In August, New York Attorney General Erick Schneiderman filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald Trump for falsely promising as many as 5,000 students a successful real estate career if they enrolled in the unchartered, unlicensed Trump University. Schneiderman alleges that Trump engaged in “deceptive and unlawful practices,” including falsely representing the legitimacy of the school and false advertising in the newspaper and mail. People attended his one free class off those advertisements which led many of them into attending a $1495 three-day seminar, which enticed them into spending from $10,000 to $35,000 into higher-level Trump University programs. At the end, Schneiderman claims these experiences fell way short of teaching participants everything they needed to know about becoming billionaires. Several students are now mile high in debt, without jobs, and quite mad. According to the AG, dozens of attendees have complained to authorities all over the country about what they believed to be a scam.
Trump used his celebrity, personally appearing in commercials making false promises to convince #NY‘ers to pay for lessons they never got
— Eric Schneiderman (@AGSchneiderman) August 25, 2013
But was it really illegal? According to Trump, not everyone who participated in these opportunities is as disgruntled as Schneiderman asserts. Trump declares that more than 10,000 students praise the program and 98% of those students in a survey checked excellent to describe their experience. Further, Trump believes Schneiderman is using this suit as a publicity stunt for public office. “They meet on Thursday evening – I get sued by this AG Schneiderman… Saturday at one o’clock,” Trump said. “Think of it. What government in the history of this country has ever brought a suit on Saturday? I never heard of such a thing.”
He’s got a point on the lawsuit being filed on Saturday. It adds a strange element to an already strange matter.
Although there are many things Schneiderman alleges in the lawsuit, I find that this case really hinges on the motivation leading people to attend the classes. What were they hoping to gain? Were their expectations consistent with the marketing message?
How were they convinced? Schneiderman suggests it started with false advertisements. In New York, the test for false advertising is whether representations or omissions are “likely to mislead the reasonable consumer from acting reasonably under the circumstances.” Just for the record, this is pretty consistent with the Federal Trade Commissions definition of “false and misleading.” What was misleading? Some of the false advertisements Schneiderman alleges are:
- Trump claimed he could “turn anyone into a successful real estate investor” and that students would learn “a systematic method for investing in real estate that anyone could use effective” even though dozens of students were unable to finish one real estate transaction.
- Trump claimed he would “share [his] techniques, which took [his] entire career to develop” when the President of the University, Michael Sexton, could not describe any Donald Trump techniques taught at the university.
But really, was this misleading to the average American? When you’re watching a commercial where a bikini model vows that you’ll look just like her after a six week, $10 video series, do you buy it? Most of us don’t because we know it’s part of a sales pitch, mere puffery. And for those who do buy it, they know that it’s their hard work with the content that will bring them success. Of course a $10 investment is significantly less than a $35,000 one, but the principle remains. It’s ill-advised, in my opinion, to judge a program based on how customers leverage the content in their spare time. It’s a problem faced in the network marketing industry. Companies get routinely clobbered based on the low success rate of participants. But is that indicative of a bad program, bad product, bad culture…or could it simply be attributed to laziness? It’s hard to pin-point the root cause of failure.
A reasonable person understands that success takes effort…and lot’s of it. In this case, it was not unreasonable for a person to believe that Donald Trump and his trusted instructors could provide a foundation for real estate investing. It is completely unreasonable, however, for a person to believe that Trump could transform them into a real estate tycoon.
If you sell any kind of informational product, the odds of litigation go up. Consumers can always say “it’s crap, it never worked for me” and you’re unable to fall back on objective metrics like patents, science, etc. It’s one of the reasons why Amway tightened the screws on its tool systems several years ago. Since many consumers were complaining that the information was poorly crafted for their Amway businesses, Amway got more involved with quality-control.
Network marketing companies that sell informational products have it more difficult because the exposure is two-fold: consumers can say the information was ineffective AND they can say they bought the information JUST TO PARTICIPATE IN THE COMPENSATION PLAN. And the latter reason opens the door up for pyramid scheme allegations.
This lawsuit filed by New York is along the same vein as the lawsuits filed by disgruntled college graduates filed against their universities. They were sold a bill of goods, they graduated, they’re jobless. Who’s to blame? And actually, this lawsuit is of the lesser sort because it’s not the disgruntled consumers filing the lawsuit, it’s the government claiming to protect the little guy incapable of protecting him or herself.
This case will settle on the eve of trial. Contrary to what the AG is saying, it’s not about the consumers. I do think it’s really about PR for him and a little grand-standing. With that in mind, the AG will settle for a reduced amount, take the favorable PR, Trump will claim a moral victory and the parties will go their separate ways.
If you learned something new in this article, please share.
If you’re reading this via email, please click this link to download the lawsuit filed against Trump University.