Elle Beau didn’t know much about makeup when she started selling it in 2015. As a college student, she was having trouble finding a job that worked with her busy school schedule. So when a friend began posting frequently on Facebook about a new business venture, Beau thought she’d found the solution to all her problems. After paying a start-up fee she couldn’t really afford, Beau was pulled into the cult-like world of Younique. “You’ll definitely make your money back in your first month, easy peasy,” her friend assured her.
But Beau didn’t make her money back. During the seven months she spent as a Younique presenter, she was pressured into buying more and more product, into posting constantly about her “business” on Facebook, and into recruiting friends and family to join her team and buy her products. Although she was hemorrhaging money, she was encouraged by her “upline” (the woman who recruited her and that woman’s superiors) to act like she was flourishing—uploading photos of orders that she’d made, pretending they were from customers, and writing out long testimonials about her love for the products and the company.
“I’ve always been very honest and open about everything in my life,” said Beau, who now runs a blog devoted to warning others about Younique’s toxic culture, and requested VICE not use her real name to avoid harassment from those still devoted to the product. “Finding myself pretending to try and make a sale or trick someone into signing up under me was really difficult. I was doing crap, and so were a lot of the other girls on my team, but we were told to lie.”
If Beau’s story sounds familiar, it probably is. In 2017, more than 18.6 million people in the US were “employed” by a multi-level marketing (MLM) company. According to the FTC, two recent and unrelated studies both found more than 99 percent of people who join MLMs ultimately lose money.
But that hasn’t stopped the MLM model from infiltrating every section of international consumer culture. From colorful leggings and essential oils to supplements and powdered coffee spiked with literal viagra, MLM products like Younique and Herbalife invoke a bizarro world rule 34: if it exists, you can pay money to sell it.
At first glance, it might be difficult to see the problem with the MLMs. Sure, it’s annoying to have acquaintances slide into your DMs and try to sell you weight loss wraps, but is it really hurting anyone? Unfortunately yes, says Rick Alan Ross, an expert cult deprogrammer who founded and serves as executive director of the Cult Education Institute.
“I receive complaints on a regular basis about the destructive nature of MLMs,” Ross told VICE. “They hurt families and relationships, destroy people financially and really do a great deal of harm.”
Over the years, Ross has helped deprogram more than 500 cult victims, and MLMs pop up so frequently in Ross’ line of work that an entire chapter of his book, Cults Inside Out, is devoted to an Amway intervention.
According to Ross, most destructive cults and MLMs share three defining characteristics, initially popularized by Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton: 1. A charismatic leader who is worshipped and revered. 2. A culture of coercive persuasion or thought reform, in which all members of the group are taught to think alike and isolate themselves from anyone who questions their devotion. 3. Sexual, economic or other forms of exploitation of group members by leaders.
Using these tactics, MLMs overwhelmingly prey on vulnerable populations—the poor, single mothers, retirees, and even people with chronic illnesses—and promise them the world. Yes, they tell them, you have to invest a little money. But that’s normal when you start a business! If you work hard, you can can live a life of leisure, raking in cash while staying home with your kids.
When you’re desperate and someone you trust is providing you with what looks like a way out, it’s easy to take the bait. And those decisions, made under pressure and false hope, can end up costing a whole lot more than the joining fee. We talked to Ross and members of the growing anti-MLM community to find out what steps you should take if someone you love is drinking the MLM Kool-Aid.
Don’t buy anything from them, and don’t join their “team.”
“One of the most common mistakes people make when their friends are in an MLM is that they buy products from them,” the manager of the anti-MLM site Botwatch, who goes by ‘Bot’ or ‘Ms. Bot’ for reasons of privacy, told VICE. “They feel like they want to support their friend but don’t realize they are fuelling false hope.”
Along with Elle Beau and several other anti-MLM bloggers, Bot runs mlmtruth.org, a site dedicated to exposing MLMs and providing support for people whose loved ones are in too deep. She says that when a newbie MLMer starts off, their main source of income is going to come from either selling or recruiting their friends and family, and the people who love them may feel obligated to support their “business” by buying their product or signing up underneath them.
“If they have some initial orders, they think they can make it work,” said Bot. “So they invest in it a bit more and keep chasing sales, harassing their friends and family and making relationships awkward.” If no one makes those initial purchases, the newbie MLMer is likely to drop the habit before they get in too deep.
When you see a friend starting to fall for an MLM scheme, your first instinct might be to shake them by the shoulders and yell at them about pyramid schemes. But all the experts we spoke with agree this is actually the worst possible thing you can do.
Like cults, MLMs often have a strong culture of positive thinking that’s centered around blocking out any and all negativity. From the top down, every new recruit is told again and again that they will encounter a lot of people who don’t understand or don’t believe in the mission. They are told these people will attempt to talk them out of the dreams, that they don’t want them to succeed, that they’re jealous and bitter. “Haters” may bring up lawsuits against the company, show evidence that the product they’re selling is of poor quality, or gently point out that the revered founder of the company once ran a scam cancer clinic and drowned his newborn daughter in a fucking hot tub. But recruits are assured all of these things are lies, and the people who tell them are toxic.
“When it comes down to it, if you don’t want to push your friend away, the most important thing you can do is not be negative about the company,” said Sasha Zazzi, co-host of the podcast Sounds Like MLM But OK. “For every one person they have telling them this is a bad idea, they have five more in their upline telling them to ignore the haters, and giving them false examples of people who have ‘made it’ to prove they can too.”
Instead of coming at them armed with statistics and horror stories, Zazzi, Bot, and Ross all recommend asking polite questions about the company’s mission, the amount of work they’re doing, and their financial goals. Be supportive of their decisions without actively supporting the business, and don’t argue with them.
“[Confrontation] in many cases results in the immediate termination of the friendship,” said Bot. “If the MLMer does this to a few people, they can quickly find themselves isolated from genuine friends and they become surrounded by MLM people, who are all encouraging them to keep putting in their money and isolating themselves further.”
Show them the money.
While Beau was selling Younique, her sister implored her to keep a detailed spreadsheet of her expenses and sales. She didn’t want to hear it at the time, but when she finally sat down to calculate how much her new business venture had brought in, she was shocked to see herself deep in the red. That realization, coupled with her growing unease over lying about her life on social media, ultimately pushed her to leave Younique.
“If you’ve got any accounting skills, one of the biggest things you can do to help a friend in an MLM is to set up a basic spreadsheet to show them how much they’re actually bringing in,” said Beau.
People in MLMs might think they’re doing well because they’re netting a few thousand dollars a month through sales and recruitment. But they’re often discounting the difference between revenue and profit, and they also may not realize that as independent contractors, a large chunk of their untaxed income will need to be paid out to the IRS come April.
Additionally, MLMers often have large business-associated costs they don’t even think to factor into their earnings. In addition to being constantly pressured to stock up on new products to sell, MLMers are encouraged to attend large, out-of-state conferences hosted by their companies.
For example, the 2018 annual conference for the essential oil MLM doTERRA just wrapped up last week, and tickets to the event were priced between $125 and $169. Attendees could go to the official doTERRA gala for another $75, take a campus tour for $10, and attend an “EMPOWERED SUCCESS TRAINING” session for another $20. Couple in the cost of flying or driving to Salt Lake City, the cost of a hotel or Airbnb for the week, and meals, “networking” drinks and gala-appropriate outfits, doTERRA consultants who made the trip could easily drop thousands on the experience.
If you want to help a friend see the light, Beau recommends sitting them down with the numbers. Take what they think is their net income and subtract what they’ll owe in taxes, the amount they spend on product, and their travel expenses for conferences and training sessions. Watching their money disappear before their eyes could be the wake-up call they need to stop.
Stage an intervention.
It’s one thing to know someone who’s casually shelling It Works products in addition to her full-time gig. According to the FTC, an estimated 50 percent of MLM recruits will drop out in the first year, and are hopefully able to minimize their losses as a result.
But it’s quite another to watch a friend, spouse or family member spiral into debt and financial ruin, and show no signs of giving it up.
“In many ways, MLMs can be as addictive as gambling,” said Zazzi. “You’re constantly told that you have to pay money to make money, and that you’re just a few months’ hard work away from crazy success. So you keep putting money down, thinking this time will be different, this time you’ll make it back.”
When a loved one is in this deep, it’s not enough to be positive and ask gently probing questions, says Ross, who has seen first-hand families and lives ripped apart by the destructive nature of MLMs.
“I get calls like this all the time,” he told VICE, describing conversations with desperate husbands and wives who have been watching in abject horror as their joint checking accounts are drained, their garages are filled with piles of unsold merchandise, and their spouses become unrecognizable. In these extreme cases, Ross says an intervention can be a loved one’s last resort before cutting off the MLMer completely.
When planning an MLM intervention, Ross first advises the spouse or loved one of the MLMer to start educating themselves on the concepts of thought reform and brainwashing. Once they have an understanding of what has happened to their spouse or loved one, they should reach out to other friends and family members for support during the intervention.
Ross recommends putting together a team of no more than four people – siblings, parents and close friends – who can help to anchor the MLMer and prevent them from walking out when they realize what’s going on. These people can also help attest to the harm they’ve seen caused as a result of the person’s involvement with the MLM.
Ross says an intervention usually takes several days, and he asks the person in the MLM to abstain from contacting anyone they work with during that time. The next step involves educating the person on both the fundamental flaws in the MLM business structure, and the cultural similarities between MLMs and cults. In his book, Ross cites an intervention with an Amway seller who began crying upon realizing he’d been brainwashed into believing the promises made by his upline.
Of course, interventions don’t always work. For every person who is willing to listen and leave, there’s another who refuses to see the light.
When asked if the process used to extract someone from an MLM was the same as the one he uses on victims of cults like Scientology, Ross laughed. “It is. It’s exactly the same process.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.