MLMs, or multi-level marketing, was always something I was vaguely aware of yet didn’t think much about. Growing up in the UK, I knew a few people who sold Avon cosmetics, but they were mostly students simply trying to earn a little extra pocket money. Today, after witnessing the rise of the MLM movement online and its inevitable backlash, I’ve begun to realise just how harmful these simple student jobs really are, especially for women.
What is multi-level marketing?
Multi-level marketing, also known as direct marketing, is the practice of selling a product or service not by traditional means in a shop but directly through an independent vendor. On the surface there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this — the company gets to sell products, the vendors earn a little commission from their sales, and consumers get the products they want. This is probably why MLMs are insanely popular, particularly in their homeland USA where over 20 million people are involved in one — That’s about 1 in 16 people in the entire USA — and the industry is worth $36.12 billion every year. So, they must be doing something right, right?
To women, this type of job seems highly attractive. They can live the dream of managing a successful company while still spending plenty of time with their children and having free time of their own. They can take their kids to Disneyworld, help other women live healthier or look better, and embody the image of the successful businesswoman. It’s everything that feminists have ever wanted.
The truth about MLMs
The truth is far darker and more depressing. While some people still join MLMs only to pay for their textbooks or as a side hustle, more and more are hoping to gain a full-time income from it, and even hope to turn their little business into an ‘empire’.
Oversaturated markets, overpriced products, and shady sales tactics mean that the majority of direct sellers lose money — nearly 99 percent of them in fact. Statistically, you are more likely to profit from gambling in Las Vegas.
For those involved with MLM companies, selling the product only makes up a small percentage of their profits. The majority comes from recruiting other people into an ‘upline’ and encouraging them to sell products on their behalf. The dream life described above is used as the selling point to convince more people to sign up.
In case you’re wondering if that sounds like a pyramid scheme, that’s because it is. That 36 billion a year isn’t helping independent businesses or supporting families like sellers claim. It is going straight into the pockets of the rich company owners, the majority of which are male.
What does this mean for women?
While MLM companies will target any vulnerable people, such as students, the poor, undocumented immigrants, or the uneducated, their primary targets are still women, mostly new or single mothers worried about childcare costs or military wives who can’t find jobs on military bases. While there does seem to be an MLM for everything from books to financial services, most of the more prominent MLMs are for traditionally feminine products or those which are marketed mostly towards women such as clothing, cosmetics, or makeup.
Technically there’s nothing wrong with women selling products for other women. Even I do it to some extent by writing romance novels. The trouble is that it implies that women can only make money by selling ‘girly’ things like face cream and bath bombs, or that these are the only products that women will purchase. It doesn’t take into account that some women like traditionally feminine things and others don’t, while most like myself are somewhere in the middle.
The Boss Babe life
The main issue which I and many other people have with these companies is that they claim to be supporting female entrepreneurs and feminism, calling themselves ‘Boss Babes’ and ‘Momtrepreneurs’. They make outrageous claims such as 80 percent of women who earn over 6 figures a year are doing so through direct marketing. Posting an image on Instagram bragging about how they paid for their children’s dentist visit with their MLM ‘business’ implies that it is out of the ordinary for women to be earning their own money or that it is a rare achievement in itself. It almost feels as if feminism has taken a step backwards.
The very same business model which claims to be supporting feminism is in fact working against it. The lifestyle and image that sellers are creating for themselves isn’t of the powerful Momboss but of a sad, desperate women shilling snake oil to their disinterested Facebook friends. It’s gotten to the point that whenever I see a woman on social media with the job title ‘entrepreneur’, even I need to double check first that she’s not selling an MLM product. Yet I don’t do the same for a male entrepreneur, which is highly depressing.
The methods which the Boss Babes use to sell their products are also incredibly outdated and unknowingly sexist. Sellers of Lularoe, an infamous MLM selling ugly leggings which no women in her right mind would want to wear (the company was recently sued by their supplier and is now on the brink of collapse) frequently make jokes about hiding how much they’ve spent on their fugly leggings from their husbands. This is encouraging the image of women angering their husbands with how much they spend on clothes, an outdated stereotype which should have died out by now.
I do understand why so many mothers fall victim to MLMs out of desperation and increased childcare costs, and because our culture does still expect women to be the primary caregivers, even in 2019. This is likely why so many Boss Babes try to guilt other mothers into joining them by implying that not being around their children 24/7 makes them a bad mother. What they failing to tell them that is that being a distributor means spending almost all of their day ‘marketing’ on social media instead of spending time with their children.
How women can really support each other
The growing number of people joining MLMs may seem depressing, yet the rise of the ‘Anti MLM’ movement also shows that more and more people are becoming aware of the dangers and spreading information to keep people away from them.
If someone you know has drunk the MLM Kool-Aid, it is difficult to get them out again due the eerily cult like culture which the companies create. Yet even this is understandable. Nobody likes hearing that they have failed or made a mistake, especially one so costly. Vice has a useful article about getting a friend out of an MLM.
Otherwise, the best way to undercut the MLMs is to beat them at their own game. The only reason why they have become so prominent in recent years is that social media has made it so easy for them to spread their ‘message’. So, use social media to support genuine women owned businesses and spread information about the dangers of joining MLMs. Share inspirational stories of female entrepreneurs. Send job posts or legitimate work from home jobs to those who are out of work or struggling for money. Share information about affordable childcare or healthcare. Even posting funny videos or anecdotes about Boss Babes will spread the word further. Here’s a useful list to get you started:
· Netflix documentary ‘Betting on Zero’
· John Oliver’s MLM episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’.
· r/antimlm subreddit.
Sorrow TV’s Anti-MLM videos