Long story short, I got completely sucked down the rabbit hole that is anti-MLM blogs. There's one entity in particular (it rhymes with Scamway) that seems to cross the line between "multi-level-totally-not-a-pyramid-scheme-guys-we-swear" and "four minutes away from buying a compound in Guyana" with regularity.
I'm not really down with MLMs myself -- their ultimate goal is to recruit more and more people into the MLM, so how can they be sustainable? Once everyone around you is an "independent business owner," who's left to buy anything? I will not knowingly involve myself with one or promote their products. That doesn't mean they don't kind of fascinate me, though, in the same way that Scientology and Aum Shinrikyo do. I hate that they exist, but I love reading about them.
I ended up tricked into attending an MLM pitch, once. My former room mate, we'll call her "Tina," had a birthday coming up. Her brother told her about an event going on at the venue he worked for, and got her pretty amped up for it. She described it as "a chocolate exposé," which had me confused. (Was chocolate caught in flagrante delicto? Canoodling with some celery at Coachella?) Still, I figured it sounded alright and it was what she wanted to do for her birthday.
When we got there, I knew something had to be up. In the middle of the tables in the event area were all of these little foil ziplocks, poised beside small plates of neatly stacked, waxy-looking chocolates.
Wait. Is this an MLM sche--
And, on stage, a portly man wearing an ill-fitting, off-the-rack suit. His smile did not reach his eyes, receded as they were into the plump hillocks of his round, red cheeks. His whole face had the peculiar beetroot color of someone wearing too much polyester under too many lights.
Still, it was for Tina's birthday. Maybe I was wrong. She, my other former room mate Morgan, and I sat down to see what was what.
"What" turned out to be a three hour sales pitch to rope us into pushing tiny circles of crappy weight-loss candy like the world's most disappointing drug dealers. We were complimented on our intelligence and ambition for deciding to attend and take part in this business opportunity. Clearly we were discerning people who cared about our health, and knew how completely impossible it was to lose weight without horfing chemical-infused candy by the fistful.
Doctors were the villains here, what with their diet and exercise recommendations and utter failure to prescribe vague combinations of "minerals" to treat their patients instead of actual medicine. But we were too smart for that, he assured us. This chocolate contained herbs and minerals, a veritable panacea for whatever ails you. And the signup costs were so reasonable, too -- after a nominal fee of a couple hundred dollars, it would only run us $75 per unit (how much is "a unit?" He never said) to stock up and we were guaranteed to sell out.
[caption id="attachment_3614" align="aligncenter" width="500"] Pictured: A totally-legitimate-and-not-at-all-unsustainable-or-scammy way to lose weight, the cult le-- *ahem* independent businessman promises.[/caption]
"After all," he said, the edges of his grin showing too, too many teeth, "Everyone loves chocolate."
Walking out wasn't an option -- all of the doors were closed with people standing by them, which made me uneasy. The air was stuffy, thick with the greasy, cloying smell of cheap chocolate and heavy with the tension of an entire roomful of grown ass adults who weren't allowed to go to the bathroom. Luckily for us, there was an intermission an hour and a half or so into the pitch. We ducked out and went to a restaurant with more to eat than waxy circles of diet candy.
"So," I said, "I'm pretty sure we just escaped either a pyramid scheme, or a religion. Maybe both."
Like I mentioned at the beginning, they're interesting the way that the Branch Davidians or The Family are interesting.
Some of the stories coming out of Amway, in particular, are a combination of horrifying and gripping. Everything from "Independent Business Owners" (a title Amway gives to its commissioned salespeople, despite the fact that it does not help them register for business licenses, register business names, or have any authority to make someone a legal business owner) being told to sell their homes to invest in more products ("You can buy a new home later!"), to leave their spouses ("They're just holding you back!"), to develop new romantic relationships within the group.
Everything that goes on in cultic grooming seems to happen in MLM recruitment -- there's a period of love-bombing, there's jargon used to reinforce an in-group vs. out-group mentality, and people involved in the MLM are told to avoid those who try to talk them out of it. Scientology calls these people "suppressive persons" and demands they be shunned completely by its members. Amway calls them "dream stealers" and demands... pretty much the same thing. It's a bizarre, engrossing, stomach-churning ride.
If you aren't sure if a group is a cult or has cultic practices, this guide by the Cult Awareness + Information Center can help identify typical cult behavior.
This e-book, Merchants of Deception, is one frequently pointed to by people who've been burned by MLMs. MLM groups have attempted to discredit the book by claiming parts of it were made up, but this isn't the case.
This podcast by Robert FitzPatrick, Why MLM is a Scam, is a look into what MLMs are and why they are fundamentally not sustainable.
The Financial Jonestown: My experience with the Amway Motivational Organization (AMO) URAssociation, is pretty self-explanatory. It's also a heck of a read.
The MLM Syndrome: Dr. Doe's Investigation into MLM CONditioning is also fairly self-explanatory, but fascinating.
This blog, Married to an Ambot, is one woman's tale of the outrageous abuses of authority that occurred in the Amway group her husband was involved with. She doesn't pull any punches, so some of the posts may not be for the faint of heart.
I've seen people around me get caught up in both MLMs and cultic activities, and it's a frightening thing to see. I've witnessed the recruitment tactics first hand. If you're not sure if the business opportunity you're being presented is an MLM with cultic tendencies, see if you can get straight answers to any of these questions:
- Will you need a business license? (Spoiler: If you are going to be a legitimate business owner, the answer is yes.)
- Are you expected to make most of your money through recruitment?
- If so, what happens once everyone has been recruited? What customer base will be left to buy the actual products?
- Are you expected to spend your own money in order to be eligible for a commission? As in, are they expecting you to pay them to work for them?
- If you don't make any sales, are you going to be stuck with a basement full of unsold stock? Don't accept "but you're guaranteed to make sales" as an answer.
- How do the other people within the group talk about those outside of it? Beware of any group that consistently refers to outsiders as "losers," or indicates that anyone who doesn't join the group is doomed.
- Are you being thought policed? Is there a strong emphasis on avoiding "negativity" or questioning the group's practices?
- Are all of the meetings at strange times of day? It's common practice to insist on meeting late at night, for two reasons: These "business opportunities" don't actually grant financial independence, so the meetings have to be held after work hours, and sleep deprivation is a cult recruitment tactic.
- Are you allowed to use the bathroom and eat when you need to? This is a big one. Denying people the ability to perform necessary bodily functions doesn't just demonstrate control over them and weed out those who are less susceptible to conditioning, it also helps lower their defenses. If you're at an event and you aren't allowed to leave it for any reason, get out.
As you read these stories, just keep one thing in mind: This can happen to anyone. Many highly educated, ambitious, and even otherwise successful people become absorbed into schemes like these. Being involved in a cult or MLM doesn't mean a person is stupid, just desperate.