An editorial cartoon in the Brigham Young University student newspaper depicting a Provo-based firm as an illegal pyramid scam ignited a word war between the company and university students and faculty.
An April 3 edition of The Daily Universe featured a cartoon showing Nu Skin International's logo and name on the side of a pyramid. Written below the pyramid was "Brand Nu-Skin, Same Ol' Scheme."The cartoon came on the heels of an announcement by Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley who said he intends to pursue legal action against Nu Skin for selling business opportunities without being registered with the state. He also accused the company of running a pyramid scheme.
The Better Business Bureau of Utah describes Nu Skin as a multilevel marketing company. It has thousands of independent distributors of its personal-care products nationwide. Nu Skin employs more than 1,000 BYU students in Provo.
The student newspaper ran a two-line apology one day later stating the cartoon "implied that Provo-based Nu Skin was involved in illegal activity. The Daily Universe regrets the implication."
Trent Ricks, editorial page editor, said the apology was written after "bullying" telephone calls from Nu Skin calling the cartoon libelous and threatening a lawsuit. Ricks said the newspaper also got calls from BYU graduates working for Nu Skin who said they would no longer make monetary contributions to the university.
Ricks admitted making a mistake in printing the cartoon.
The newspaper subsequently received several letters from Nu Skin officials, including one published Monday from Scott E. Schwerdt, director of distributor services, saying, "I will now hire graduates from schools other than BYU." He also warned students to "not consider my actions an idle threat."
That touched off a barrage of biting letters from angry BYU students and a public-relations instructor, who criticized Schwerdt for overreacting. Letters also warned Schwerdt that he had opened himself up for possible discrimination lawsuits.
Schwerdt, a BYU alumnus, retracted his statements in an apology letter Wednesday.
One Nu Skin official condemned the student newspaper for running the cartoon.
"One might think the cartoon clever, but `pyramid scheme' is not a phrase one utters lightly," wrote Gregory J. Newell, Nu Skin managing director. He said that implies the company is engaged in criminal conduct. Nevertheless, "I can believe the student cartoonist simply did not understand the significance of the words he was playing on," Newell said.
Ricks said editors at the newspaper thought the cartoon was "funny" and "made a point about an issue."
"We knew that we'd ruffle some feathers," he said. The implication that Nu Skin is doing something illegal was a "little strong," Ricks says now.
Both parties now consider the controversy dead.
Nu Skin does not plan to pursue legal action. "We're not doing anything else, but probably looking back at it and smiling," said Jason Chaffetz, a Nu Skin spokesman and BYU graduate.
Ricks said student journalists learned some good lessons but "I doubt it's spoiled anybody's stomach for journalism or anything."