Vitamins, Leggings and Skincare, Oh My: On the Illusions of Multi-Level Marketing

Lizzie Woo
Aug 8, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo by Lost Co on Unsplash

I have a confession: a few months ago I began creeping the Facebook page of a girl I went to high school with.

She was not my friend. If fact, I never even hung out with her. She’d be challenged to pick me out from a crowd at gunpoint, I have no doubt, so the fact I went nosily snooping through her profile is an embarrassing admission on my part.

The thing is that I grew up in a small town, which made it impossible for someone like me (dorky, introverted) to not have some level of awareness of people like her (pretty, popular). Plus, she was the type that was hard to ignore, performing in the school choir, competing in the local pageant, waving from the backseat of a flashy convertible during our town’s annual summer parade, tiara glinting in the sunlight.

I don’t make it a regular habit to hunt out the people I went to school with on social media, for one because it’s a pointless exercise designed to dredge up all the insecurities of the past, and two, because it’s simply not fair to compare people to what they were like 20-odd years ago.

I sure as hell wouldn’t want people assuming I’m the same awkward, fumbling mess I was at 16 (even if there’s a mild measure of truth to the matter).

But, as human beings we are innately curious, and with the way social media gives us private access to peoples’ daily lives, there’s hardly any of us that can argue we haven’t once, at some point, gone secretly creeping.

What makes this former classmate’s page so fascinating to me, however, is not only the frequency with which she posts, but the carefully-contrived content she depicts in her pictures and videos.

We’re talking beyond the usual “look-at-me-getting-married” and “aren’t-my-kids-so-cute” updates that normally saturate our feeds. This isn’t just a compendium of her life’s milestones, but an outright flaunting of her purported wealth and success.

Photo after photo of luxury vacations, shiny new vehicles and a sprawling property with postcard-perfect views.

Look at what I’ve created, she posts. Look how hard I’ve worked to achieve my dreams. And you — you deserve this same kind of freedom! You deserve to spend time with your kids, to travel abroad, to live a life you love.

The time is now. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? Her message is one of success, and her mission is to make you believe you can have the same.

Certainly the thought crossed my mind as I went clicking through her feed, contemplating how nice it would be to lay on the beaches of Mexico and San Diego all in the same month.

Part of me is envious of the vision she’s created.

Most of us are familiar with multi-level marketing companies — or MLMs, as they’re more conveniently called — by now. Every one of us has at least one friend on Facebook who, for a short time, floods our news feeds with promotions on printed leggings and deals on earrings, who promises us smoother, more radiant skin and drastically slimmed-down waistlines.

Most of us are able to effectively tune out the MLM noise, even going so far as to click “Unfollow” in order to vanquish the onslaught of incessant posting without explicitly unfriending.

In the vast majority of cases, the person’s posts gradually taper off, alongside their dreams of making it big.

The difference between the average MLM-wannabe and my former classmate is that the girl I went to school with, for all intents and purposes, appears to be achieving a pretty impressive level of success.

Which is part of the reason I can’t help pick through her profile, can’t help be drawn to all the inspirational anecdotes and seemingly-sincere disclosures of how I changed my life like a moth to the light. (For the record, I was a Media Studies minor. Hyper-examining this kind of shit literally gets me hot.)

It’s quite possible that her success is legit. For one, she is pretty, which is a typically an asset when it comes to the sale of products that claim to improve your health and wellness. Based on her number of posts per day, she also appears to be determinedly driven, a fact I remember about her from high school. It’s also clear that she came into the venture with some kind of capital, based on she and her partner having sold their million-dollar downtown property in the city to move to an acreage in the country.

From the bit of creeping I’ve done so far, my understanding of her story is that she and her partner struggled for years to “make ends meet” — not in the typical way of, oh, you know, trying to pay all the bills and keep food on the table, but in the millennial sense of being able to take more than one all-inclusive beach holiday a year and drive the latest edition SUV.

In no fewer than three posts a day, she tells the story of how a business opportunity literally changed her life, elevating her from so-called serfdom (ha!) to a life dripping in opulence.

She writes long, dramatic posts describing how this opportunity has allowed her to make her own hours and be her own boss. She describes the luxury of being able to spend more time with her family, the ability to be a better mom to her daughter. She talks about not having to worry about taking time off, about having a life you don’t need a vacation from, and regularly posts videos demanding her followers to take charge of their lives and choose a better path.

Her page brims with inspirational quotes and empowering discourse, but what it curiously lacks is much information at all about what it is she’s selling, exactly — what this so-called business opportunity actually entails.

This is the same case for another couple I happened across on Facebook who are also heavily involved in the MLM world (by “happened on”, I mean that the girl and my husband had a short-lived romance in early high school, and her name “accidentally” got punched into my search bar).

Similar to my former classmate, this couple regularly share photos of their trips to Hawaii and Vegas, flaunt their $100,000 brand new luxury vehicle and even go so far as to post summaries of their monthly income (which they allege falls in the $30,000 to $40,000 range).

What’s once again suspicious, however, is that there’s no actual details on what it is they’re doing to make all this money, apart from vague references to an “online business”. The only way to to find out for sure if they’re trafficking exotic animals on the black market or selling organs via the dark web is, of course, to contact them directly.

I can’t deny that there haven’t been times when I’ve been tempted to reach out (under an alias, obviously) simply for a glimpse of the man behind the curtain.

It’s a surefire MLM formula: lure people with promises of success before sacrificing them on the altar.

Because here’s the thing about MLMs: they aren’t in it for your best interests, no matter how hard they insist.

As MLM companies are increasingly exposed for their misleading claims and shady business practices (watch this and also this), it has become pretty common knowledge that the products being sold are secondary to the real money-maker: recruiting representatives.

And they’ll go to great and terrible lengths to make that happen.

Social media is a boon for MLMs. Even on the best of days, social media has a tendency to rouse our insecurities. We can’t help compare ourselves to the polished images projected through our screens.

MLMs capitalize on this fact, bombarding us with fantastical photos and stories designed to perpetuate our sense of inadequacy. The easiest way, as we’ve established, is by showcasing the extraordinary material wealth promised by these companies.

In a video recently posted to Facebook by Business Insider, one of the girls being interviewed described how she was instructed by her leader to withdraw as much (of her own personal!) cash as she was able and post a photo to social media claiming it was a bonus from her company. She said that once the picture was taken, she literally circled back to the bank machine and re-deposited the funds back into her bank account.

In another video I watched, an ex-representative explained how she was explicitly commanded never to post anything negative on social media — that every single post was required to convey a sense of inspired positivity, helping to reinforce the vision of glamour and success.

While the majority of people are immune to this formula (even if they are momentarily tempted by fantasies of grandeur), the fact of the matter is that MLMs continue to gain traction by preying on people who are vulnerable.

In the various articles I’ve read and videos I’ve watched, it’s clear that new and stay-at-home moms make up the biggest target.

In the case of my former classmate, her main strategy beyond assurances of material gain is claiming to have the freedom to spend more time with her daughter and, in turn, be a better mother. And while it may seem innocent, the insinuation here is that any mother who “chooses” to work outside the home has the wrong priorities — is failing in their duty to be a good mom.

Likewise, these companies frequently tout a sense of community and sisterhood that appeals to stay at home moms who might otherwise feel lonely or isolated.

MLMs claim to empower women, but what they’re really doing is playing on their guilt.

I think the part that fascinates me the most as I scroll through the profile of the girl I went to high school with and the page of the couple I mentioned earlier is the question of whether they really and truly believe that what they’re doing is okay.

It’s no secret that greed easily overshadows remorse — that, according to Forbes, it “drives you to value immediate benefits to an extent that you ignore potential future costs” (source).

I think it must take a certain kind of person to be able to prey so easily on peoples’ vulnerabilities, to exploit their weaknesses, without any real accountability for the damage they’re wrecking.

I look at their pages and think, these people aren’t daft. They’re using all kinds of marketing strategies and propaganda techniques to entice people to fall for their racket, and cleaning up heftily in the process.

And while I may fantasize briefly about what it must be like to earn $40,000 a month, to have a holiday home in Honolulu and drive a high-performance Italian sports car, I take solace in being able to sleep well at night, my conscience clear.

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Lizzie Woo

Written by

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +731K people. Follow to join our community.

Lizzie Woo

Written by

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +731K people. Follow to join our community.

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