On New Year’s Eve, I learned FEMA’s “Dirty Little Secret.”
It was the title of a fascinating email, one that had somehow dodged my spam filter. The message was suffused with breathless concern about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recent order of “420 million survival meals;” such provisions are apparently “the #1 most critical item in a crisis.” You see, “FEMA knows that if you control the food supply, then you control the people.”
Normally, such paranoid ramblings merit nothing more than a quick delete and a sad shake of the head. But the New Year’s note stood out because of the source. I was being alerted to FEMA’s nefarious plot by no less than National Review, the nation’s most important conservative magazine.
“Please find this special message from our sponsoring advertiser Food4Patriots,” the publication wrote. “This important support affords us the continuing means to provide you with National Review’s distinctly conservative and always exceptional news and commentary. We encourage you to patronize our sponsors.”
Since being added to National Review’s subscriber list, I had received four emails from the venerable publication selling me on Food4Patriots’ plan to “make darn sure your family won’t go hungry or get herded into a FEMA camp” by purchasing the dehydrated food they’re hawking. Indeed, Food4Patriots is deeply ensconced in the conservative movement, placing its ads in both more mainstream outlets (Fox News, Townhall.com) and fringier sites (Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, RedState, WorldNetDaily).
But the company’s skyrocketing revenues came on the back of some (arguably) really shady practices. In fact, when I wrote National Review’s editor and publisher to give them a heads up about what I learned about the company, they promptly suspended future Food4Patriots ads.
Who Is Frank Bates?
“Communist food brainwashing,” Frank Bates solemnly warns us, “is infecting America.”
Bates is the pitchman for Food4Patriots; when you click the link in National Review’s email, you’re immediately directed to a crudely animated infomercial breaking down the brainwashing threat. Frank’s biography is one of the first things you learn in the shockingly long presentation (full thing’s on YouTube here). Bates is a resident of a small town outside of Nashville, where he lives with his wife Michelle and 2 kids. He lost his job a few years ago and since then, teaching people how to live free of both big government and big business has been his passion.
“Promise to keep this information to yourself and close family and friends ONLY,” Bates asks. “I don’t know how long it’ll be online, so watch it while you can” — before FEMA takes Frank’s video, and perhaps Frank himself, out of the picture.
CREDIT: Reboot Marketing
You must act quickly — the video repeatedly hammers home, for a number of questionable reasons, that time is running out — to secure your stock of preserved “survival foods,” available in 72 hour, one month, and three month packages. Their “unique” low heat dehydration method ensures the food will be safe for 25 years, plenty of time after the “coming food crisis” created by “food mobs” of “freeloading people embracing the idea of a few hard working patriots supplying all the food and the labor, and the rest sitting back and getting a handout.”
Pairing survivalist panic to more mainstream conservative tropes is Frank’s calling card, pervading his pitches for the other products in the 4Patriots line. Power4Patriots reveals “the dirty little secret that president [sic] Obama and the big energy monopolies have been trying to bury.” There’s a “cover-up,” a “conspiracy that runs all the way to the top” to make “power rates skyrocket.” Moreover, “thanks to the shaky state the liberals have put our country in, our government isn’t ready to handle the situations that are coming our way…Ask anyone who lived through Hurricane Katrina!” The solution is to buy Power4Patriots’ books, videos, and “CD-ROMs,” which will teach you how to cut your power and heating bills by “up to” 75 percent.
Likewise, Frank’s SurvivalSeeds4Patriots missive warns that “the frightened hordes clear out the grocery stores in hours and people [will] get more and more desperate” in the crisis “about to hit the US.” Save yourself by purchasing Frank’s “painstakingly researched” personal plant seed vault.
The glue that ties all of this together is Frank’s personal story. He and his family were victimized by the business that fired him, by the terrifying power costs in their former Northeastern home, and by the shadowy forces that bent Frank’s knee in the direction of Obama and FEMA. Bates’ testimonial — up from dependence, through three neat products — is the beating heart of the 4Patriots brand’s public image.
Except there’s no evidence that he exists.
The Anatomy Of A Racket
I jumped through a lot of hoops to try to find Frank Bates. I tracked the only public image ever identified as Bates back to its source, a now-deleted stock photo taken by an Austria-based photographer named Kemter. I used a variety of tools to track down contact information for anyone in the Nashville area named Frank Bates, and found no one by that name connected to the 4Patriots brand. The customer service operator at the end of Reboot’s public line said “they didn’t give us” Frank’s contact information.
But when I checked the domain registration on every 4Patriots site, as well as FrankBates.net, I found the only ones that didn’t direct you back to the company’s main phone line were either anonymous or registered to someone named Allen Baler. Baler, is listed as the principal of Power4Patriots by the Nashville Better Business Bureau. He’s the founder of Reboot Marketing, the company that operates all of the 4Patriots product lines.
It was researching Allen Baler that finally led me to the real story behind the 4Patriots empire.
“Our philosophy is one man, one laptop, one million bucks,” Baler said during a 2011 chat with one of his marketing bros. “I just love the freedom of being able to make a nice income, to make a nice business and just be, basically, myself.” Or Frank Bates, whichever works.
None of them are named Frank Bates, of course. You get the sense that someone with Bates’ true believer zeal would probably feel out of place at Reboot, which Baler founded on a lark to make a few extra bucks. Bored after 12 years at the “kind-of corporatey” job he got after graduating from Harvard in 1994, he started “foolin’ around at night after work” with something called affiliate marketing.
The industry works like this: someone has a product, someone else finds websites or ad networks willing to host ads for that product for a price, and then the host makes a little extra money for every sale the ads they put up generate. Affiliate ads are generally “tailored to particular viewers to drive traffic to the seller’s website,” David Vladeck, former Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, explained. “The point of it is to make sure the consumer ends up on the landing page of the seller.” It’s a roughly $4 billion industry in the United States alone.
Baler started dabbling in this field in his free time after work. His first foray — a campaign he refers to as “How To Train Your Pug Dog” — got noticed by his boss, who told him to choose between making cheapo pug training videos and his “multiple six figures” salary. Baler chose pugs.
The key to Baler’s successful move into affiliate marketing was something called Clickbank. Clickbank offers thousands of products, often some kind of informational guide, which affiliate marketers can pay for the right to market. The site accepts a wide variety of products in all kinds of niches,” so affiliate marketers, almost always sales people rather than experts in the industry they’re marketing for, may not be able to tell if what they’re hawking is actually good (in an email, Clickbank said that they use a “product review process” that “aligns with industry standards.”) From a financial point of view, it doesn’t matter: producers sell their “books,” affiliate marketers have something to market, and Clickbank gets a cut of the sales plus flat fees for using the service.
The 4Patriots empire grew out of Baler’s ClickBank experiments. His first really successful Clickbank campaign was Earth4Energy, a guide to going off-grid that he found on Clickbank — and one that many other Clickbank marketers hawk in various guises. If you look at the site, it’s basically identical to Power4Patriots, only with a different voice and different persona delivering the sales pitch.
In the conservative news space, there’s a company called Newsmax, which is definitely worth checking out. It’s a very large website and newsletter company and, this tends to be a more expensive buy to do emails and banner ads, anywhere from several thousand up to ten thousand for one drop. But they have a very large list of kind of affluent, conservative men who surprisingly like to buy a lot of stuff online.
These “fifty year old dude[s] looking to lose some weight” — his description of his customer base — became Baler’s “niche,” as affiliate marketers say. Power4Patriots was born at the end of 2011, and it proved so successful that he added SurvivalSeeds4Patriots in 2012. He filed paperwork listing the non-4Patriots side of his business as “inactive” near the end of that year, and Food4Patriots came to life in early 2013. Baler doesn’t appear to have looked back since.
Food4Patriots and SurvivalSeeds4Patriots expand the business beyond Clickbank-style infoguides. Baler buys kits from My Patriot Supply, a preserved food and seed company, and then sells them for about three times the original price. For instance, the Reboot 3 Month package is listed on My Patriot Supply for $183.54; the Food4Patriots 3-month supply will run you a cool $497. All Baler does is drench someone else’s stuff in paranoid anti-Obama finery and advertise it around the conservative mediasphere using a likely fictional life story.
Baler’s looking to expand. Reboot posted an ad several weeks ago for a new copy writer, presumably to pen Frank Bates fan-fiction. They’re looking for someone who can “understand the world of our prospect” — that is, “55+ years old conservatives in ‘red’ states with a strong sense of self-reliance.”
“God bless,” Baler chuckled in one of his interviews, “they are buying.”
But Is It Legal?
Multiple inquiries about these issues sent to Allen Baler, Reboot Marketing, and several 4Patriots brands were met with a response from their legal counsel. “Your list of claims about Mr. Baler, Reboot Marketing LLC, and Power4Patriots are incorrect and unsupported by fact,” the letter read. “We will not respond to each item,” but “rest assured that we are in possession of ample substantiation to support Reboot’s representations.”
No such substantiation was produced after I asked, in a follow-up, to see the evidence proving I had gotten something wrong. “It is your responsibility, as a journalist, to research your subject matter thoroughly and accurately,” Reboot’s lawyer wrote.
Whether what Baler does is legal or not is a tricky question to answer. As far as I know, neither Baler nor any of his various corporate endeavors have been investigated by any federal or state authorities. But experts on consumer protection law I asked to review Reboot’s practices threw up a number of very serious red flags.
Affiliate marketing makes up roughly a tenth of the American online advertising sales on one calculation, but for a long time it skated under the FTC’s radar. Crain’s New York called affiliate marketing a “shadowy” advertising sector that’s “been tarred by scams,” including one where “consumers who downloaded seemingly free ringtones later got hit with charges on their mobile-phone bills.”
In recent years, the Feds have gotten wise. They targeted their biggest stings at weight loss marketers; you know the ones. “Eat Acai berries and look like Kate Upton in 30 days,” or whatever. These companies had a number of different problems, but two of the biggest ones were 1) lying about what their product did and 2) misleading customers into thinking there was scientific support for those false claims. Lying to your customers is, in short, a no-no.
You might then wonder whether selling Food4Patriots by warning National Review readers about “FEMA camps” is against the law. David Vladeck, the former FTC consumer protection chief, drew a distinction between predictions and claims of fact. Saying that there were already FEMA camps rounding up patriotic Americans would probably break the law, but merely predicting (as Food4Patriots does) that the camps were an inevitable part of the coming cataclysm is not something the FTC could disprove.
I asked him whether the email’s claim that “FEMA recently ordered 420 million survival meals” was different. “The basic rule of advertising law is if you’re going to make claims that are designed to directly influence purchasing behavior, that are claims that purport to be claims of fact, those claims have to be accurate.” he said. “Advertisers can’t just make stuff up.”
And indeed, Food4Patriots likely made it up. The 420 million meals claim isn’t sourced in the National Review email, but I tracked it back to a 2011 posting in something called the Off The Grid newsletter. Off The Grid’s piece, importantly, does not claim that FEMA ordered 420 million dehydrated meals. Instead, it reports that FEMA put in a Request for Proposal — a solicitation for bids from private companies, not a formal order — for a ten day supply of 14 million prepared meals. Assume that’s three meals a day, and the math leads you to 420 million meals.
There’s a slight problem: the request was never filled. Federal Business Office archives show that the original request for the amount Off The Grid reported, designed to anticipate a disaster on the New Madrid Fault Line, was “cancelled in its entirety effective as of 4 pm Eastern Time on January 27, 2011.”
And FEMA officials say there’s nothing more recent that could substantiate Food4Patriots’ claims about food hoarding. “Throughout the year, FEMA routinely purchases materials and stockpiles warehouses throughout the country in anticipation of disasters and to have supplies pre-positioned throughout the United States,” I was told. “There is no specific threat, catalyst or alert within FEMA to purchase additional supplies. No unusual or inordinate purchases are being made.”
Food4Patriots made an almost certainly false claim and failed to source it. “I think if you just apply the literal terms of the Federal Trade Commission Act, and our substantiation doctrine,” Vladeck said after hearing a description of Food4Patriots’ claims, “there’s good reason to think the company may not be in compliance.”
But what about Power4Patriots? There the problem is less about factual claims about FEMA, and more about factual claims about the product. According to every independent scientific expert I spoke to, the claims in Reboot’s advertising — build your own solar panels and save “up to 75 percent” — weren’t just implausible. They were impossible.
“This sounds pretty preposterous, but more on the technical side than the economic,” Catherine Wolfram, a professor at UC-Berkeley’s business school who focuses on renewable energy markets. “If the product really replaced your electricity consumption, it could save you 75 percent, but I am suspicious that you could actually go off the grid.”
You can’t, at least by following Power4Patriots’ advice. Allison Bailes, a former physics professor who now runs his own home energy company, reviewed Power4Patriots’ claims at my request (he had recently penned a takedown of a suspiciously similar system called Power Freedom). I asked Bailes if there was “any way” a guide book could tell you how to “[build] your own super-efficient 70-watt solar panels” and save up to 75 percent on your energy costs in the process.
“No. Absolutely not,” he said.
Here’s the basic problem. “Solar technology relies on semiconductors,” Bailes explains, which can only be built reliably in hyper-clean environments. “There’s just no way to do this in a home.”
Now, it is possible to put together your own solar panels from pre-built photovoltaic parts. But that can’t be done cost-effectively. “The semi-conductor photovoltaic materials would be expensive in themselves,” Bailes said. “If you have more money than time, you could do it,” but he couldn’t imagine “how it could be less expensive than buying modules already assembled.” Moreover, he explained, the glut of cheap Chinese solar panels means buying parts in the United States would be highly unlikely to save you money on a home energy system relative to purchasing pre-fabricated Chinese panels. For more technical details, Bailes recommended a stern review of Power4Patriots by Chris Kaiser, an engineer who debunks “energy ‘snake oil’ salespeople” for a living.
So, according to independent experts, Power4Patriots won’t teach you how to save “up to 75 percent” at “a fraction of the cost of pre-fabricated panels.” Past FTC cases against “energy-efficient” window manufacturers have established that “if you’re saying an up-to claim, you can’t put the highest possible number,” according to Maura Marcheski, an associate at top advertising law firm Venable LLP. And even if they took the “up to 75 percent” bit out of the pitch, Marcheski believes Reboot “would still need a reasonable basis” (really, some kind of scientific study) if they wanted to legally claim that their product could help you cut energy costs.
And then there’s the issue of “Frank Bates.” Vladeck wasn’t sure if inventing Frank Bates would rise to the FTC actionable level. “I think that depends on the advertising claims made on behalf of this non-person,” he hedged. The reason is that companies use fake characters to sell stuff all the time. Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, Colonel Sanders — Vladeck rattled off a list of them.
“I think that’s a fairly standard advertising technique,” he said. “There’s just a long tradition…unless there’s something unique about the way this fiction is being perpetrated.”
There might be. Frank Bates isn’t just a pitch person; his word is being used as evidence that Reboot’s products work. In advertising, that’s called a “testimonial” — the use of someone’s personal experience with a product to persuade customers of its worth. Testimonials have a special status in FTC compliance law because they involve factual claims about how the product has worked when people actually use it.
“If they’re presenting it as a testmonial, and the testimonialist doesn’t exist,” Marcheski said, “that would be a violation of the testimonial endorsement guides, that would be an unfair practice under section 5″ of the FTC Act.
The basic difference between a fictional pitch person and a false testimonial, according to Marcheski, is that there’s element of trickery — telling someone that they know firsthand a product works when they don’t — intentionally designed to mislead the consumer. That may be the difference between Frank Bates and Colonel Sanders. “Nobody looks at the Snuggle Bear or Aunt Jemima as a real person selling the product,” she says. “The trouble with testimonials using ‘real people’ is that, first of all, there’s all this research saying they’re really compelling…when you’re putting forth a spokesperson who looks just like you or me, and he or she is saying something worked well for them, that’s going to have a different effect on the consumer than a cartoon bottle of syrup.”
This may just be tip of the shady Reboot iceberg. Marcheski told me that when the FTC finds one problematic marketing practice, they generally uncover a whole bunch of them. Some concerns about Reboot may be more serious, like allegations of hidden fees. A number of 4Patriots users have complained about product quality and/or shady billing to the Better Business Bureau, crowdsourced scam protection sites, and even specialized survivalist forums.
Other Reboot practices legal experts raised questions about were more minor. Passing off four different pieces of technology as “unique devices” that would slash home energy costs in advertising copy when they sell no such thing, for instance. Or Allen Baler posing as a customer on YouTube to hype his company (“I’ve seen Power4Patriots on Glenn Beck’s website and was wondering if it was good. Gonna check it out now.”) Or putting countdown timers on the site warning of expiring discounts or time windows in which to order that don’t actually do anything when they click down to zero.
Again, Allen Baler, Reboot Marketing, and the 4Patriots empire deny all of this. And they haven’t, as far as I know, been investigated by the FTC. But my guess is they wouldn’t want to be.
One Man’s Movement Is Another Man’s Hustle
In the past six months, Reboot Marketing has added two new franchises, Water4Patriots and the Patriot Alliance. Water4Patriots hasn’t really been launched; at the moment, it’s just a carbon copy of the other 4Patriots sites with the name changed.
But the Patriot Alliance is more fleshed out, and in an important way different from the products that came before it. Baler isn’t selling a tangible thing anymore; he’s selling a “revolution,” one aimed at “helping millions of Americans reclaim their rights and freedoms that have been taken away by an out of control power-hungry, money-grubbing government.”
He has, in other words, succeeded in quite literally turning conservatism into a sales pitch — blurring the line between rackets like Food4Patriots and the conservative movement altogether.
Not that the line had been so bright before. In a piece for The Baffler titled “The Long Con,” historian Rick Perlstein traced the abuse of conservative rhetoric for profit back to one of the modern conservative movement’s founding fathers, Richard Viguerie. Viguerie pioneered the cultivation of direct mailing lists to distribute conservative pamphlets in favor of one conservative cause or another. But the groups Viguerie promoted saw about 10 to 15 percent of the profits; Viguerie pocketed the other 85 or 90 for “operating costs.”
“In one too-perfect example,” Perlstein writes, “Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia — who paid $889,255 for the service.”
CREDIT: Reboot Marketing
Nowadays, the scam has metastasized. Companies looking to make an easy buck realized that the conservative media cater to a huge, relatively homogenous demographic — the easiest kind of group to market to. The most famous and classically scammy of these is Glenn Beck’s symbiotic relationship with Goldline, a company that duped old people into buying absurdly marked-up coins. Goldline was last seen paying out $4.5 million after its base city of Santa Monica filed the obvious lawsuit. But there are plenty of other examples, often peddled by major figures through the same Newsmax list that convinced Baler to move into the conservative “niche” in the first place.
The interesting innovation in Reboot’s Patriot Alliance is that they’re not selling a product wrapped in ideological garb; they’re selling ideology itself. “I’ve never been so passionate about anything in my life,” the Bates character promises, pitching what’s essentially a conservative newsletter with scattered survivalist tips. Judging from the writing in the letter, it seems like Baler has struck gold again. “Bates'” fearmongering about Obama’s America is nearly indistinguishable from some of the red meat that frequently appears in the respectable kind of conservative outlet.
What Allen Baler has done is expose the danger tolerating his ilk poses for the conservative movement. The more mainstream the hucksters are allowed to become, the greater the financial temptation there will be for mainstream people to imitate the hucksters. It’s something conservative leader Bill Kristol has fretted over in print, worrying that “major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary.”
National Review’s response to Food4Patriots’ exposure suggests there’s some hope that Kristol isn’t dreaming. “National Review takes all complaints seriously,” Jack Fowler, the magazine’s publisher, told me. “This is the first complaint I have received concerning this advertiser. The claim is being investigated and we will not accept this ad again until we have concluded such.”
Adam Peck contributed graphics to this piece.