The third part of a series about multilevel-marketing firms details the emotional manipulation that these companies use to draw and retain their salesforce.

Your MLM loves you

Cherry picking from the Scriptures helps recruits believe the unbelievable

Cherry picking from the Scriptures helps recruits believe the unbelievable

By Alia Malek

Photos by Ted Morrison for Al Jazeera America

Produced by Alex Newman

Edited by Mark Rykoff, Jayati Vora

Published on Thursday, October 16, 2014

In 1998, with promises of riches to be made, a close friend recruited Leo (who requested that his last name be withheld) to join a company called Quixtar. Though he was a full-time employee at a national insurance company, after meeting “very positive and up-tempo” people who appeared to be earning a considerable income as Quixtar distributors, Leo was eager to join their ranks.

Like Leo, those in his Quixtar community were African-American.

“[Being a part of Quixtar] was a good feeling,” he says. “A lot of us look alike, and we were rubbing elbows with those who appeared to be prosperous.”

That sense of community kept Leo going for years, even though he made no money. Quixtar was a multilevel-marketing enterprise that shared a parent company with Amway. Critics of MLMs (and their illegal incarnations, pyramid schemes) say these companies count on and exploit that sense of community by using emotionally manipulative tactics to retain recruits, most of whom invest more money than they will ever earn, and to placate them should they ever leave, as Leo eventually did.


Rather than brick and mortar stores, MLMs market their goods through independent distributors who sell the products to customers, usually beginning with friends, family and others in their community. The distributors generally pay a fee to join and make an initial investment to acquire an inventory of products. Distributors also recruit their own salesforce, known as their “downline,” and make money both from selling products to their downline and from a percentage of their recruits’ sales to customers.

Manipulation is an inherent part of marketing, says Dr. Claudia Gross, who studies the culture and structure of MLMs at the Institute for Management Research, part of the Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. But, she says, manipulation has an outsize effect with MLMs because of their organizational structure and the lax regulatory environment in which they operate.

“It’s the combinations of these factors all together that make MLMs morally problematic and particularly dirty,” she says.

In addition, Gross points to a structural characteristic that makes MLMs unlike other business models. Participants in MLMs are caught in a situation in which they are not strictly self-employed, because they are part of an existing company, whose rules they do not set. So while they have some of the benefits of the self-employed — such as the ability to set hours and determine which markets to operate in — they also lack the support of unions or other intermediaries they can rely on for help when needed.

This makes participants in MLMs particularly vulnerable, experts say, built as they are on personal relationships and atypically structured. Any emotional manipulation employed in this environment makes it easier for participants to believe the unbelievable, ready to silence any doubts, unquestioning of failure and unwilling to act against the company.

JOB: Journey of the Broke

After work and on the weekends, Leo put in money and time, hitting the road frequently with his Quixtar friends to go to the company’s mega-rallies, meant to teach distributors how to be more successful in the company. The last day, usually a Sunday, was always the most inspiring. “That’s when it was more like church,” he says.

He liked what he heard at the Quixtar events: He could take control of his destiny; he could take control of his income. A job — what they called a JOB, for “journey of the broke” — would always stifle him, they said. It would always limit the amount of money he could make.

As a Christian, it was important to Leo that they spoke from what he calls “a faith-based capitalism,” which meant he didn’t have to feel bad for being prosperous, because the scriptures taught that it was OK to dream of financial success. After all, there was an altruistic aspect to what he and his friends did: In recruiting others and becoming mentors to them, they were investing in other people. Those who helped others achieve their dreams would achieve theirs in turn, or so the company gospel went. And if only they worked hard and believed in the greater destiny that awaited them, they would reach a utopia of unlimited income and therefore unlimited happiness. There would be naysayers, “dream stealers,” they were cautioned, but in his community, Leo says, everyone had a positive attitude.

He spent nearly three years keeping the faith and trying to make good with Quixtar, but neither he nor his sponsor ever made any real income, he says.

Still, Leo says, he didn’t necessarily lose: “I was able to learn some skills, learn about business and write off on my taxes a lot as expenses.” He attributes his inability to turn a profit to not having enough time to commit to Quixtar while working a full-time job. “I believe in the concept,” he says.

Amway sells products under various brand names, such as Nutrilite, pictured above, Legacy of Clean and Artistry. (Click to enlarge images)

Leveraging Hope

Like Leo, most people who put in time, money and effort trying their hand at multilevel marketing see no profit, let alone the millions of dollars such schemes often advertise. Yet, like Leo, they rarely take action against the company.

Among the victims of the 10 most common consumer frauds, those defrauded by pyramid schemes are by far the least likely to file a complaint, according to a 2004 Federal Trade Commission report, the latest such finding from that agency. The report also found that victims of pyramid schemes rank 2nd out of 10 in terms of loss per person and 7th in terms of number of victims.

While there are several reasons that those who do feel defrauded do not speak up — legal intimidation tactics, the prohibitive cost of litigation, the fear of self-incrimination for having defrauded those they recruited and even shame — those who campaign against or are critical of MLMs and pyramid schemes say emotional manipulation is a significant factor. Victims remain silent because they ultimately blame themselves for failing to make money, not the company for making what some say are fraudulent promises to begin with.

"Unlike other industries, where basically most companies are pretty good and there are a few bad actors, most in [the MLM] industry are bad actors," says Douglas M. Brooks, a lawyer who has brought several lawsuits against alleged pyramid schemes.

For these critics, it is no coincidence that pyramid schemes prey on the unsophisticated when it comes to business and that they thrive in times of economic downturn.

“The messaging in these companies that I’ve investigated — they are all trying to leverage hope,” says William W. Keep, dean of the School of Business at the College of New Jersey, who has served as an expert witness in federal prosecutions of pyramid schemes. “In every business you can get excited, but you are not going to get as excited as when the message is ‘You can change your life,’ with its strong emotional aspect.”

That hope seems attainable because at the rallies, business luncheons and seminars — all common tools of MLMs and pyramid schemes — recruits are constantly meeting people who say they have “made it,” but who provide little transparency about how much money they’ve earned or how they earned it. Keep says the lack of transparency also distinguishes MLMs from other businesses, which issue quarterly reports or share their earning statements.

According to Brooks, determining whether a business is operating as a pyramid scheme requires in-depth analysis. "It's very difficult for even the FTC to determine if a business is acting as one. If they can't, how can the layman?"

If data were available, participants could more easily evaluate whether the potential for making money is overstated. In her research on Amway, for example, Gross found that members suggested everyone could make a lot of money, to the tune of 500 times more than actual average income.

MLMs run the risk of being labeled pyramid schemes when the primary source of income for distributors is from sales to their downline, rather than sales to non-members who use the products themselves.

(While the FTC found that Amway was not a pyramid scheme in a 1979 ruling, the company continues to face similar accusations by its distributors and other critics and in 2012 agreed to a $55 million class-action settlement with distributors.)

An Amway spokesperson declined to be interviewed for this article but responded with a statement: “Building an Amway business takes hard work and continued effort, and may not be for everyone. Just like joining a fitness facility, signing up doesn’t get results — showing up consistently and working hard is required. But registering with Amway is simple and costs only $62 in the US, with a 100% money-back guarantee for the first 90 days.

“And people do earn money with Amway. In 2013, more than 350,000 Independent Business Owners in North America received a bonus from Amway.” Even if distributors only make a few hundred dollars, the statement continued, “Amway IBOs can define success on their terms.”

In addition to the lack of public data from MLMs, the companies routinely flood the Internet with misleading information. In some cases, they set up websites that appear to be independent and critical of multilevel marketing, yet conclude that a particular MLM is legitimate. This makes it hard for new recruits to really know what is true and what isn’t.

If new recruits become skeptical, their doubts are often quickly silenced by the family and friends who recruited them. (This practice of reyling on participants to recruit or solicit mostly from their network is also known as “warm marketing”). It’s harder to suspect people you know of acting deceptively or in bad faith.

“‘We don’t have data, we have trust!’” is how Keep sums it up.

Ask the butcher, not the hairdresser'

It was trust of a boyfriend that brought Cathy Harris into the Quixtar fold. She considers herself lucky that the relationship was brief and she was able to get out of Quixtar after only a few months, capping her losses at $400 to $500. Now, she speaks out against MLMs and says part of their insidiousness is how they encourage recruits to exploit the trust inherent in their closest relationships.

“The people who recruit you are friends, your sister and brother, the people who are closest to you,” she says. “And you want to believe in them.”

When those closest to a person are instead dubious of the MLM, there’s a ready script to help, says D. Anthony Miles, founder of a consulting practice whose research focuses on minorities and business. “The MLMs say, ‘If your [dream-stealing] friends are so great and smart, why aren’t they making the money so-and-so is making?’” Miles says.

Or, as Gross found in her research on Amway, participants were told, “If you want to know if the meat is good or not, you ask the butcher, not the hairdresser.” This way the company remains the source of any knowledge about the company.

According to Miles, “They isolate you from people who think differently.” This provides cautious recruits with a positive community of successful distributors who never stop telling them that they believe in the recruits’ potential to succeed. Those who participated in Gross’ research said they were also told that too much criticism destroys the dream and that only by thinking positively would they succeed.

There is never an analysis of why a distributor is not being profitable, Keep says, just constant advice to work harder and keep the faith. “With so many models of people who are supposedly successful, the only possible reasons for your failure is you,” he says.

Part of the reason many company rallies are out of town and feature success stories from across the nation, adds Gross, is that if the promoters stayed local, there wouldn’t be that many examples to share.

Rather than pinpoint what specific action or inaction accounts for not turning a profit, participants are even told that they are too emotionally attached to poverty, says Robert FitzPatrick, who runs the watchdog website Pyramid Scheme Alert. When recruits join, FitzPatrick says, they are told that their “poverty mentality” is the reason for their lack of wealth but that following the MLM credos will transform their lives. When they don’t see sweeping change, he says, “it becomes an experience that validates your worst thoughts about yourself.”

For Steve Hassan, an expert on the mental-health aspects of cults who founded a center to help break their hold on individuals, MLMs bear striking similarities to these secretive groups. Like in cults, Hassan says, the control that MLMs wield “short-circuits critical thinking, so you believe you can work part-time and make a million dollars.”

Hassan has also occasionally been hired by families desperate to extract their loved ones from MLMs. “They have been inculcated with this notion that they are part of a chosen group," he says of the recruits. "They have this new identity where they become the company.”

Leo, now 52, can retire in three years from the same insurance company he was employed by when he tried Quixtar; he has been working there for 26 years. But he’s not ready to be a full-time retiree and is still eager to own his own business. It won’t be another MLM, he says.

“I don’t necessarily want to make that kind of investment and risk,” he says. “I’d rather do something more financially rewarding.”

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