Today, I want to veer off of my usual discussions about family, sex, and poop to talk about the latest trend in female-specific marketing: Multi-Level Marketing “schemes” (MLMs). You’ve probably never heard of “MLM,” but you know what they are. 31, Avon, Mary Kay, Origami Owl, Scentsy, Shakeology, Premier Jewelry, Pure Romance, Pampered Chef (I am literally only looking at my own Facebook feed right now to compile this list). All of those companies that your Facebook friends gush over, post pictures from and about, and fill your “Event” box with invites to “parties” to. These are the companies that have morphed your former high school friends into “consultants,” “guides,” and (my personal favorite) “stylists.”

<Sidebar>Seriously, ladies, can’t we all just have parties? Whatever happened to “Hey! I ordered pizza, have the complete box set of ‘The L Word,’ and three unopened bottles of cabernet! Let’s have a party!” parties? We can do better than this! Do we really need to sling crappy merchandise to friends and family who felt obligated to show up because of their love and respect for you, just to have an excuse to get together? How about these instead? 

  • I just got my husband a new grill for Father’s Day. Let’s let the kids destroy the backyard and eat cheeseburgers! 
  • Hey! We made it through an entire summer with the kids, and nobody’s dead or insane! Back to school party!
  • I put on an old pair of jeans and found a $20 bill! Party time!
  • Or what about, “I miss your face. I miss all your faces. I miss our talks. Come over and let’s hang out again.”

See? No buying or selling required. Just call up your friends and ask if they want to come over. It’s that easy. 

And serve booze, for Christ’s sake! This isn’t Utah!</Sidebar>

Here’s the way MLMs work: an individual (usually a woman. These things are targeted specifically to stay-at-home mothers and women in what have been called “transitional” stages—just married, just had children, just graduated college, just divorced, etc.) joins a company under the auspices of becoming a salesperson for that company. Of course, simultaneously, this individual/salesperson is required then to recruit other salespeople as a way of gaining a portion of their commission on top of the commission they can already generate from the sales of their own products. Here’s a great quote and visual from Stephanie Peterson of Fairground Media:

The neverending loop of recruiters-recruiting-recruiters is incentivized by the fact that salespeople earn commissions on any sales made by people “beneath” them (people they helped sign up with the company).

In case that explanation wasn’t completely clear, here’s a great visual to drive it home:

I’m not saying that this is a “pyramid scheme” per say, but the whole set up does have this three-dimensional triangle kind of feel to it. But maybe I’m just being a hater who wants people to stop telling me that I need a new vibrator in order to feel empowered as a woman. Who knows? (And my vibrator is doing just fine, thanks for asking. I’m a big girl. I can walk into the Lion’s Den all by myself.)

Here’s the thing: MLMs sound like gooey, chocolate-covered awesome, especially for those “transitional” women I mentioned earlier. I get it. I’m one of those transitional women. You set your own hours! You get to be involved in a community of business women! You feel empowered! (“Empowered” is a word that is used repeatedly in MLM propaganda literature. That and “Christian.” Did you know that 31 really pushes a “Christian” propaganda message? Like ordering one of their Chinese-manufactured, monogrammed storage boxes is sanctified by Jesus or something.) You get to decide how much money you want to make! You have your own business! You can sell products that you believe in while getting deep discounts on the products you want for yourself! You can take care of your family, while making supplemental income for them!

Wow, that last one really gets me. As a stay-at-home mother, I want nothing more than to feel I can “do it all.” That I can bring home at least a little bacon, while still devoting my time to my children. That I am a useful member of the household, responsible for contributing financially instead of just spending. It’s tempting. And I get why so many women I know fall for it. I really do. I empathize. Seriously.

But, ladies, it’s bullshit.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report in 2008 calling MLMs “extremely viral and predatory.” Judging from tax information, the report concluded that 99% of “salespeople” in MLMs end up losing money:

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.

I swear I did not make this up, ladies. The FTC just said that MLMs were not comparable to “legitimate” small businesses and that gambling was a safer investment. So, beyond just being an incredible annoyance for all of your friends, doesn’t that raise a whole lot of red flags?

And I know that I’m going to get a barrage of comments about this post. “I love what I do!” “I am not taking advantage of anyone, and NO one is taking advantage of me!” “I AM profitable in my ventures!” “This venture has been the best decision of my life. Hands down.” And, “Why the hell do you care how I choose to spend my time and my resources?”

Okay, okay. Settle. Maybe you are profitable. Maybe you have found a company that answers all of your needs, and you are successful and pleased, and (dare I say) empowered by your relationship with your MLM. But I have a few questions for you:

  1. Is it sustainable? After that first flurry of orders. After that initial “You go, girl!” from your dedicated friends and family members. After the first season has been rendered obsolete and you discover that you have to order all new catalogs or product, will you still be able to convince your neighbor to host another party? Buy another monogrammed bag? Desire another lemon zester? Once your close friends have all bought a necklace from you, or have joined you in “businesses” of their own, who can you turn to? Do you have another plan? Cold calling? Advertising? Or (and this actually happened to me and a girlfriend of mine while we were walking around Target) approaching strange women at random and “surprising” them with a selling party by luring them in under the false pretense of “You have such beautiful coloring! Can I give you my card and call to see if you’d like to be one of our models for a make-up application seminar?” (This did actually happen, but luckily I got over the initial flattery, Googled her line, and found out that it was a selling tactic for a cosmetic MLM.)
  2. Have you really crunched all the numbers? I’m not trying to be condescending. Think about how much time you put into “your business.” How many hours? What are you getting paid for those hours? Are you paying yourself? Don’t you think you deserve to get paid? Are you giving away more and more product, just to make room for the new lines coming out soon that will render your current stock obsolete? What about the gas money? The cost of advertising? The cost of samples or catalogs or business cards? The time, expense, and energy it takes to make 35 canapés for your fifth selling party this month? I have been flirting with the idea of starting my own business from my textiles and weaving, and when I sat down and calculated, really and truly, what I would have to pay myself in order to make my time worth the work, I realized that I couldn’t compete in a real way with the Chinese companies who have flooded Etsy and cheapened the price of handmade, high quality goods.
  3. Why is this the way that you seek out community? This is a genuine question I have. Like I suggested in my <Sidebar> above, I just don’t know why so many women feel as though they’d never throw parties or have friends over if it weren’t for these sales pitches. I sympathize. I also almost don’t feel as though I’m “important” enough to warrant asking people to take time out of their days and lives to, you  know, be a part of mine. But why selling? Doesn’t that go against everything we ever learned about social etiquette? I mean, you would just insult your Mother-in-law if you offered to pay her for the Thanksgiving dinner she just made, right? Because that was done as a gesture of love, not finances. Being a stay-at-home mom is isolating and lonely, but there are ways of expanding your community that don’t involve taking advantage of your friends (and don’t you feel like you’re taking advantage of them? I mean, seriously?).
  4. What about opening your own small business? And I mean, all on your own? No Big Brother watching over you. No frets about commission. No pressure to recruit. You probably won’t make very much money right off the bat (again, those initial, heady first sales seem to really draw people in with unsustainable promises of more to come), but you can pursue products that you GENUINELY believe in, or even that you made yourself. Now that would be empowering!

And there it is. Why I have just lost about 15 friends. Maybe 20. Easily. Because being recruited for one of these companies, or invited to one of these parties, or coerced into purchasing these products has become as common for women in America as a daily stop at Starbucks or McDonalds.

But, finally, why do I care? If you decide that this the best decision for you, then who the hell am I to judge? Well, there are several reasons why I give such a big fuck. Firstly, and most importantly, because I see these companies as being particularly predatory towards women. They are preying on our collective sense of failure, on our culturally-devalued chosen paths (mothers, homemakers, wives, unemployed college graduates, single adults, or underpaid employees in menial service industries). Men are traditionally lauded as the “businessmen” of the world. The leaders. The Don Drapers. Women are the secretaries. Mostly noticed for our big boobs. These companies play into those uncertainties and tensions with promises of self-sufficiency and guilt-free social productivity (which in America we translate into dollars). Again, they want us to feel as though we can “have it all.” Business, family, success, profits. And all in a woman-centered, woman-friendly environment. They’re not fixing any problems, though. Because when those 99% of women fail at their new “businesses,” when they lose an average of $900 to $1000 annually (FTC) at this venture that was meant to make them feel like the smart, capable, and savvy women they didn’t realize they already were, these companies send women into spirals of guilt, depression, and bitterness. I know. They report it themselves on Pink Truth, a website cautioning women against joining MLMs with true stories that the companies don’t want you to hear: the stories of the 99%. Read the forums, if you dare. These women are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

What a bitter path to empowerment.

Secondly, I care about these decisions, because I can’t compete with them. As I mentioned above, I’ve been wanting to open my own small business, selling hand-woven textiles (bags, blankets, rugs) and beadwork (not jewelry on a string, but purses, cuffs, and tapestries also woven on a loom). I also looked into making diaper bags, looking at solutions that I didn’t see currently on any market. I did my research. I opened a spreadsheet. I calculated how much it would cost for supplies. For the time to manufacture these goods. How much inventory I would need to set up a respectable “shop” (read: booth at a local art fair). How much a website or online domain would set me back. How much I would have to sell to make up for that initial investment. Finally, I had to ask how much I would have to sell to make it worthwhile. To actually turn a profit. I flirted with the idea of the “purse party.” But then yet another invite for a 31 Gifts party came through my inbox. And I balked. No matter how overpriced the goods are from these companies (and make no doubt, they are overpriced) I couldn’t compete. Not if I wanted to pay myself something, instead of just covering my initial investment. These companies have the power of large manufacturers, mass-producing their goods, often overseas. I can find a “beaded purse” online for sale for $25. It takes me about 30 hours of work to make just the outer beaded portion of one of my clutch bags. Then I have to make a lining, a handle, decide if I want to install a zipper, or a snap, or a flap closure. Then I have to actually assemble and make the damn thing. I can’t pay myself less than $1 an hour, no matter how desperate I am for recognition and a sense of personal value. I’d value myself less if I let my wares go for that low. And I didn’t want to take advantage of my family or friends by forcing them into buying my goods using these high-pressure “party” techniques. I couldn’t do that ethically. And that’s why I can’t compete. And that’s why I care. Because I know I’m not the only one. I have good friends who are also struggling artisans, trying to genuinely create something unique and high-quality, who are being shut out by people who have been brainwashed into believing that they are “stylists” and “designers” for these large conglomerates.

So that’s why I care. And maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe you’re all right and it’s just none of my business and this whole post is just me venting my personal frustrations and failures.

Either way, stop inviting me to your “parties.” I’m not going. But I’d love to just hang out sometime. For no reason at all.

And that’s a promise you can take to the bank.