My Life on the Fringe of MLM
This is the story of my 8½ years living on the fringe of multi-level marketing (MLM), its impact on my life and the lives of my former significant other and her son. It’s a sad story, parts of which you may find more than a little unsettling. However, it’s a story conscience and compassion compel me to tell. Although most of my involvement in the MLM industry was on the periphery, I look back at some of the things I did—knowing better in my core—and I feel remorse for the role I played in promoting MLM’s deceptions. More importantly, I feel compassion for the dozens of wonderful people I know and the millions I don’t know who remain trapped in MLM because they believe its golden promises. They’re convinced their success is just around the corner, despite overwhelming evidence that their eventual failure is inevitable.
There is plenty of good information available online to anyone who’s interested. It takes quite a bit of time to sort through all the pro-MLM websites masquerading as objectively informational. However, learning the facts is worth the effort. There are thousands of stories that could put much-needed human faces on the nearly universal consequences of MLM involvement, if only they were told. This particular story exposes some of the more extreme costs MLM can exact from its victims. I hope its telling will help encourage a compassionate public to act before the MLM industry—largely centered in the United States—gains a greater foothold in our global community than it already has with its economic and social predation.
Several years ago Danielle (Danni), a friend whom I’d known since college but hadn’t seen much since, asked me to meet her at a regional training event held in a nearby city by the MLM company in which she was a distributor, also known as an independent business owner (IBO). The training was primarily motivational—the facilitator a top “Level 7” distributor in the company. Danni had been recruited four years earlier and was optimistic about her future success. She anticipated achieving the rank of “Level 3” in the near future through sales made by the downline of IBOs she’d been building during her tenure with the company.
Danni has always been a sweet and gentle woman with an unforgettable smile that begins in her twinkling gray eyes and spreads to her generous mouth (her lips are so luscious I often teased her that she couldn’t have gotten them without collagen injections). It doesn’t end until it bathes her entire slightly freckled face, exuding enough warmth to melt the polar ice cap in just a matter of hours should she happen to get too close. Danni cares for and trusts everyone—whether or not she’s met them; and she has a heart for service to others. She is an attentive mother, a delightful and affectionate companion and a concerned friend. Danni has always taken good care of herself, maintaining total fitness and high energy. Her accomplishments on several fronts—surfing, photography, music, academics and marathon running—are extraordinary. I suppose vivacious with infectious positivity would be the best description of her personality. On top of all that, Danni is exceptionally intelligent; and in her late 40s, she’s gorgeous…truly every man’s dream and for a time, she was my dream come true.
Several months after that initial reconnection, our renewed friendship blossomed into a delightful romantic relationship. I was retired from my own career and able to turn my time and energy to doing what I could to help Danni succeed in hers. To launch our business relationship, she enrolled me as an IBO in her downline at a cost to herself of over $1,000. Danni believed my life and health depended on consuming the company’s dietary supplements—a prospect at which I was decidedly unenthusiastic. In fact, she was unquestioningly convinced that the company’s products were revolutionary, and that the business opportunity and products she was selling dramatically changed lives. Danni also believed she was part of a movement embodied in the company that was changing the world. Her fervor was contagious, I wanted to help her bring her dreams to life and signing on would expand her downline. So, I agreed to the arrangement.
That autumn, Danni asked me to help her organize her previous year’s income and expense records for her tax return. That included tabulating her business expenses for the previous year. I was amazed to find that her expenditures for products alone exceeded $16,000. When we met with her tax accountant, I learned that most of the products she bought had been for her personal use. The rest was for inventory—much of which she gave away as promotional samples or sold at a loss. Danni’s personal consumption of over $1,000 worth of supplements each month seemed excessive to me. However, she explained that “large servings” (high doses) of the company’s array of bioactive products had cured her frozen shoulder in the past and that maintaining her high intake levels had prevented her from contracting the usual seasonal viruses ever since. Other possible reasons for her disproportionate product use would become apparent a few years later.
Danni and I attended her MLM’s annual three-day national event a few weeks later. In each of the general sessions, I experienced what I now recognize as manipulative mind control. Every general session included rousing music with the audience often clapping in rhythm, jumping to their feet and cheering as company platitudes were uttered from the podium, and according frenzied welcomes to each company luminary who stepped onto the stage. Speakers unrelentingly hyped the company and its products. Stories and pictorial depictions of endless wealth awaiting motivated MLM distributors peppered the entire event. I remember feeling isolated as I sat silent through many of the crowd’s emotional outbursts at each meeting.
Speaker after speaker preached the evils of traditional social sensibilities as roadblocks to success. They denigrated “J-O-Bs” as “enslavement . . . trading time for money”—as if working in an honorable occupation were some profane and immoral pastime. They discouraged distributors from associating with anyone who took issue with the way they conducted business. Company icons taught that persons “guilty” of critical thinking, as might be evidenced by questioning the company’s claims and the achievability of “the dream”, were “losers, negative, and dream stealers” whom they’d be wise to avoid. They encouraged a unique version of “due diligence” by referring their listeners to the company’s own “informational” website where they could find “scientific studies” done by “independent researchers”. To any critical observer, the scientific studies posted there were markedly substandard and the independent researchers were easily recognizable as company shills, whose conflicts of interest rendered their conclusions unconvincing at best.
Top-level distributors facilitated dozens of breakout trainings; and Danni was compulsive about attending as many as possible during the two days they were offered. Most of these trainings included at least implicit endorsement of deceptive techniques in prospecting distributors and customers. Obfuscation, avoidance, omission and just about any other specious means that didn’t involve outright lying were encouraged as effective, acceptable and ethical IBO practices. Facilitators regaled their audiences with depictions of lavish lifestyles and promises of lucrative passive income streams. They took every possible opportunity to emphasize that these were attainable by any distributor who believed in their upline, the company and its products, and followed top distributors’ “easily-duplicable” systems.
Even though I’d suppressed my own critical thinking to a limited extent, I was troubled by the testimonial session that ended the first evening. Dozens of distributors lined up to tell their stories of experiencing or witnessing healing and relief from suffering which they attributed to use of the company’s products—usually in remarkably large quantity. Many of the diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, discussed by testifiers are characterized by a labile course in which sufferers experience repeated spontaneous cycles of improvement and deterioration. This characteristic can easily lead one to a mistaken belief that the cyclical improvements are due to the products—a causal fallacy. Other testifiers spoke about relief from diseases in which a psychosomatic (symptoms originating in the mind) component is highly suspect. Those afflicted with psychosomatic conditions are particularly predisposed to the placebo effect—a variant of causal fallacy. It was interesting to me that the evening’s master of ceremonies frequently repeated a disclaimer I eventually came to know by heart: “Our products do not diagnose, treat, prevent, mitigate or cure any disease.” I found that statement incredibly ironic, given that every testimonial I heard described how the products had done exactly that.
© 2014, Roger Willco, All rights reserved.