I recently received a phone call from a friend I hadn't talked to in a couple years. Delighted to see her name come up on my caller ID, I immediately answered the phone.
"Hey!" I said.
"Hey!" She said.
"It's been a long time!" I said. "I've missed you! How have things been?"
"Oh, you haven't missed me," she said. "You've been busy in your new house in your new neighborhood taking care of your family. But things have been good for me. Did you know that I'm expecting number four? Any day now."
"Are you? That's wonderful! How's this pregnancy been for you?"
So we chatted for a minute, until we reached that key point in phone conversations where ones switches from exchanging pleasantries to expressing purposes.
"So," I said, "What's going on?"
"Well," she said, hesitating a moment. "....I've missed you! I haven't had a walking partner since you moved."
Ah, I thought. She's lonely. She's having one of those days when she's absolutely starved for adult conversation. She's reaching out. I'm glad she feels comfortable calling me! Even after all this time!
So, even though I try to keep personal calls to a minimum when I'm at the office, I settled in for a chat, performing as many mindless tasks as I could while we caught up. Why don't people just call each other more often? I wondered. Just to chat. This is so nice.
Then, after forty minutes of visiting, she asked if I was still working at the same place. I told her about how Harbor House had closed and Abe and I had had to do a little rearranging of responsibilities, that he was finishing his master's degree while I worked full-time. And then she told me about how her husband had, over the past couple of years, become increasingly unhappy at his dead-end job. After a lot of thought and discussion and prayer, they decided he should quit. So he did.
"So that happened a few months ago and we've been jobless ever since," she said.
"Oh dear. I know how that feels. Been there, done that. So what sort of job is he looking for?"
"Well..." (More hesitation.) "He's actually kind of self-employed right now. He's working for Melaleuca."
(Imagine an ominous rumble of thunder rolling in the background.)
For those of you not in the know, Melaleuca is a "wellness company" that relies on a multi-level marketing structure to both peddle its products and recruit other people to sell its wares. So it was at this point that I should have realized what was going on. And a little alarm bell did go off in the back of my head, but I immediately turned it off, telling myself, This woman is your friend. She's talking to you about her husband's career change. She's not going to try to sell you anything.
So I replied. "Oh!"
"So yeah. We haven't been making enough to get by without dipping into savings, but we're hoping things will take off. The way we make money is if we get people to sign up for a Melaleuca membership," she said. "How do you feel about Melaleuca?"
"Oh, it's okay," I told her, realizing that my friend was going to try to sell me something. "I like the products. They're good products. I do think they're overpriced...and I don't like that you have to commit to purchasing a certain amount each month."
"Oh. Well," she said. "They've got this great deal going on this month. The annual membership fee has been reduced to just $1.00. This month only. And I just thought it would be great to share this bargain with you."
I wondered if she was reading this directly off a computer screen.
"Um, I'd have to talk to Abe about it. Can you fax me the information?" I asked.
And then she explained that they do presentations about signing up for the products, that I would have to come to a presentation.
Again, I told her that I would have to talk to Abe about it and that I'd get back with her. Then I quickly began attempting to extricate myself from the conversation. She, however, had more spiel she had to get through before we hung up:
"One of the things I like about Melaleuca," she told me, "Is that their cleaning products are so safe. My son is always getting into things and I just feel good knowing that..." at this point I completely tuned out, because I had already heard this identical story from someone at church whose husband was also selling Melaleuca products. Her daughter was also forever getting into things and it was just nice to know that her little darling wouldn't die if she happened to break into the cleaning cupboard and chug a quart of carpet cleaner. I imagined them both reading and memorizing a bright, white, glossy card labeled, "Marketing Melaleuca Products to Young Mothers."
"Another thing I like about Melaleuca," continued my friend, "Is that..."
I knew she felt like she had to get through her list of Melaleuca's many virtues, so I sat patiently and waited for her to finish. Then I forced out a cheery farewell and hung up the phone, staring at it for a long, sad moment.
I felt dirty and used.
And I felt like my friend had also been used.
And it made me sad. And a little bit mad.
And now we have reached that key point in every blog post where one switches from antecdote to thesis. And my thesis is simple: Multi-level marketing is the devil. Really, seriously, the devil. Satan. Beezelbub. Lucifer. The Evil One.
This may sound extreme. But hear me out.
A company decides to use an MLM model to sell its product. After all, the MLM model is an easy way to make money by the sweat of someone else's brow. All the company has to do is to manipulate a few people into believing that the product is so fabulous that everyone will want to buy it and that, furthermore, people will love the product so much they will want to sell it. "Anyone who sells these products will make plenty of money," they tell their recruits, "But if you really want to make good money, you'll need to recruit people to do sales as well. But no sweat! People will be begging you to let them sell the product! So get started on this money-making adventure that, with a lot of dedication and a great attitude, will surely make you rich! You can be your own boss! The controller of your own destiny! All you have to do is pay a $1,500.00 start-up fee and the right to sell these products for us will be yours!"
And so it begins: manipulating the human impulse towards hope.
The starry-eyed sales force believes in the product, they believe in the company, and they believe that they have found a way to be able to pay for their child's college education, build up their retirement fund, or spend more time with their family. They turn out their pockets and dig through their couch cushions to pay the start-up fees. The company blithely takes the money, hands over the marketing rights, and turns them loose.
But turn them loose on whom? On an audience of people who are looking for a particular product? A car salesman doesn't follow around his friends and neighbors, stalk people in grocery stores, or otherwise make himself a nuisance in the world at large, saying, "You look like someone who could use a new car. Do you like cars? Look at the cars I'm selling. Don't you think these cars are nice? Did you know that my car company supports families? My leaky roof sure could use fixing. Did you know I make a commission when you buy a car from me? I could fix my roof if you would buy a car from me!" Instead he waits for people to come to the car lot where he works...and then he wheels and deals. Even cold-call telemarketers are at least selling their product in an equal-opportunity way: they're dialing random numbers and trying to persuade people they've never met before to buy a product. But multi-level marketers? They're taught to use their relationships to make money.
It's a sadly familiar scenario: your favorite aunt approaches you about Kiniquita oils. She tells you about how they've solved all of her health problems. She expresses concern about your health problems and begs you to try the Kiniquita oil. You demur. She casually states that it has been really difficult to make ends meet since her husband died and that her Kiniquita sales made it possible for her to put regular meals on the table for her eight children. She then tells you that she thinks the Kiniquita oil would really help with your frequent headaches. And what kind of a louse would let her eight young cousins go hungry? You buy some oil. But you also start avoiding your favorite aunt.
A friend told me that her husband had just begun developing a friendship when he received a phone call from his new friend: "John," said the man, "Can you come over? I need to talk to you." John, a professional counselor, was concerned that something was wrong and that his friend needed some support. So he drove to his new friend's house, only to be welcomed into a room full of people preparing to watch a PowerPoint presentation about a how selling a certain fabulous telephone system could make you rich. As you might imagine, their friendship never left the runway.
A guy from my high school class recently moved into my church ward. Our kids are the same age and we started chatting while standing in the foyer with our restless babies. We talked about how our families should get together and have a barbeque or something. He called one day and left a message....I enthusiastically returned his call, thinking that he was calling to make plans. He was actually calling to see if we could attend an MLM presentation. I told him we would, but then life got crazy and we never did it. I didn't really want to do it anyway, so I started ignoring his calls. He started ignoring us at church.
One wonders if a person who has been entrapped into selling in an MLM scheme ceases to see people as people but rather envisions them stamped with dollar signs. Instead of thinking, "I sure would like to know that person," she thinks, "I wonder if he would be interested in selling LavaLava juice under me." Another friend = another potential sale. Maybe even a $ale$ underling!
These companies often use an almost-religious angle to manipulate people into believing in the company and the product. I am reminded of an email correspondence Abe had with a college friend shortly after we graduated from BYU. The friend had emailed Abe to try to persuade him to sell VIOP phone systems. Abe did some research on the company and found a lot of information showing that the company was basically a pyramid scheme that was designed to take suckers' start-up fees and leave them coughing in the dust. So Abe and his friend emailed back and forth, Abe demonstrating with math and logic that it would be extremely difficult-- not to mention unethical-- to make money selling the phones; the friend arguing back that he was "just being negative." Abe emailed him a link to a blog about the specific scheme he was involved in; the friend emailed back with the following: "The world is full of negative people, Abe. Full of them. Anyone can find something bad if that's what they're looking for. Listen to me, someone you know, not some stranger on the internet. The fact that whoever wrote the blog tried to undermine the integrity of the company simply exposes their ignorance, and can therefore be considered as salt that has lost its savor, if you will, and is good for nothing but to be cast away and trodden under the foot of man. My point is that sure, it's good to look into something before you get involved, but shouldn't you ask the people that know?" My husband, not wanting to see a friend wasting time and energy on a fruitless endeavor, sent him a chart showing him the improbability of making money with the scheme....the friend emailed back saying, "So now you know how many people I need to get signed up for this, please get your phone through me. Thanks buddy!" They haven't communicated since.
My dear friend at least had the decency to feel uncomfortable about the whole exchange. I could sense that she wasn't entirely at peace with having to wield her interpersonal relationships as a tool in her husband's attempts to make money. I ultimately told her that we weren't interested, but felt bad turning her down because I wanted to help her out. After all, this was their livelihood! But that is seriously part of the evil of the MLM...the people who use the structure as a marketing tool-- the ones on top who benefit the most, not the regular people roped into doing the selling-- knew that their sales force would be able to play on the loving impulses of their friends and families. And I can't buy into that. If my friend called me up and said, "Could you give me and my husband $100 a month?" I would have been more receptive. Because when you get down to the core of the matter, that's what people are asking you for when they come asking you to purchase some product from the company they represent. The product is a buffer. (And sometimes it's a good buffer! I mean, Melaleuca products are swell. And I like Mary Kay and Pampered Chef and Scentsy products too. But I really hate the pressure and/or guilt-filled way they can be sold sometimes.) But anyway...what I'm saying is that, if I'm making a love/guilt expenditure, I'd rather all the money go straight into your pocket, rather than into some fat executive's.
Robert Fitzpatrick, author of False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes, clearly describes the problem with a sales model that encourages people to sell to friends and family: "The commercialization of family and friendship relations or the use of 'warm leads' which is required in the MLM marketing program," he writes, "is a destructive element in the community and very unhealthy for individuals involved. Capitalizing upon family ties and loyalties of friendships in order to build a business can destroy ones social foundation. It places stress on relationships that may never return to their original bases of love, loyalty and support. Beyond its destructive social aspects, experience shows that few people enjoy or appreciate being solicited by friends and relatives to buy products. "
So back to my earlier assertion, the one about MLMs being the devil.
My premises are simple:
1) God = love.
2) The devil hates God and therefore hates love.
3) Because the devil hates love, he seeks to destroy it.
3) MLMs destroy loving relationships.
MLMs = the devil