September 11, 2023

Co-opting Friends and Feminism on Social Media: Multi-Level Marketing

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

While I’m only an occasional user of social media, a few years ago I noticed that an acquaintance began posting much more frequently, often self-helpy posts encouraging people to seize the day, believe in themselves, and generally live their “best lives.”

Nothing wrong with positivity, I thought, but the shift was abrupt. “We’ve got this, ladies!” and TGIM! (Thank God it’s Monday) became regular slogans, along with a lot more personal (over)sharing—multiple times a day—from someone who had previously been only an occasional poster.

What baffled me were the goofy pictures of this person making funny faces, and  the pictures with animal filters on already silly pictures that also began appearing regularly. Another acquaintance also posted similar slogans, with equally unflattering silly pics. They both regularly interacted with anyone who commented on the posts, often adding how beautiful the other was, in an apparent act of mutual uplift.

Nice, but still, I thought: What’s up with this?

Turns out, multilevel marketing (MLM).

Multilevel marketing is when people are recruited to sell a product and are incentivized to recruit others to also sell that product. In the case of these acquaintances, they were selling makeup and dietary supplements. When I later searched these products online—which I won’t name here—the word “scam” regularly came up with the brand, along with a lot of interesting information about how marketing such products draws on a long history of women’s limited access to entrepreneurship and status within the traditional labor market. These kinds of companies also encourage (mostly) women to draw on their friends, families, and now, online social networks as potential customers and “downline” sales reps.

Social media posts often include pictures of smiling women appearing to enjoy traveling to a marketing conference with “new friends” and most notably “awesome mentors” who support their “personal growth” and newfound success. Using the language of the business world, posts detail how these mentors encouraged them to grow their “own businesses” and enabled them to live a dream they never imagined possible. Buying a lakeside second home had, apparently, been my acquaintance’s dream that was now fulfilled, thanks to her success selling said products.

Of course, “mentors” in this case means people who recruited them to sell products, who earn a portion of the proceeds from their “mentees” earnings. There’s a real dark side to many of these arrangements. As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports:

Most people who join legitimate MLMs make little or no money. Some of them lose money. In some cases, people believe they’ve joined a legitimate MLM, but it turns out to be an illegal pyramid scheme that steals everything they invest and leaves them deeply in debt.

How do people actually lose money? They typically have to buy a certain amount of products to get started, and they keep buying because they’re told that  meeting goals will lead to big rewards. The FTC continues:

Eventually, most distributors find that no matter how hard they work, they can’t sell enough inventory or recruit enough people to make money. They also can’t keep up with required fees or the inventory purchases they need to make to qualify for rewards, and they can’t earn enough money to cover their expenses. In the end, most people run out of money, have to quit, and lose everything they invested.

Of course, it’s not just about money, but also about this new group of “friends” that you might have acquired by signing up. These are the people telling you your screwy face pics are gorgeous and congratulate you daily for “being your best self” and inspiring others.

A 2019 Guardian story likens one MLM company to a cult, noting that they often target people who might be having financial difficulties, have health issues, or have childcare responsibilities that interfere with traditional work opportunities. The story discusses some of the recruitment tactics, which include high praise about how awesome you are and the promise of a stable income while working from home. The sales team is described as a “sisterhood,” of which recruits become central members, borrowing from the language of feminism. That is, until their sales don’t keep up, according to a woman interviewed for The Guardian:

"There was a lot of emotional blackmail," she says. “I would feel really guilty if I didn’t attend fortnightly meetings.” She says her upline [the person who recruited her] encouraged her to “stay away” from people who criticised (sic) the company, including her own family. “They said if you don’t work on your mindset, your business will fail,” she says.

Those whose sales numbers were low were also told they needed to work harder to change their lives, and to “control their…destiny.” Sellers would be required to attend online seminars filled with motivational buzzwords, participants told The Guardian, and they were told to highlight how happy and successful they are on their social media feeds, regardless of how they were really faring.

Self-help speak became weaponized; not succeeding thus implies self-induced failure.

Sales jobs where women rely on their social connections aren’t new. When I was a child, an “Avon lady” came to our house to sell my mom makeup. In those pre-internet days, you had to go to a store to buy goods and bring your small children with you. It was much more convenient for a stay-at-home mom with small kids to have someone visit you, patiently showing you the new product line while your kids played at home.

She also attended Tupperware parties, where a group of women might get together and see the new plastic products that kept leftovers fresh. This was also a chance to socialize with other stay-at-home moms, and if you served as host and invited your friends, you could get a free product or a discount.

But there is a big difference between a sales job and being in an MLM scheme, where high-pressure tactics require you to buy products and bring in new sellers, and participants more often than not lose money. According to the FTC:

Failure and loss rates for MLMs are not comparable with legitimate small businesses, which have been found to be profitable for 39% over the lifetime of the business; whereas less than 1% of MLM participants profit. MLM makes even gambling look like a safe bet in comparison.

Losing friends is also a very real possibility, as the “sisterhood” may be gone or even turn on you once you stop selling. And those friends and family members that you recruited or tried to sell stuff to might not be so happy with you either.

I really hope the acquaintances I referenced above are “living their best lives” and are as happy, carefree, and successful as their posts suggest. And if they are, odds are good it is not because they are earning money selling the makeup that allegedly gives one so much confidence or the supplements that helped the other lose weight, gain energy, and feel #blessed.


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