Behind the Pink CurtainThe Soft Sell of Multilevel Marketing

This article was published in Broke Issue #82 | Spring 2019

From Avon and Mary Kay to friends selling leggings, herbal supplements and other products on social media, multilevel marketing companies have always attracted women who face challenges working outside of the home. In the first half of the 20th century, MLMs were presented as a way for these women to earn an income, and their gender balance remains skewed: Women throw 92 percent of in-home sales parties, according to the Direct Selling Association. Yet it remains unclear if these women ever earn income from MLMs. An October 2018 report by the AARP Foundation found that 47 percent of MLM sellers actually lose money, and while these companies shy away from being labeled pyramid schemes, the only way for members to make a profit is by recruiting new members.

So why are these companies still so popular? That’s the question at the center of the Little Everywhere and Stitcher podcast The Dream, which debuted in September 2018. Peabody and Emmy Award–winning audio journalist Jane Marie and her team of reporters trace MLMs from their origins in women’s beauty products to modern times, centering the experiences of women who have sacrificed material goods and personal relationships in pursuit of an elusive financial gain. Social media has allowed MLMs to reach a broader range of potential sellers, who in turn hawk products through their own online networks. 

Marie, who produced This American Life for almost 10 years, wanted to create a podcast about MLMs because of her own family’s connection to direct sales. Her background as a columnist at Cosmopolitan and The Toast, helped Marie learn “to be open and empathetic about all of the women that we profiled in the series. Whereas I think a lot of times people who are in MLMs or women who are trying to do this kind of work—it’s easy to make fun of them or to dismiss them as suckers.”

Many MLMs co-opt the language of empowerment, projecting an image of #girlboss without clarifying that members rarely make money. A lack of federal oversight allows these companies to flourish with little regulation, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and other presidents have supported MLMs, and The Dream dives into the current White House’s connections to direct sales, from Donald Trump’s endorsement of the American Communications Network (ACN) to his own marketing scheme, the Trump Network. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is married to one of Amway’s former CEOs, and her father-in-law is one of the company’s cofounders. In October 2018, Trump was sued for allegedly encouraging vulnerable people to invest in sham companies, so there’s no better time than now to speak with Marie about the gendered history of MLMs, how social media has changed their business models, and why there are more MLMs now than ever before.

How have MLMs evolved over time?

Early MLMs sold products, such as feminine hygiene and Black beauty products, that [weren’t available] in grocery or drug stores. [There] were also a lot of products that could be used in the home, like kitchenware and cleaning products. This was in the late 1800s or early 1900s, before the Food and Drug Administration was in everyone’s business and there weren’t big-box stores on every corner. After seeing the success of Madam C.J. Walker and other Black [women’s] beauty products, a lot of companies thought, “These ladies are sitting in their houses anyway, we could hire them to go to each other’s houses and sell shit.” Now there are MLMs for every type of product, including internet service and health insurance. It’s still heavily [targeted] toward more feminine products, but not exclusively.

How did your personal connection to MLMs shape the podcast?

My great-grandmother sold Avon, and I have family members who’ve [participated in] MLMs. The hard thing about this world is that people talk about it only in a positive and advertorial way, with motivational quotes on Facebook. It was good to [talk to] people who are more open about their successes and failures than the folks who say, “Fake it till you make it.” Research [has found that almost] everyone is faking it because no one really makes money.

 Journalist Jane Marie (Courtesy of Little Everywhere)

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How are MLMs marketed toward women?

A lot of people are writing us saying, “You need to go to Utah because MLMs are so big in the Mormon community, in Christian communities, and in military households.” Companies present themselves with, “Set your own hours. Be your own boss. You can have whatever life you want and run your own company on your terms.” But it really appeals to people who don’t have other options: folks who can’t work a nine-to-five because they have babies at home or a husband in Afghanistan, or are running their households [alone]. Who does that end up being most of the time? Women.

This language of empowerment—#girlboss and all that shit—sounds nice, but these people have limited options. Also, to join an MLM, all you need is a little bit of cash: a hundred bucks and you can be your own boss. You don’t have to have a high-school diploma or a college degree. They don’t even conduct criminal background checks. But it snowballs into a ton of expenses [because] these companies often don’t allow enough of a markup or [offer] commissions. At every level, they’re ripping you off. They’re not that far afield from The Power of Positive Thinking, Think and Grow Rich, The Secret, and “if you think it, you can do it” motivational movements. Those worlds are a Venn diagram.

What was it like joining the makeup MLM LimeLife for the podcast?

[Initially], LimeLife looked kind of legitimate. [Then], reporter MacKenzie Kassab went to a convention in San Francisco with 60 sellers. She thought it was a sales meeting [about] how to boost your business, but the convention had nothing to do with selling makeup. It ended up being group therapy with lots of crying. One lady was selling makeup to get her dad a headstone. We’ve been going back and forth with LimeLife’s “chief empowerment officer” because it was a horrible, depressing, and manipulative experience for Kassab. We’re having a hard time getting [Lime-Life] to respond on the record.

This language of empowerment—#girlboss and all that shit—sounds nice, but these people have limited options.

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How has social media changed MLMs?

It has changed them, but I don’t know if it’s translating into more money, because these companies don’t release any numbers. Social media has created more targets for companies to recruit. [Before] social media, you had to have a real-life social network to sell to. You could either go door-to-door or go to your aunts, cousins, best friends, or church. [Now, it’s] “I have all my former high-school classmates who have moved all over the country who I can sell to.” But I’m not actually sure it sells any more products [because] the recruitment fees, not the products, are the purpose [of MLMs].

Why are there more of these companies than ever before?

Zero regulation, zero oversight. In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission tried to crack down on a lot of these companies. Amway beat the FTC and established precedent for companies to frame what they’re doing as legitimate. Beating the ftc emboldened the industry, [and] since then the FTC has sort of thrown up its hands. MLMs are also huge internationally now; there are a lot of them in Mexico and Southeast Asia. With the internet, globalism, and neoliberalism spreading, the same things that make a housewife a good mark are also what make MLMs appeal to people in developing countries who are struggling to enter a capitalist world.

What connections have you found between the Trump White House and MLMs?

How many hours do you have? There was a recent New York Times article about [ACN paying Trump to endorse products]. His family has been involved in multiple MLMs. Ben Carson [endorsed nutritional-supplement company Mannatech]. Betsy DeVos [married into] the Amway family, and her father-in-law, Richard DeVos, became the finance chair of the Republican National Committee in the early 1980s. His partner in cofounding Amway, Jay Van Andel, was the head of the Chamber of Commerce in the [late ’70s and early ’80s]. It’s very intertwined. That “every man for himself” type of thinking—there’s money to be gotten, so go get it however you can and don’t worry about the little guy—is basically Washington, D.C., right now.

What do you hope listeners take away from The Dream?

There’s no way for the average person to make money. You won’t be better off [doing MLMs] than getting a regular minimum-wage job. In fact, you’ll lose nights and weekends and relationships because recruiting people can be devastating to families and friends. We fought for two and a half hours [with] the head of the Direct Selling Association, which is the big lobby. He said, “It’s not a job.” I said, “That’s so unfair because these companies put themselves out there as if they’re a viable career opportunity.” He said, “No. It’s just an activity,” which is legal doublespeak. The numbers show that you don’t make money unless you started the company.


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by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
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Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Columbia Journalism Review, In These Times, JSTOR Daily, Jewish Currents, and Paper Magazine, among others.