Image courtesy of Strange Pantheon

MLMs and Women: The Trap That Keeps on Trapping

You’ve probably heard of Arbonne, the all-natural, sustainable online cosmetics line. If you haven’t, then you must not have a friend who’s an Arbonne rep.

On paper, everything about Arbonne sounds great. They are transparent about their ethics, ingredients, and cruelty-free philosophies. Their products are pricier than drugstore brands, but equivalent to anything you’d expect to find at an upscale skincare retailer. And considering their sustainability and good-for-you ingredients, the price seems totally worth it.

When a woman I vaguely know — “acquaintance” is even pushing it — asked if I was interested in joining a quick call to learn more about Arbonne, I was skeptical. I did not know what Arbonne was at this point, but anytime someone I hardly know reaches out to me to try to “change my life” (looking at you, Beachbody trainer I had one college class with), I am immediately adverse to the idea. However, after I initially said I wasn’t sure I had time for the call, the Arbonne rep (let’s call her Tracy) assured me that she’d send a “thank you gift” when it was over. No pressure to buy, just a nice gift for listening with an open mind.

And okay. I’m a freelancer who does love her quality makeup and skincare products. A few minutes of my time for some free goodies?

I conceded, assuming after taking the call and receiving my freebies, I’d politely decline to buy any of the products when prompted, and that would be the end of it. How wildly I underestimated the determination (and possible desperation) of an Arbonne rep.

A day or so after accepting Tracy’s offer I tuned in to the National Vice President of Arbonne, April Welsh, speaking to about fifteen other women on Google Hangouts. On these calls, April tries to sell the participants on starting a career with Arbonne. April is fit and blonde and beautiful and says “you guys” a lot to let us know that despite her success, she’s still just one of us. She gives a pitch mostly in the form of her life story, telling you all about how miserable and devoid of meaning she felt until she found Arbonne, and now look at her living the dream with the big California house and white Mercedes (an actual Arbonne perk if you reach a certain level with the company), husband and kids. She casually flashes around her impressive wedding ring just enough to make sure you see it. The speech is meant to inspire listeners to realize the potential that our own lives could reach should we too capitalize on the magic of Arbonne. Which, okay, honestly good for her. If she’s found happiness working for this company, who am I to judge? I did instantly know that a career with Arbonne wasn’t for me. First of all, having to try to sell anything to everyone I know sounds exhausting and awkward, no matter how much I might believe in the product. My mom was a jewelry rep for Silpada for a few years when I was growing up, and though the required jewelry parties looked fun (and had tons of snacks, yay snacks), she was never as fulfilled as her recruiter had promised. I imagined Arbonne would be a similar story: one that requires reps to buy a lot of expensive merchandise only to try to convince their communities to spend their money on it too. I could think of about a thousand ways I’d rather spend my (limited, mind you) resources.

Companies like Arbonne, Mary Kay, Stella & Dot, and Silpada are called MLM, or multi-level marketing companies that target unfulfilled women with the promise of a sense of purpose and a nice pile of dough if they work hard enough. MLM companies are often accused of being pyramid schemes, and they are literally built on a pyramid model. An MLM employee’s success comes from both selling products and recruiting other sales reps. There are the people at the top of the pyramid, then the reps they’ve hired, then the reps those reps have hired, and so on and so on with women like Tracy somewhere in the middle-bottom range.

Photo courtesy of Pinterest

My mom is a naturally driven, career-focused woman who stopped working when she had kids. As my sister and I became more independent, she needed something to fill her time, ideally something that required skill and had the potential for upward mobility. In came Silpada, with its enticing work-from-home business model and shiny rapid success stories. Many of Arbonne’s reps recount feeling stuck in the corporate, male-centric job world where they didn’t feel seen or valued as a woman. They stress the transformative powers of entrepreneurship and owning one’s own business (which is a stretch; re: MLM pyramid model). These companies also target the drive many women have to socialize and build supportive, lasting communities. This is a wonderful practice, in theory, if the communities aren’t built on manipulation and sales tactics.

There are some notoriously sketchy tactics used by MLM reps to get fresh faces on board. An Arbonne rep once reached out to a musician friend of mine with interest in using a song of her’s in a TV pilot the rep was working on, revealing nothing about any connection to Arbonne. She asked if my friend wanted to come over and talk with some other people about the production, though what my friend walked into was not a production team meeting but an Arbonne sales party, complete with a Powerpoint presentation and full of reps gushing about the richness of their lives thanks to the company. After my friend left the party notably miffed, the rep continued to reach out to her about joining the company, never again referencing her music or the TV pilot. My friend declined the proposition.

I told Tracy that this sort of career path was not for me. She assured me that no worries, she’d just send along a gift as a thanks for listening.

I received the admittedly sizeable gift — multiple samples with two full-sized products, and sent Tracy a thank you message, thinking that would be that. I’d never actually gone along with any of these setups before, so how was I to know?

Tracy then asked to call to talk about the products and which I’d liked best. Because I still felt like I owed her for the goods, we chatted on the phone and she told me about some Arbonne packages that were available with her exclusive code. She later emailed me information about the packages, and I let the email collect metaphorical dust in my inbox. Arbonne reps are nothing if not persistent, however, so she followed up, asking if any particular package appealed to me, and when I told her that I couldn’t afford the Arbonne products right now, she asked when to check back in with me. I told her I’d let her know when I had more money to spend on “the fun stuff.”

I didn’t end up getting back to her, but Tracy was not to be swayed. She has since sent another email and a Facebook message, and when I was as clear as I thought I could be about not intending to buy any of the products, sorry and good luck, she assured me that when I change my mind, she’ll be there to help me through the selection process.

Looking back, I don’t know how I expected to avoid this sort of pursuit. How would any MLM rep make money if all they did was direct you to a Google Hangout and then send you some free stuff? I made my bed, and I’ll lie in it with my miniature eye creams and face primers.

Arbonne was sued in June by Texas couple Cynthia and Michael Dagnell for operating as a pyramid scheme. The couple lost money to Arbonne after initially signing up as reps, claiming that only those executives at the top of the pyramid actually profit from the set-up. Technically, an MLM is safe from being classified as a pyramid scheme if it makes most of its money from sales instead of recruitments, and with Arbonne, the waters are quite murky.

Nine years after leaving Silpada, my mother makes more money selling her sample jewelry on e-bay than she did hosting rep parties. (Silpada sold out to Avon, one of the original female-targeted MLMs, for $65 million, as it happens.)

Whether or not these MLMs are legal, their recruitment tactics are certainly off-putting. By convincing women that they can finally claim autonomy over their income, MLMs entice them into joining a business system that only works for a lucky few. To gain that initial sales momentum, reps have to sell to their friends, family, and any naive acquaintance willing to open a Facebook message. If I have to be trapped, manipulated, or harassed into buying an expensive product or joining a company, I can’t imagine the benefits being all that worth it.

And at the end of the day? Free samples are great, but the Arbonne products were only okay. Nothing stood out in any way over the much cheaper, hassle free alternatives. (Even Whole Foods’ body products, if you want to use the “but Arbonne’s all natural” argument, smell and feel nicer for less money.)

Next time, I’ll decline that Google Hangout invite.