pitching his products, so that was his business. I was passionate about arts and crafts, so that became mine. Two seemingly different personalities, one similar experience.
Was Don Lapre a Con Artist?
Where did Don go wrong? Well. First, he either didn't pay his taxes, or he didn't file them correctly. Second, his enthusiasm about the products outweighed their actual worth, causing consumers to feel ripped off when they didn't deliver all that was promised. There is a lesson here for all business owners. Play by the rules and err on the side of caution, or assuredly suffer the consequences.
So, was Don Lapre a bad person? Was he a scam artist? Did he knowingly sell 'get rich quick schemes' that had no hope of getting anyone rich? Perhaps only Don would know the answer to those questions, so the final opinion, of course, is up to you. For my two cents: I don't think he was any different than most of the Marketing and PR execs you'll find in any of the Fortune 500 companies today – except that Don Lapre was a self-made man. He didn't have an MBA. He didn't even have a high school degree! Perhaps his fatal mistake was in direct-to-public marketing of his own products, because if he were just another ad man, pitching for someone else's company, he would have walked away scott free with no liability whatsoever. Instead, he died alone in a jail cell, leaving behind a wife and two children, who are the real victims here. In the end, they lost something worth more than just a few “tiny” green pieces of paper.
The gruesome circumstances of Don's death in jail cannot be ignored, and the incident still raises questions in my mind. Certainly, the possibility of $500,000 in fines and 25 years in prison was weighing on his mind in those final moments. According to Federal Marshals, he slit his own throat with a razor blade, using sheets and cloths to hide it, so he had time to bleed out before being discovered. Unfortunately, this was not Don's first suicide attempt. Four months earlier, when he was arrested, police found severe cuts in his groin area, believed to be an attempt to cut his femoral artery. My question is: Knowing this information, why was he not put on suicide watch? Furthermore, how did he get a hold of the razor blade, and why did no one find it suspicious that his neck was wrapped in rags? Here's the kicker: When Don was taken into custody, he was on anti-depressant medication, which was taken away from him and switched to a different drug upon incarceration. After learning about this, Don's mother pleaded with his attorney to help restore the original medication, but it was too late. He was found dead soon after.
Many people will argue good riddance to the death of a supposed con man, but let's try keep in mind that Don was not convicted of these particular crimes. Every man deserves his day in court. In the United States of America, we have a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and for whatever reason, Don did not receive (or accept) his opportunity. Of course, no one forced him to kill himself. However, in the wake of his death, there has been little sympathy for a man who's pursuit of financial gain is both praised and hated within his own society, sometimes in the same breath.
The Moral Of The Story
In my opinion, the moral of the story is this: “It's no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want to do is make a lot of money” (Citizen Kane). Whether we're talking about Don himself or the thousands of people who invested in his products, if making money is your end-all-be-all goal, it's not so hard to do. However, if you want to live a life that is full of love, respect, and honor, it may be a more challenging path. All things being equal, the pursuit of money is really just the pursuit of freedom – and freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
What's Your Opinion?
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Article by Ali Puckett, Buttonhead