Jamie Birdwell-Branson had just moved to Toledo when an old high school friend reached out on Facebook and asked to catch up over breakfast. “She was so interested in meeting up that she agreed to meet up halfway between our two cities — which was about an hour’s drive for each of us,” Birdwell-Branson said. “I was so eager for friendship that I immediately agreed, even though I hadn’t seen her in years.”
Halfway through brunch, though, the other woman’s real focus became clear: She wanted to recruit Birdwell-Branson to sell skin-care products. “She had zero interest in what was going on in my life and had no intention of forming or reconnecting a friendship,” she said. “Needless to say, we haven’t talked since.”
Over the past few years, many women’s social media feeds have morphed from photos of kids and pets into endless posts by friends peddling everything under the sun: makeup, skin care, candles, essential oils, hormone gel patches, leggings, tote bags, juice powders, nontoxic cleaning products, whitening toothpaste, vitamins, nail decals, nutritional shakes and gardening towers.
Women and multilevel marketing (MLM) companies have gone together since Tupperware and Mary Kay launched in the middle of the 20th century as ways for housewives to make money and get products to women in rural areas. Now, with social media, women who sell for MLMs have a whole new way of reaching potential sales and recruits. While some women find success in these endeavors, they are the exceptions: According to a report by Jon M. Taylor of the Consumer Awareness Institute posted on the Federal Trade Commission’s website, less than 1 percent of MLM participants will profit, a far worse rate than for “legitimate small businesses,” of which 39 percent are profitable over the lifetime of the business. “MLM makes even gambling look like a safe bet in comparison,” the report states.
The FTC closely monitors MLM companies and cautions that the compensation structure, which incentivizes participants to recruit additional participants, “poses particular risks of injury.” While the financial dangers of getting involved with an MLM are well-documented, the personal ones are harder to quantify but just as real. Namely: You could end up alienating every Facebook friend you ever had.
The pressure to sell and recruit has led to underhanded tactics that strain, fracture and sometimes end friendships and family relationships. Is dinner with an old college roommate just about reconnecting, or is something else afoot? Increasingly, it’s the latter, and that leaves women on the receiving end feeling duped, angry and not sure how to respond.
The structure of MLMs is to blame for many of those “Let’s catch up!” Facebook messages piling up in your inbox: The more recruits your friend pulls in, the more money she makes. It’s what the MLM industry calls “building a downline,” which is lingo for bringing in a recruit as part of a team that sells under you, while you act as their “upline” and take a cut of their sales. The less pretty term for this is “pyramid scheme.”
Back in our moms’ era, women knew what they were in for when they were invited to a Tupperware party. Today, not all sellers are upfront about their MLM involvement. That coffee with a friend or girls night is — surprise! — not just for fun, it’s about making a sale or a recruitment. “I thought I had made a genuine connection with a mom I met online in a mom group,” said Erin Heger of Kansas. But after Heger declined this mom’s offer to become a Beachbody coach, the woman stopped talking to her. “It really hurt,” Heger said. “I even invited her and her kiddo to my son’s first birthday party. I felt like an idiot for thinking we were actually friends.”
Many women have said they’ve been pursued for get-togethers to the point of feeling stalked. MLMs are so pervasive and the tactics so aggressive, they’ve inspired a closed Facebook group, “Sounds like MLM but ok,” whose 84,000-plus members air their frustrations about MLMs and “their poor business structure, obnoxious marketing practices, and all around awful nature,” according to the group’s public description. It adds, “This is also a place to vent about your #bossbabe ‘friends’ you haven’t talked to since 5th grade but have a wonderful opportunity for you!”
Their tactics can include using email lists that are normally off-limits to solicitations to send invitation blasts to parties, in hopes of making a sale or gaining a recruit under the guise of a get-together. My church’s member directory, for instance, explicitly states that it is for church and ministry use only, but I’ve been added to at least one MLM mailing list despite that warning. Elline Lipkin from California said her child’s school class list was used to dupe parents into an MLM-focused party; other parents who might have professional services to offer do not use this tactic. “A parent at my child’s school spams the whole class list to invite everyone over for themed get-togethers,” said Lipkin. “I innocently went to the first one and walked in just as another rep was winding up her pitch, and felt trapped for over an hour as she told us how pure, wonderful, well-priced, etc. this product was. I let other parents know (subsequently) that these weren’t social gatherings (as some thought, too), but I’m resentful of the duplicity.”
For many women, that duplicity is unforgivable. Grace Alexander of Georgia had a colleague reach out to her because she knew that Alexander was a chef and a diabetic, and had a background helping design meal plans for diabetic residents at an assisted-living center. This colleague asked Alexander for help creating a diet for herself to help her blood sugars stay level and asked if keto diets were any good. The conversation soon took a turn. “Of course, then she sent me this scammy keto shake hard-sell MLM message, and I was so disgusted,” Alexander said. “I unfollowed her on social media and stopped responding to her ‘waves’ and DMs. I felt completely disrespected and insulted by her pretending to want my educated opinion on something I am quasi-expert in. Discovering it was all a front to sell me some ridiculous get-skinny-fast product was just the last straw for me.”
MLM tactics can break family relationships, too. Jen Johnson said that when her sister started selling MLM products, their mom initially bought them but stopped when the sister claimed the product would cure their mom’s cancer. Her sister ended up not speaking to their mother during her final year of life. Johnson blames both the MLM for its tactics and her sister for being heartless enough to follow them. “Also, while my mom was in hospice, my sister attempted one final sale by having her MLM friend try to sell to my mom,” she said. “I have no respect for them.”
Why would any woman engage in such tactics? According to the Direct Selling Association, which describes itself as “the national trade association for companies that market products and services directly to consumers through an independent, entrepreneurial sales force,” 18.6 million Americans are involved in direct sales, and a staggering 74 percent are women.
These women are not setting out to annoy their friends. Many want and need flexible work options because of family or other responsibilities, but it’s challenging to find a standard job that fits within school hours or an unusual schedule, especially if you’ve been out of the workforce a few years to care for a child or relative. MLMs exploit many fault lines around women and the economy — women remain underpaid in the workplace and undervalued as stay-at-home mothers. MLMs promise instant success, camaraderie with other women in a “team” environment and a career identity, trappings that standard jobs typically require years to develop. The lure of an MLM increases further when it says you’ll make loads of money working from home in your pajamas while drinking wine and being your own “boss babe,” as your friends post pictures doing just that.
Once in an MLM, it’s challenging to quit, as Leslie Loges from Virginia can attest. “In an attempt to leave a job where I was burning out, I joined an MLM for the first time and was quite naive about them,” she said. “My upline said step one was to have a party to try to recruit more consultants, and I was tasked with getting four people to attend. My invitation to my friends was super-generic and made it seem like they’d get to try products, but I didn’t even have samples for them to try yet.” Loges was under pressure from her upline and desperate to get people to RSVP. Two friends ended up coming. “My upline facilitated and led the whole thing, but I was the one who had chosen to be vaguely deceptive on the invitation,” Loges said. “In reality, I was deeply embarrassed to tell them I was just trying to get them to sign up with me. My friends were confused and annoyed, my upline was pretty displeased, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster.”
Loges said she’s lucky that the incident didn’t end those friendships, but she never brought up the MLM to those friends again. She did stick with MLM for a few more months, only to realize that it wasn’t for her. “That was in 2013, and I still feel shame from the experience,” she said. “I cut the upline out of my life this past August when she repeatedly asked me to host a party even after I said no. I blocked her from contacting me — on social, email and phone. She texted me from someone else’s phone a couple weeks ago. I blocked that number, too.”
Deb Seher from Massachusetts, another ex-MLMer, put in $900 to start selling dietary and skin-care products but never made a penny. “I was told to get everyone I knew on the regimen. The sell was that it would change people’s health. There was a push that it would cure autism and Down syndrome. It was the fix for people’s financial struggles. Sell at church and PTO meetings. Have tasting parties.” Seher was uncomfortable spewing medical information she knew to be untrue.
“They prey on women that have full plates. Women that need to earn a living while caring for a family,” Seher said. “Women should use the money they invest in an MLM to further their education or market a skill set. Once I did that, I finally started making money. I’m embarrassed that I fell for it.”
correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly referred to an independent report on the profitability of MLMs that was written by Jon M. Taylor. It was submitted as a comment to the Federal Trade Commission, not written by the FTC.