I am sometimes asked why I am so strongly opposed to the MLM
(multi-level marketing) industry. As they usually say, there’s a million problems in the world, why focus on MLM? Why devote space on your blog to MLM?
This often comes from well-meaning people who focus on what they consider to be far more pressing issues affecting our country and the world: racism, domestic violence, food insecurity, climate change, among other issues. Definitely all things worth fighting, and causes I support.
The reason I fight MLM, or network-marketing, is not just because it’s harmful, but because it’s also very misunderstood. Misunderstood to the point that many people mistakenly think of some MLM companies as philanthropic endeavors because they sometimes champion good causes. However, because these companies operate in a highly unethical fashion they make terrible allies.
By spreading awareness of the predatory nature of MLM companies, we in the anti-MLM movement can help strengthen good causes by helping them steer clear of these exploitative companies.
I think it may help to know my backstory, to understand the road I’ve traveled that led me to the anti-MLM movement. Before the anti-MLM movement came along, there was little online information to warn people about this pernicious industry. Sure, a few anti-MLM sites(mostly focused on Amway) existed, but there was little cooperation, they didn’t update very often, and they seldom went into detail about the psychological manipulation these cult-like companies use. It was the Dark Ages, where MLM reigned supreme because there was little to oppose them.
It usually took getting victimized by an MLM company or witnessing a friend or relative getting victimized to learn what MLM was all about. Or at least attending one of their presentations. This is where Primerica comes in.
Over 15 years ago, an acquaintance tricked me into attending a Primerica presentation in this office building in my neighborhood. I really had little idea what Primerica was all about before going there; vaguely I thought it was financial services.
So as I sat through the presentation, about all the amazing money-making opportunities Primerica offers, my internal BS-meter started to go off. Recruit X number of people and you rise to this level and make all this money, and then those people you recruited recruit people, and those people recruit people, and it goes on and on, sounding too good to be true. I had already sat through presentations for both Amway and Cutco years before this and the spiel was very similar. I almost got up and left but my fascination was stronger than my desire to leave; I also struggled to remember what this kind of business strategy is called.
I had a barely rudimentary understanding of multi-level marketing at the time, or whatever they call it, but it was obvious that’s what I was dealing with here. I understood that it was a scam or at least a very risky undertaking and was best avoided. I still vividly remember those big fake smiles from the representatives.
As soon as I got home, I went to my computer and in a frenzy started to do a lot of online research as well as research at the library. For a while there, I was obsessed. Very few anti-MLM or scam-buster sites existed at the time; blogging was in its infancy, and social media hardly existed(remember this was over 15 years ago). I found little information on Primerica, but just enough to have my suspicions confirmed. It seemed over 90% of anti-MLM information concerned Amway, the granddaddy of all MLMs. Again, this was the Dark Ages.
At the time, by far the best place to get a thorough education on how MLMs operate were skeptical messages boards, which I was already a regular visitor of. These sites were also devoted to debunking UFO sightings, quackery, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. Some message boards on skeptic sites had very long, lively discussions going on between anti-MLMers and MLM defenders, often involving lots of juicy insults by both sides. I occasionally participated, and tried my best to behave. Usually discussions revolved around Amway but sometimes other MLMs were discussed.
I started to notice how MLM defenders refused to answer certain questions, and would frequently engage in extreme mental acrobatics and torturing of the English language to explain away the obvious problems with MLM and that pesky 99% failure rate.
The two most important things I learned from these early discussions was:
- The physical products of MLM companies are just a facade; the real product is the “amazing” opportunity.
- MLMs are pyramid schemes which lobby government at all levels to buy themselves protection, and use all sorts of other deceptive strategies to give the illusion of legality.
With this new knowledge I was never tricked into another MLM meeting again. I could smell an MLM from 20 miles away. As far as Primerica is concerned, I started to realize my old neighborhood was Primerica occupied territory. Everywhere I looked nothing but Primerica! Primerica stickers plastered on everything, Primerica fliers, and even tree-plantings would say “thanks to Primerica”.
So I did whatever I could to warn everyone in my circle about this company. Sometimes they tried to recruit my friends. A lot of people already knew it was a scam, but some other people either did not know or were on the fence. Because of the tree-plantings, and contributions to schools and anti-drug programs, many thought of Primerica as a very generous, charitable corporation. I sometimes heard horror stories from people who were victimized by this company or other MLMs. Like I said, information critical of MLM and Primerica in particular was scarce at the time. Nowadays it’s easy to find out what it’s all about. According to Wikipedia:
In 2012, Primerica was the target of multiple lawsuits alleging that the company’s representatives sought to profit by earning commissions after convincing Florida firefighters, teachers and other public workers to divest from safe government-secured retirement investments to inappropriate high-risk retirement products offered by Primerica. In January 2014, the company set aside $15.4 million to settle allegations involving 238 cases
Primerica, which made $350.26 million net income in 2017 is a spin-off of Citigroup, which was sued years ago for being connected to Madoff, the biggest ponzi schemer in history: Citi tried to hand off Madoff exposure: lawsuit
After getting my basic education in MLM thanks to my rather brief Primerica experience, and my compulsion to learn everything I could about Primerica and MLM, I moved on and MLM started to fall by the wayside, for the most part. Sure I would still occasionally run into the Primerica reps, but more often I was running into annoying Herbalife reps both in person and online, and they were cut from the same cloth as Primerica and Amway reps. They all had the same big fake smiles. To get them off my back I would lie and say I was very interested in going to their presentation, but then I would fail to show up. I still remember the angry emails and voice messages.
Due to so many things going on in my life, as well as all my running and joggling, and getting increasingly involved with vegan groups, fighting MLM wasn’t exactly a priority. But then a few years ago I started noticing something disturbing on social media — there were vegans pushing MLM! Just as Primerica had invaded my neighborhood years before this, MLM was invading my space, my pristine little corner of the vegan movement. And if you know anything about me, you know how little tolerance I have for people pushing BS on me, vegan or not. It was sad seeing some vegan MLM reps with hundreds or even thousands of followers trying to victimize them, using every trick in the book to lure them in.
This was completely unacceptable. A movement dedicated to ethical-living getting infiltrated by charlatans, and almost no one was pushing back. All these con-artists had to do was say they were “vegan” and their products were “cruelty-free”, and many vegans saw them as friends or their “business” as legit. This is exactly what I meant when I said before that MLM is very misunderstood. Read my post from last year, “Veganism and multi-level marketing” for a more detailed look at this problem.
Besides pushing back, warning others and blocking the annoying MLM pushers on social media who were friends of friends, I started doing a lot of research again on MLM. This time, compared to 15 years ago, there was a lot more info on many of these scams, and a nascent anti-MLM movement was starting to take shape. The Dark Ages were finally over!
Ethan Vanderbuilt’s site was and still is one of the most important anti-MLM/scam-busting sites, and we in the anti-MLM movement owe a lot to his pioneering work. I frequently used his site to learn about the myriad MLM companies I was encountering, and still do.
Just when I thought my MLM education was complete, thanks to Amway, Primerica, then Ethan, I discovered the saga of Elle Beau, a former Younique rep. Before reading Elle’s story, I knew the mechanics of how MLM worked, but I didn’t understand the psychological manipulation of MLM that well. This was a real eye-opener for me, and many other people. The same big, fake smiles in Elle’s story and so many other stories were the same big fake smiles I remember from the Primerica bozos.
I started to realize that MLM wasn’t just a scam, it’s a cult. In fact, when a person joins an MLM, they’re joining a toxic sub-culture of deception, greed, and pseudoscience. And of course extreme tackiness. Pretty much all MLMs use the same psychological manipulation techniques which includes attraction marketing, “love-bombing”, and mind-set coaching, which usually means doing all you can to think positive and distancing yourself from people who are “negative”(this is why there’s something of a symbiotic relationship between the MLM world and the self-help industry).
Shortly after this the anti-MLM coalition site was founded, which now has a central place in the growing anti-MLM movement. Unlike many earlier anti-MLM sites and blogs, the anti-MLM coalition is proactive, collaborative, and is not narrowly focused on just one MLM.
Thanks to the anti-MLM coalition, its never been easier to find out about the latest(or even some of the older) MLM scams that seek to separate people from their money. A very bright light is being shined on every nook and cranny of this corrupt industry and they don’t like it. Even journalists have taken notice of the push-back against MLM.
I’ve come a long way from that seedy Primerica presentation. My education may never be complete, but the anti-MLM coalition and Elle Beau have been invaluable for enlightening me and countless others about this scourge of social media. While we may not drive this entire industry out of business, it’s good to know we are making a difference by educating others before they fall into the financial black hole that is MLM.