Network Marketing: A Cult For Mums?

MLM Cults

My friend ‘Marie’* called me about three years ago, excited that she had something to discuss with me, and that it was going to turn her life around. “This is it, Kate! I’ve been waiting for something like this, to start my own business! I’m so excited. Let’s meet – I want to tell you about it; I think you’ll love it too, it’s so brilliant, I’m thinking about handing my notice in at work – there are actual millionaires working in this company. This means we don’t have to leave the babies!” she gabbled out, at a rate of knots. She sounded weird. 

I paused, a bit bemused. 

“Come on. Meet me for lunch tomorrow with the babies and I’ll show you. Honestly. This is a game changer. I’m serious about ditching my ‘J.O.B’ and not going back after maternity leave. You could do it too and we’ll work on it together!”. She dramatically spelt out job like it was a dirty word. Still, the thought of returning to my public sector role wasn’t particularly appealing, and it might be fun to do something else. I agreed to meet her. 

There’s little point hashing over the conversation. What transpired was that Marie had signed up as a network marketer for a company that established in the UK in 1992, and she wanted me to join her, as a ‘team mate’. She promised to mentor me through the process. I had questions, a LOT of questions. It was expensive, and I couldn’t get a grip on what the ‘amazing opportunity’ was. Was it sales? Was it mentoring? I actually had an icky feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I didn’t mention that until much, much later. “How can you mentor me if you’ve only just started?”. She batted away my questions like they were flies. “Pfft. Okay, not mentor. Work together. Like a proper business, you and me. We can do this – it’s a plant, for gods sake. It’s as natural as it comes! Perfectly good and safe for the kids, safe for us; the benefits are enormous. Did you know, it’s helped cure people of cancer?” Alarm bells were ringing loudly in my head. “Maz, I don’t think this sounds okay.”. It didn’t just sound ‘not okay’, it sounded fucking bonkers. Medicine and science were still searching for cancer cures; how did they not know that a simple plant was the solution all along?

This ‘chat’ was repeated many, many times over the next few months, until eventually, during an evening out, I’d put my foot down and asked her to stop talking about it. I wasn’t interested. It was too much, she was acting like she was brainwashed, talking about cars she was going to have, how this stuff was a miracle cure for just about every ailment going, how they were going to pay off their mortgage within a couple of years and how I was missing out on the ‘opportunity of a lifetime, and giving my daughter the best start with me at home. She was drinking this gloop like it was Kool-Aid. And while she was telling me she was doing so amazingly well, I KNEW she was living on maternity pay day to day, and using her credit card to get by. It didn’t add up. We eventually drifted apart; she felt I wasn’t supporting her, and I felt utterly hounded.

A typical MLM ‘Success Rally’.

Since starting The Motherload, I’ve taken a lot of time to look into the practises of ‘Multi-Level Marketing‘ (MLM) businesses. Not sure what an MLM is? You’ll have no doubt heard of at least one of the following: Forever Living, Juice Plus, NuSkin, Younique, doTerra, Valentus, Maelle, Coinspace, Herbalife, Avon (yes! Avon), Oriflame, Party Lite, Scentsy, Young Living – the list goes on. As a 26,000 member strong parenting group, we are an attractive pool of potential recruits and customers. Why? Because it’s women that join MLM in the main. The Direct Selling Association (DSA) reports that 77.4% of individuals involved in direct selling (of which MLM is a part of) are women, and the vast majority of those are mothers. That’s approximately 481,000 women – in Europe, the figure is even higher, at 83%. 

As a feminist, it perturbs me that specifically, the main target is the stay-at home mums. Since founding our group, my concern has only increased, and the tactics that we have seen by network marketers to entice, promote, recruit and sell on our group, despite our firm restriction on all MLM activity, never fails to concern me. Guilt is the main player, but downright lies and scaremongering are often ploys that desperate reps use, and ultimately, when confronted, aggression. (credit: Timeless Vie) 

Join me, Hun!

I think by now, most people will be familiar with the social media posts that do the rounds on Facebook, and Instagram, containing phrases like ‘Join Me!’ and ‘Life begins at the end of your comfort zone’ or even better, ‘If you want to be rich, think big, think differently’. These motivational posts (the like of which are in the image above) are a distinctive badge of honour for any network marketing ‘professional’ as their timelines and accounts are overtaken by inspirational posts, images and quotes; all extolling the power of positive thinking and the incredible ‘opportunity’ that they are a part of; but usually, critically, without any mention of the actual company they are advertising. No negativity is allowed in MLM. Drink the Kool-Aid, soak up the positivity, don’t question. New recruits are encouraged to put together a goal board, with their dream house, car, lifestyle, holiday and more – and told to believe that it is all within their reach.

There are even rallies that IBOs (‘independent business owners’ – another name for the reps) are ‘encouraged’ to attend at their own cost – sorry, mass training – where they instil this further, through sermons of positive thinking, ‘success’ stories, crowd chants, singing, dancing – sounds like fun? Not so much when you understand the psychology behind these behaviours, and how they manipulate. Many, MANY ex-reps and marketeers have left MLM businesses and told their stories of ‘faking it until they make it’. There are even top level network marketers who do this – pretending to own a rented house, or taking pictures of a Mercedes that is on hire purchase. In the case of one top bot, the MLM company rented the ‘castle’ for them to keep up the illusion of phenomenal success. There will be MLMers reading this and saying ‘we ALWAYS say to do the due diligence’. But where can new or potential recruits source independent information? The reality is that MLM businesses keep this information close to their chest. However, in the corporate small print, you can find the reality of working an MLM business, and it ain’t pretty. 

The ‘Pyramid’

So what about the structure of MLM businesses? They are often mistakenly casually referred to as ‘ponzi schemes’ by the ‘neg-ferrets’ (that’s MLM-speak for those that question these practises) and I can confirm that they are not. However, the line is very fine. MLM businesses operate most frequently with a structure that is not too dissimilar from that of a pyramid, a triangle or funnel – but the thing they most have in common is a point (the founders) and a base which equals a saturated market. Some side step around this, with legs, downlines and other confusing ways of explaining how a team can be developed. And as most of us now know, whether you are in MLM or not, is that referring to these pointy structures as pyramids causes outrage. So let’s clear one thing up here – YES, pyramid schemes are illegal. At this time, MLM companies are legal until proven otherwise. But this is by the skin of their teeth and is only where a product, or service is ‘sold’. Is this what you are genuinely signing up for though, when you join an MLM business?

That gets us onto the complexity of these models; because as any network marketer worth her salt knows (even if they won’t publicly admit), you don’t make much moola by selling this stuff. I guarantee that there are few network marketers to start their ‘business’ being able to personally afford these products, and yet they are expected to sell them to their friends and family in a manner that seemingly doesn’t acknowledge the price, with wording such as ‘WOW! Only £18 for this mascara!’ or ‘Get these three vitamin supplements for JUST £69!’

Nope. The secret of why network marketers are so vague in their social media posts is because the truth is that the real money lies in recruitment. This is also where the lie, the cult, of MLM really takes hold. Because to recruit, you have to believe. The Power of Positivity is the mantra of the ‘MLM Bot’. Hence the memes, the inspirational posts, the images of them ‘working’ whilst lying on the sofa, in bed on a Monday morning – even on the beach (who the hell wants to work on holiday?). You’ll never see critical thinking or debate on a MLM Bot’s page or posts – and if you do, it will be swiftly removed in the name of positivity. Keep drinking the Kool-Aid! Smile! Post emojis! ‘Come on Huns, this is AMAZING (if I just say it enough times)’.

So why do women join these schemes? Well, being a stay-at-home mum can be bloody tough, and yet conversely, many of us would give our right arm to do it. Mum-guilt is a powerful factor, that MLM businesses know will lead to new recruits. But many of us feel redundant at home, with CBeebies on constant loop, and burbling baby talk filling our days. It’s understandable that women look for something to keep them ‘busy’, to give them their worth back as a working adult, and generate income. Single mums, low income families are an easy target. And then there are those who have had a dream of running their own business, and MLM offers a seemingly low risk, low cost start up option, where the only thing you have to do is ‘work hard’. It’s worth digging a bit deeper into the company though and looking at exactly who you are working for. Whilst you may have been signed up by a female (often a fellow mum) ‘upline’, if you look at the top of the triangle there will usually be men at the top of the structure. Given that networking marketing is so frequently sold as an industry that ’empowers women’, it’s funny that this isn’t mentioned in the plethora of memes and posts on Facebook, isn’t it?

Network marketing has grown in popularity to such an extent that saturation in some of the most established companies is now almost at peak. There is nothing stopping your best friend becoming a rep, or your aunt, your sister, your dad – all of whom would effectively be your market, all competing for the same market as you. On top of this, people are getting weary of the network marketing social media takeover; they are getting wise to the fact they are being recruited and not just sold to. So in real life, ‘working your business’ isn’t easy, but if you admit that, you are a neg-a-tron. You aren’t working hard enough! Many of the companies start with a technique that makes new recruits look at every person they could possibly sell to, or recruit. A full pipeline would include everyone you encounter – the postwoman, the receptionist at the doctors, the girl working behind the counter in your local Tesco that you see regularly, your hairdresser is perfect! Baby groups, antenatal classes, the woman you see at the baby brasserie. Essentially, anywhere and anyone that you can pitch to in less than five minutes, and persuade to join your team. 

Recruitment is Key

So why recruit? Well, that’s how you make the money. When MLMs talk about commission, they mean specifically from recruits. Your downline is your commodity, if you want to make any income from this model. Recruit, recruit, recruit. There are even MLMs out there that make no bones about this and essentially use the product as a carrot to entice new recruits. Like our mascara? Join my team, hun! You’ll get it for free in your Distributor kit! Hook, line and sinker. 

So if you are tempted by a post on Facebook making promises of a full time salary for just a few hours work a week, perhaps even ‘financial freedom’, it’s likely to be too good to be true. Do your research, and not just the data that your ‘upline’ might provide or the sparse information you might find through the MLM’s own training. Look elsewhere, look at their company reports – it’s all out there but you have to search for it. Look at the pros, and the many cons of joining a network marketing company. Check out the information and research on the Timeless Vie and Botwatch Facebook pages. Critically examine EXACTLY how much you can expect to earn – the average earning per rep per year is a paltry £2000 per annum, shockingly nowhere near the promises of ‘financial freedom’. Look at how much time you are really expected to put into ‘working your business’; because part-time and working around your children won’t bring in the millions.  Importantly, look at the risk that you are undertaking; read the stories of marketers who have left with huge debts and don’t be persuaded by the stories of those at the ‘top’, earning £££. They are the unlikely few – the model isn’t designed for there to be more than a handful and you are very likely to never earn anything near the amounts that you are promised. 

But ultimately, like any cult, they hate questions. Questions lead to doubts, and so if you are told not to question, then alarm bells should ring loudly. Nevermind Avon, that’ll be the Kool-Aid calling.

The Motherload is proud to support Timeless Vie’s MLM Free Network. To find out more about their campaign, visit their site here. Many thanks to the TV team for help with resources for this article. 

*Names have been changed to protect individuals. 

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About Kate Dyson

Founder of The Motherload. Wife, mum to two girls, two cats and shit loads of washing in baskets that sit around the house waiting to be ironed. It never happens. Hater of exercise, denier of weight gain, lover of wine. Feminist. You can follow me on Instagram

Image credit: Kate Dyson

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