My gosh, already up to 25 LSP posts! Where’d the time fly? Today on Lord Snow Presides… We look at a very, very curious list of traits that should sound very, very familiar to you!
Yes, today Lord Snow presides… over the weird similarity of traits found in both multi-level marketing scam victims and fundagelicals.
Multi-Level Marketing Schemes.
A multi-level marketing scheme (MLM) is a financial scam. The idea is that someone signs up to distribute goods that they buy from a central supplier, in effect bypassing the usual retail model of middlemen and store-based distribution. Once signed up, these distributors then sell directly to their friends and other such people.
The scheme is called “multi-level” because the structure of the company is like, well, a pyramid with many levels that widen as they get lower to the ground. In most of these schemes, the distributor’s real goal is not selling the product as much as it is recruiting new distributors who will work under them. These signed-up recruits are called their downline, while whoever signed them up in turn is called their upline. Some of these lines can be many, many levels deep. In most MLMs, the upline gets a little cut of the profits from whatever the downline manages to generate in sales. Also, since most recruits have to spend a significant amount of money for their “starter kits” of product to sell and demonstrate for customers, that starter-kit money forms part of their upline’s profits. Whoever’s at the top of the pyramid stands to make quite a lot of money from their downline, especially as the layers start getting deep.
A bunch of lawsuits going all the way back to the 1990s brought some of the worst excesses in MLMs to heel and set up regulations and laws to try to curb the worst of their effects. On that site, MLMWatch.org, you’ll see just about all of the big names in the MLM world represented in those lawsuits and enforcement actions: Herbalife, Mannatech, Mona Vie, NuGenix, Amway/Quixtar, and more.
Nonetheless, MLMs are still a dangerous financial scam. They appeal to the desperate and the ignorant, promising easy riches for almost no effort at all, tickling the ears of Prosperity Gospel-raised Christians. Frequently their rah-rah seminars and meetings feature guided imagery and castle-in-the-sky promises of what that MLM’s participants will be doing and buying with the fantastic wealth that they’ll surely generate Real Soon Now™ if they only follow their upline’s recommended strategies to make sales.
New Trends in Old Scammery.
Social media gave MLMs a new life that they could hardly have dreamed about before. Middle-aged (or close to it) Christian women on these sites proved particularly vulnerable to the come-ons and promises of these predatory companies.
Promising these women that they could work from home (thus avoiding daycare expenses and heartache, allowing them to stay near their children), these various companies told them they’d be able to significantly help with their households’ expenses and still be good proper Christian mothers and wives. They played upon fundagelicals’ idolatry of the Bible by rather gutsily declaring that their scams were perfect for a “Proverbs 31 woman.” (The Bible reference involves the ideal woman, who is depicted as a wise businesswoman and household manager, as well as a doting wife and mother. Even in Christian-Land, having it all means doing it all.)
In this, they’re just extending a trend that I noticed back in the mid-90s when I saw just how super-evangelical Amway was–their meetings, books, and tapes all talked up Jesus at every opportunity and it all seemed like a revival service to me. It repelled me rather than intriguing me, but obviously a lot of fundagelicals thought it was amazeballs because now that association is even more direct and more overt.
Female-aimed MLMs like Mary Kay Cosmetics were some of the first wave of MLM scams explicitly linking their particular scheme with a fundagelical Christian lifestyle. LulaRoe and other MLMs followed suit, unable to resist the scent of blood in the water. Now it’s hard for most women to escape social-media come-ons by shills who are the worst possible representatives of their respective products. I’ve seen dozens of recruitment appeals from all of the various MLMs, too–lots of big, please-love-me tryhard smiles and wild eyes begging for friends or family to please, please, please come join the scam.
(Their male counterparts get roped in as well in different ways, typically by male-aimed MLMs–fake investment rings, prepaid legal services, or more hardcore-sounding snake-oil supplements.)
And almost every single one of those people will fail miserably at their chosen MLM.
The success rate for an MLM participant is typically 1% or less of the number of people who sign up for them. Only a fraction actually make more money out of their MLM than they spend on it. And only a fraction of that fraction will ever become successful enough to make a good living at it.
Worst of all, that fraction-of-a-fraction of people will be doing it at the total expense of the participants who enter the MLM, sign up, buy a starter kit, make up a business name (typically involving their initials–like I’d call mine CM Enterprises) and get business cards made up, try to make money at it, and end up quitting in defeat–often with boxes of that MLM’s products in their garage that’ll take years to use up or give away. The biggest victims of all are the people who keep plunging their money into the MLM for years, convinced that they’ll totally finally turn things around soon if they just keep working at it; some people will blow through their life savings and even borrow money from banks or family members to try to do what I frequently hear MLM victims describe as “building the business.”
The people who fall for this stuff might not realize that they are potentially both victims and predators, but their behavior over time will tell us which group they fall into.
Traits for Success–and Failure.
In terms of success, it’d be easier and quicker and less stressful to just take the money to Vegas and gamble it all at the roulette table, I have no doubt; in terms of sureness of returns, a profit on the money spent would far be more certain if the MLM participant used that money to start a fast-food franchise.
But it seems like MLMs simply attract a certain kind of person who is vulnerable to the promises that these scams hold out. It can be really confusing to see someone with an advanced degree getting sucked into an MLM, as one person frustratedly mentioned over at FreeJinjer.org, but these scams don’t appeal to the mind. They appeal to the heart of hearts. And if someone’s got a very certain sort of heart, then the promises fly right past the mind and lodge there, while if someone doesn’t care about MLM scammers’ claimed rewards then they are simply immune to the scammers’ predatory tactics and lies.
First and foremost, an MLM mark has to be comfortable with both lying and being lied to.
Sometimes the MLM is explicit in directing people to lie. When an Ambot friend of mind tried to recruit me in the 90s and I expressed disinterest in selling to friends, I got told that it was no problem at all. I could listen to him selling, and I’d see how easy it was. And I did. I listened to him lie to his friends and acquaintances for a solid hour on the phone one afternoon as he was inviting them to lunch on him (he was borrowing money for rent that month from me, so his generous offer to his marks startled me) so he could explain a new awesome business opportunity he’d just gotten into. None of the marks bit, and I was mortified listening to him wiggle out of what sounded like them directly asking if it was Amway he was referring to. He doesn’t want to say what it is, I thought. I knew I could never get involved with something I was ashamed to talk about directly.Well, Christians do the exact same thing by hiding their evangelistic intentions from people and lying to them about any number of topics–all done for a good and Jesus-approved reason, of course.
Second, an MLM mark has to be greedy–but lack the ability, gumption, or resources to achieve the level of wealth they think they deserve–or else they must be extremely desperate and afraid.
People who misuse credit cards and other forms of consumer debt to buy toys and clothes, or else who buy way more house than they can afford, are prime targets for MLMs. The wise MLM recruiter will spin them dreams of super-early retirement to exotic locations, luxury goods acquired at a whim, and a life of extreme self-indulgence. These marks are greedy, and thus vulnerable to anyone willing to play to their fantasies and entitlement.
People who get in over their heads with medical debts or use consumer debt to buy essentials are in much the same boat. They won’t be thinking of the Lambo cars they’ll buy with their Double Black Diamond earnings or their retirement to Vanuatu or Murano Island. They’ll be thinking about paying off their huge, crushing debts and maybe finishing up their mortgages. But once someone’s gotten into that debt spiral, it’s very difficult to get out–especially if they’re not employed with a living wage. MLMs prey upon them too by offering them a way out–and it’s a potent and cruel promise they hold out to these desperate, vulnerable people. Their marks reach for these unlikely promises in hopes that maybe, just maybe, this’ll be the way out. Maybe they even know a little about how hard it is to succeed at an MLM–but they’ll hope to be one of those few who do, because they can’t think of any other way to fix their problems. They’re afraid, and thus vulnerable to anyone willing to show them a nice, easy solution to what are usually very complicated situations.
Last, an MLM needs marks who can be counted upon not to think critically about the promises being made or the scheme being described.
The come-ons that MLM recruiters offer are patently ridiculous; the products tend to be substandard–or overpriced whether they are junk or treasure. By now, MLM scams have been commonly known for decades–even my sensible (yet desperate and afraid) mother got briefly burned by Amway around 1980. Literally millions of people have been similarly burned. And yet these MLMs still manage to hook victims.
Part of the problem those victims are having is that MLMs typically enjoy quite a bit of approval and encouragement from fundagelical leaders. I’ve seen exactly one Christian say that their church specifically prohibited MLM participants from holding any position of leadership at their church–usually the reality works exactly the opposite, with MLM group leaders holding exalted positions of respect and love within fundagelical circles. (Y’all knew that Betsy DeVos, currently our
Doofus Secretary of Education, is one-half of what is a royal couple in Amway circles… right? Her husband’s the son of the company’s founder. Now she and her husband are some of the deepest-pocketed donors of the American Republican Party–and finally in a position of real power in America. They owe it all to the millions of Americans they’ve fleeced and swindled out of their hard-earned money.)
But fundagelicals long ago lost the ability to critically examine claims. That ability was scorched out of them with fire and vinegar, and it was done in order for them to accept without questions any number of bizarre, WTF beliefs that their leaders need to instill in them.
In assessing a new claim, a fundagelical might consult the quote-mined Bible verses that their Dear Leaders have told them to consult; they might even open a book written by an apologist, or go to a website containing a pastor’s carefully-worded admonitions. And they’ll think very, very hard at the ceiling to see if an invisible wizard in the sky will tell them what to think and do about the claim.
Long ago, fundagelicals were taught not to trust anything that critics of their religion might say about any claim–or to trust any real experts in any of the fields pertaining to the claim. Only TRUE CHRISTIANS™ can be trusted, and obviously a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ would never, ever lie to them, misrepresent their true amount of knowledge in a subject, or steer them wrong for personal gain. Nope, never.
They’re also taught to trust in a leader’s prescribed process. Even if the process seems to be resulting in constant and traumatic failure, they’ll keep plugging away at it (Remember what Pam Stenzel said about the abstinence-only miseducation system she herself taught?). It was from that Ambot friend that I first heard this common fundagelical idea, “the system works if you just work the system,” but I was to hear it many more times from non-MLM-affiliated fundagelicals over the years. They’re taught to view success as slippery and definable as virtually anything; they’re taught to see failure as a personal failing rather than as a systemic one or the result of shoddy directions. And I could be describing either fundagelicals or MLM participants there, as you might have noticed.
A Target-Rich Environment.
I honestly don’t know of a better group than fundagelicals for MLM scammers to target.
I’m just surprised it took this long for them to realize what a goldmine the tribe represents. And I wonder what those MLM scammers will do when evangelical churn finally bottoms out.
Lord Snow Presides… over yet another reason why fundagelical Christianity is going right down the drain, and why it deserves to do so.
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Lord Snow Presides… is our off-topic chat post series. Feel free to talk about anything you want here! I’ve started us off with a topic, but you can go anywhere you want. Lord Snow is my sweet, elderly white cat, who doesn’t know anything and yet knows everything.