The Rise and Fall of the Narconon Internet Marketing Empire (Part 5)

If you missed the earlier segments of this series, see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4.

Anonymous Takes Notice of Scientology and Narconon
In 2008, an informal group called “Anonymous” hit the scene and began focusing their efforts on Scientology and later Narconon. Whereas Narconon used to be relatively immune to any accountability at a local level, they were now “local at a national level” with the internet. In other words, with the internet, everything is local. In the past, most people were either afraid to speak up, or unaware that they could publicly state their negative experiences about Narconon. Anonymous gave many people the strength and courage to stand up and speak.

Although there was some critical information about Narconon on the web from a handful of independent outspoken voices, beginning in 2008 it really took off. Now, families that were otherwise sold on the Narconon program occasionally did some research and found negative information. Part of the training of a Narconon registrar and FSM became how to “debug” or “handle” black PR (the term Narconon and Scientology use to refer to negative information). In the beginning, they were somewhat successful, denying any connections to Scientology and dismissing black PR as coming from disgruntled former addicts who were kicked out of the program. However, with the internet everything is permanent. And the Black PR began to pile up.

The closing ratio of a good Narconon registrar commonly went from 1:40 to 1:80. Closing ratio of a bad registrar? 1:100? 1:200? Which, essentially, doubled, tripled or quadrupled the time, energy and effort it used to take to bring clients in. More? The sky’s the limit now. The easy days were over.

Statistics dropped, due to Black PR. Gross Income decreased. Narconons that were opening everywhere began to give way to Narconons that were closing. Around this time, Narconon pursued and succeeded in acquiring certifications through CARF. Later they learned how to claim insurance benefits for their program. In addition, they began exploring how to access quick credit cards and high interest rate financing schemes for families to pay for treatment. In some cases, registrars were told to artificially inflate the salaries of people who needed financing on credit applications. In other reports, registrars even took out credit cards in the family’s name, unbeknownst to them.  These financial strategies offset some of the income lost due to blows and Black PR.

In addition to negatively affecting the reputation of Narconon, what Anonymous did for clients who felt they were fraudulently sold the Narconon program was to give them one of the greatest gifts… a voice to hold Narconon accountable. Prior to 2008, Narconon’s attitude toward refunds, whether a client stayed for 1 day or 30 days before blowing, was basically “too bad, read your service agreement”. Every client that attended Narconon signed a no-refund policy. If they were leaving after a few days because they discovered it was Scientology, it didn’t matter. They were out the money. The new voices on the internet, which included Narconon Exposed, Ripoff Report, Reaching For the Tipping Point, Tony Ortega, and a slew of others, now gave people who felt they were defrauded the information they needed to gain refunds in many cases. Not all… but more than before.

After 2008, the blow rate of students who left before completing the program increased. In some cases, after asking their family to research Narconon, clients would “blow” (leave without permission or authorization) during their first realizations about Scientology… and in other cases, they simply never even arrived. Students could now call home and say, “Mom, check the internet and see where you sent me.” Many families who were sold a secular program found that they unknowingly sent their loved one to a Scientology-based treatment center. In the past, Narconon could just say that the student was a lying drug addict trying to come up with excuses to leave. Now, the internet said otherwise and often corroborated the complaints these students had. So more and more students left.

And with the increase in departures, more and more Narconons eventually caved to high-pressure by families who demanded refunds. A disgruntled family who felt ripped off and asked for a refund could now just imply that they would go on the internet, fill out a Ripoff Report, contact their attorneys and reach out to news agencies. Since Narconons were now being held more accountable, they caved to some persistent family members and actually gave them a refund, usually in return for a nondisclosure agreement stating that they wouldn’t complain on the internet.

During this period, many Narconons informed their small band of FSMs that continued to refer to Narconon that if a student blew and was given back a refund, the FSM had to reimburse Narconon for the commission that they were paid. Many an FSM was hit with an invoice or bill for thousands of dollars to be paid to Narconon because of these blows. The few who remained part of the FSM network became frustrated and leery of referring to Narconon for fear of having to pay the money back months later.  Still others discovered that referring to Narconon meant a 50% chance that the client would find negative information on the internet.  So many FSMs began to branch out to other treatment programs, no longer limiting themselves to Narconon.  Narconon attempted to persuade some of these FSMs by claiming that they felt it was unethical for someone to refer a client to anywhere but Narconon.  However, they also needed the referrals from the ever decreasing pool of FSMs, so they were careful about attempts to push too hard. 

Recently, several things have occurred that have almost completely devastated the Narconon network.

  • Narconon deaths
  • A Class Action and other Lawsuits
  • Ripoff Report complaints
  • Informational sites such as Narconon Exposed, Tony Ortega, Reaching for the Tipping Point, and many others
  • Former high level Narconon staff becoming whistle-blowers
  • Negative Scientology news
  • Rock Center news reports
  • Reports of Credit Card Fraud and Insurance Fraud
  • Google algorithm updates

Ironically, until 2010, complaints about Narconon actually helped Narconon a small bit. Because of a loophole in a Google algorithm, a lot of complaint websites didn’t rank very well, but actually counted as a legitimate link back to the website someone was complaining about. In other words, if you criticized Narconon and included a link to their site, it actually improved the ranking of the Narconon site. In 2010, Google implemented a fix for this and, sites such as Ripoff Report and others often no longer pass positive rank to the sites that are criticized.

Narconon’s response toward black PR has been an interesting case study — changing the names of their individual facilities each time the negative internet information becomes too bad; focusing more energy on 3rd party FSM referral sites; removing references to L. Ron Hubbard; and even some off-brand, Scientology-based centers not using the Narconon name have been witnessed.

Things were beginning to look bad for Narconon…

And then a Penguin and a Panda showed up and really threw things for a loop.

Read Part 6 of
The Rise and Fall of the Narconon Internet Marketing Empire.