It was right after I went public about my divorce on social media. Suddenly, I had an inbox full of Facebook messages from women who had attended the same private Christian university. Only, I didn’t know them. I had seen their faces around campus ten years earlier—maybe. But they weren’t close friends.
Their messages began with something like: “I was so sorry to hear about your divorce, and I’ve been praying for you...” I would thank them and we would continue a friendly correspondence for a bit.
Then the pleasantries turned into a pitch.
Eventually I learned the pattern and the switch felt inevitable. A christian acquaintance from my past slipped into my DM’s and, sure enough, they had something to sell. Or better yet, they had a way for my aching heart to earn some easy cash from home. My face would flush with embarrassment each time, realizing I had been duped. I had thought someone simply cared about me. In actuality, they had seen my vulnerability as an opportunity to get me to sell under them for their multi-level marketing business.
I want to pause here to acknowledge that I have close friends who work for such companies. They are kind, have integrity, believe in the product, and are simply trying to earn money for their families. I respect them, and I personally love my Norwex face towels and the essential oils my friends send me from time to time—they smell really good. This isn’t about them.
This is about the people on the other side of these MLMs—those sought after for recruitment—and the companies who treat them as targets. I took a recent poll on Twitter, asking my followers this question:
Have you ever received a private message on Facebook that seemed like personal and genuine correspondence until you realized that it was merely a stepping stone to trying to sell you their MLM product or opportunity?
Out of 660 responses, over half said: “more than once,” and 23% marked the option: “too many times to count.”
Targeting the vulnerable
Maybe you recently binged the four-part LulaRich documentary on Amazon Prime like I did. For some of you, it was a revelation. Others simply nodded, already familiar with the story, because you, your sister, or your best friend sold those same brightly-colored, flowy shirts and dresses. I remember receiving a pair of their famous, “buttery-soft” leggings in the mail years ago. I had won a contest during a LuLaRoe Facebook party. They were comfortable and lasted a long time. A few years after that, I bought another pair. This time, the leggings had multiple holes at the seams within weeks. I thought I just needed to size up, but it turns out the quality of their product had dramatically changed, and those selling it had to deal with the fall-out.
In LulaRich, women who had been selling quality LulaRoe’s products for years began receiving boxes full of moldy, smelling leggings, and pairs with ugly or ill-sewn prints. Instead of being reimbursed or given fresh products, many had no choice but to sell them at a loss or throw them away. There is more to the story if you want to watch the documentary, but what stood out to me was how this particular MLM ended up pitting women against one other; women they had promised to empower as salespeople and mothers were being asked to find ways to convince their friends to invest $5,000 to $9,000 dollars they didn’t have in order to begin their business.
In addition to the financial cost, MLMs put pressure on their salespeople to turn genuine social interaction into a product pitch, costing many their friendships. Not all give in to this marketing strategy, but according to one woman I talked to who “got roped into MLMs,” as she put it, she was encouraged to target the vulnerable: “They teach recruiting based on looking for vulnerable people, especially women—new moms, military wives, women of color, poor college students, etc...” So it wasn’t just me after all.
I took another Twitter poll, this time asking my followers a more specific question:
Have you noticed that you received more of these messages during particularly difficult times in your life that you were public about on social media (like a life transition, a divorce, a job loss, etc.)?
48% responded: “Yes.” Some even shared their experiences. Johanna (@joannakeene) shared: “I got multiple [messages] about Plexus right after I had my baby and was in the throes of postpartum anxiety.” Sharayah (@shuh_ray_uh) chimed in, sharing how she too had received similar messages right after losing her job last year. “I could not believe it,” she said. Andrea (@theandreaburke) said that, lately, she has been receiving messages specifically from those working for weight loss and nutrition MLMs every time she posts a picture of herself or gets tagged in one on Facebook. “It is infuriating,” she added. “So hurtful,” Alyssa (@lyssazim) added, “when I thought it was someone who genuinely wanted to be my friend, only to find out I was just a potential mark to them.”
Buyer’s v. seller’s remorse
In the LuLaRich documentary, many shared about going deep into debt—maxing out credit cards, refinancing their homes, etc. in order to work for LuLaRoe. One man I interviewed, Burg, shared his personal experience working for a different MLM that his coworker introduced him to:
When the economy tanked in 2008 my wife and I were desperate and had zero experience with MLMs, so we signed up. All of the product we had to buy up front went on credit cards, so when we couldn't make it work (she didn't have a job, I was only working 20 hours a week, and we had a baby) we were evicted from our apartment. Bankruptcy was our only option.
When Mike got married, his friend gave him a DVD and some books as a wedding gift. They turned out to be materials advertising his MLM “business opportunity.” Despite distancing himself from this friend, when Mike’s wife was fighting cancer, the same friend, “kept sending material and telling us their ‘business partners’ were praying and wanted to help us financially (by getting us into their business).” The result? “We no longer have a friendship,” Mike said.
Amanda described the experience of being pursued for recruitment by family members as “dehumanizing.” “We are treated as prospects and only checked up on when they are circling back to try to get us to participate [in their MLM]. Same for some church relationships.”
Some of the people I interviewed shared regret over how their involvement with MLMs impacted their relationships. “I know I hurt a lot of people in the way I started to let those MLM pursuits overtake friendships,” Heather shared. “I am still repairing friendships as a result, even four years after leaving.”
MLMs are “single handedly ruining female friendships—particularly within the church,” Kate told me. She was climbing her way to the top of an MLM for about seven years, but recently resigned and shared her experience with me. She said that these companies teach their salespeople to “use certain language to appeal to felt needs like belonging, recognition, friendship, and income.” They make it seem like it’s all about putting “family first,” she said, “but it is set up to become all consuming, to target friends and family and strangers and anyone whose path you may cross. You become isolated from the outside world, and therefore vulnerable to the culture within.” When God convicted her that what had started as a good thing was becoming an idol in her life, she quit.
When MLMs come to church
The fallout of these MLM strategies have hurt not only friendships, but relationships within the church. “I’ve grown very suspicious of Christian women,” Tanya shared. “I’m always aware that they could be becoming my friend only with the intent for me to become their customer.” And the consensus from those I interviewed is that the church has become a place of recruitment for those working for MLMs.
Tanya went on to share that she had a lady from her church Bible study ask if she could come to her home, “to talk about some really important questions.” “I thought,” said Tanya, “that meant we would be praying together and discussing a recent lesson. No. She spent three hours in my dining room having me watch videos and go through catalogs while she asked invasive questions about my personal finances and how she could ‘help’ my family be better.”
Carrie also witnessed the manipulation of Christian language and community from MLMs. One friend began an “accountability group” to help people with their health goals, but it ended up being a place where she tried to sell and promote her company’s products. When Carrie told her friend she couldn’t afford the items, instead of accepting it, Carrie says her friend tried to “brainstorm with me where I could cut out the money from other areas of my life.” Another person Carrie encountered began “blending Scripture with her MLM,” promoting “fitness and accountability groups alongside Bible studies.” “Women were joining her group, and she was their ‘guru,’” Carrie said. “She would teach them how to understand scripture and how to live a physically healthy life. She had no training other than what her MLM provided.”
Counting the cost
Loving the work we do is one way we flourish as embodied souls. I believe with all my heart that the majority of people I know working for MLMs believe in what they are selling and genuinely want others to experience the benefits of that product, or even see financial gain from working for the same company. But when we hear these stories—and I only shared a fraction of the ones I heard over the last few months—it’s worth stepping back and asking: what is the cost? Specifically: what is the cost of these particular marketing strategies on the poor, on those wrestling with grief, on our friends, and in our church families?
Friendship is hard enough without wondering if you might be served a sales pitch alongside dessert, or if your church’s new small group is a place for honest sharing, or if your vulnerability is being noted for potential MLM recruitment. The suspicion many of us naturally feel when entering new friendships is the result of living in a fallen world. But is selling that dress or lotion through manipulation really worth adding to the trust issues most of us already carry?
I guess what I’m saying is: let’s be transparent. Let’s separate business from friendship and sales from church community. Sell that mop, that shake, or those leggings (as long as they aren’t moldy) with confidence and gusto—but make it a clear choice. Don’t use friendship as a tool or the church as a marketplace.