Hi! We talk about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) sometimes around here. One point I make repeatedly involves their similarity to the worst flavors of Christianity. Today, I want to show you something called an affinity scam, and then draw some comparisons between those cons and what’s happening in the MLM world.
(See endnote about MLM terminology, if you need it.)
And that faith can be good for a company’s bottom line.
—Sarah Henning, LJWorld
In a classic affinity scam, con artists infiltrate a tightly-knit group by stressing a common affiliation. Then they take that group’s trusting members on a ride.
Christian groups are particularly susceptible to this kind of scam. They naturally trust each other. Often, they think people in their group are more moral, decent, and ethical than people outside it. Some of them even refer to their group members as a family. In the first Pentecostal church I attended, people called each other “Brother” and “Sister.” Many Christians refer to their churches as their church family or their church home.
So when someone comes into the group with a scam, or is an existing member who somehow gets sucked into a scam, that person stresses the group’s affiliation to find more victims. A Christian, for example, will stress their religious faith as a way to seem more trustworthy.
Lots of businesses do something similar by putting religious symbols on their signage and business cards. They expect their fellow group members to see those symbols and assume that the business’ practices and standards are superior to those of other, similar businesses. In a very religious area, this virtue-signaling can result in huge boosts in sales. (See endnote.)
The Underpinnings Matter.
A while ago, I noticed some huge similarities between MLMs and right-wing Christianity. Indeed, twenty years ago Amway turned me off completely because it borrowed so much imagery, terminology, and general showmanship from fundagelicalism. I knew that much fundagelicalism couldn’t be good for me!
Amway and its sister MLMs are so tightly fused with that kind of Christianity that I’m always surprised to hear about someone signing up who isn’t one of them. (Often, I notice this happening outside of the United States.) I don’t think they remain unconverted for long. That kind of religiosity seems like it either repels potential recruits immediately or it draws them in.
But MLMs’ occasional capture of a non-fundagelical illustrates grandly one other big point of this blog. The underpinnings of our worldview matter immensely–and these can sometimes be completely independent of our religious labels. If, at heart, people buy into the same basic indoctrination points that inform fundagelicalism, then they’ll be much more likely to fall victim to the hucksters using the religion as a cover.
Looking at Steven Hassan’s classic BITE model, we can see those underpinnings laid bare.
The BITE Model.
BITE stands for Behavior Control, Information Control, Thought Control, and Emotional Control. Authoritarian groups use these forms of control to recruit, indoctrinate, and control their members. People that fall into groups using this model tend to:
- Lean toward being authoritarian followers
- See the world in tribal, dualistic terms: good vs. bad, us vs. them
- Be open to the idea of dependence on a leader
- Be vulnerable to love-bombing
- Believe in magical thinking and the supposed power of positive thinking
- Feel a great deal of trust toward group members
- Define themselves in terms of the group memberships they hold
- Function better in strongly-self-defined groups and feel bad if membership becomes threatened
- Be more willing–or desperate enough–to suspend disbelief and critical thinking in the face of big promises
To a certain extent, these traits grade along an axis. We all tend to like people who act lovingly toward us. We all tend to trust our own group members more than people outside our group. And we all tend to deploy less critical thinking when we sense it might keep us from a potential huge payoff. More to the point, I’m willing to bet that most groups tend to be really nice to new people and encourage greater trust and camaraderie between their members.
Where the model comes in handy is evaluating groups’ effects on members and how far these tendencies go. A group that goes overboard on love-bombing is one to beware of. Similarly, we should be wary of groups that use a lot of repeated catchphrases and–yes–stressed affinities.
It’s very easy for me to see how authoritarian Christian groups sprout MLM members like a forest sprouts mushrooms after rain. These two groups were, quite literally, made for each other.
MLMs Might Be Collapsing At Last.
For a while now, though, I’ve noticed that as Christianity itself declines, MLMs seem to be declining alongside it.
Other MLMs seem to be struggling hard as well.
Younique, a (simply awful) makeup-based MLM, finds itself flailing to attract new victims. Their new majority-stake owner, Coty, euphemistically refers to the MLM’s troubles as its “de-hype phase.” Pierre Laubies, Coty’s CEO, told The Motley Fool recently that he sees that de-hyping problem as a universal one in MLMs.
Laubies thinks that simplifying the business will help recruit new victims to the scheme. But that complexity is exactly what lands MLMs their suckers: it amounts to confusing-and-losing people. Huns seriously think that it’s a great and wonderful thing that they get paid in so many different ways. They call it “multiple streams of income” and even look down on real jobs, which they mistakenly see as offering only one income stream.
Despite huns’ valiant attempt to reframe a dealbreaker into a bonus, the backlash against MLMs appears to have begun.
A Sudden New Wave of Attention.
I’m just amazed by this sudden influx of pushback against MLMs. Most of this section’s news happened just in the last couple of months!
Huffington Post recently ran an article called “MLMs Are A Nightmare For Women And Everyone They Know.”
Kirsten Dunst currently stars in a streaming show coming out in August called On Becoming a God in Central Florida. She plays a woman who decides to ruin the MLM (a thinly-disguised version of Amway) that once ruined her. The Christian site Relevant covered the show in a very favorable way. They also ran a very critical companion piece about MLMs generally.
Back in May, Vice ran a documentary about MLMs called “Why Women Are Quitting Their Side Hustle: Leaving LuLaRoe.”
It joins John Oliver’s iconic 2016 show about the predatory nature of MLMs:
All about multi-level marketing.
The BBC recently ran a big documentary about these scams as well:
“The Secrets of Making Money on Social Media Through Multi-Level Marketing: Ellie Undercover.” This isn’t the full documentary. Here’s the full one, but it requires registration and might not work outside of the UK.
Indeed, over the last few months, I’ve noticed anti-MLM documentaries simply swamping YouTube. Almost half a million people on Reddit now subscribe to the r/antiMLM subreddit. 120k people subscribe to Facebook’s “Sounds like MLM but ok” group.
I’m also hearing more often about craft fairs and the like refusing booths to MLMs.
It’s also incredibly easy to find MLMs’ goods on resale sites like eBay–often for prices considerably lower than huns can possibly offer. As huns quit their various scams, only to find themselves stuck with thousands of dollars of worthless products they can’t sell at full price, they resort to recouping those costs however they can. People who actually like these products can scoop up great deals in these going-out-of-business (GOOB) sales. (See endnote.)
I had been ‘hunzoned’; lulled into a false sense of security with someone who purported to be interested in me as a person, but was actually just trying to recruit me into their multi-level marketing scheme.
—Jessica Lindsay, Metro UK
Called “hun-zoning,” this practice finally puts a name to huns’ well-established habit of reaching out to friends, acquaintances, and even long-dead friendships (like elementary school friends) and enemies (like people they once bullied!) under false pretenses. They pretend they want to hang out or catch up with those people. Then, once the other person bites the bait, the huns reveal that really, they actually only wanted to recruit a new victim.
This predatory, dishonest practice feels especially cruel to people who feel they have trouble making new friends, those who’ve recently moved to a new area, and mothers of newborns feeling all the social isolation that can come with their new bundle of joy.
All in all, it seems like generally speaking a lot of people are pushing back hard lately against the way MLMs operate.
MLM Leaders’ Reaction to the Pushback.
Huns and their leaders have always stressed their affiliation with Christianity. It just feels like that emphasis has increased in recent months.
This past June, Bob Heilig, a big-name “virtual upline trainer” for MLMs generally, gave the keynote speech at Plexus’ Rise Up convention. Plexus is a health-and-wellness MLM, insofar as any of these MLMs ever can be. During his rah-rah speech, Heilig put this slide up. In the doing, he shocked a whole lot of people–though the huns hearing his message went wild with applause and cheers.
His slide reads, “Your Plexus business is an assignment from God to help you build your faith.”
Yes. Because obviously, when people go into business they care a lot more about building their faith than they do about making money.
The Vital Link.
Heilig didn’t tie this MLM to religious faith by accident.
Christians know that building their faith involves the performance of devotions. But these devotions don’t seem to tie at all to results. Prayer represents simple magical thinking. Most Christians read their Bible on rare occasions but even more rarely do they actually understand any of it. Churchgoing itself wastes half a day to tell Christians stuff they should already know.
Similarly, most of the stuff MLMs tell their huns to do doesn’t translate to business success for anybody except the MLMs’ leaders (and meta-MLM shills like Heilig). For those few folks, it pays off grandly! That Plexus convention sure wasn’t free–huns paid $129 each to attend, not counting food, hotel stays, transportation costs, and the opportunity cost of what they missed out on back home by attending.
So now, instead of having a clear benchmark for success–actual income–Heilig has tied the MLM to something nobody can meaningfully measure: religious faith.
I agree with the blogger at Behind MLM. This whole thing simply appalls me.
But it shouldn’t.
A Tale As Old As Time.
The following list all comes from the past few weeks:
- Amway: “God led you [to Amway], something else led you away, just to be clear.”
- SeneGence: “I truly believe [this MLM is] what God has called me to do.”
- Plexus (and this unnamed MLM almost verbatim): “My friend said the other day ‘Jesus was the *FIRST* Network Marketer. He hand chose His 12 & taught them to DUPLICATE & MULTIPLY!’ #boom”
- Young Living: Hun’s eyes “filled with tears” over what the Bible apparently says about essential oils.
- Mary Kay: “I can’t even imagine the things that God, you, my family, and myself can make happen!”
- LuLaRoe, probably: “I was introduced to a new adventure recently that has been God sent for my family.”
Huns are monkey-see, monkey-do all the way. Whatever they say, they got as a script from their upline (that’s why they call their victims “hun” so often–they sometimes fail hilariously with their copy-and-paste nonsense). So you can bet their upline is filling their heads with even more trash like that.
Also lately, some big names in the women’s Christ-o-sphere have begun shilling for MLMs. Rachel Hollis, of Girl, Wash Your Face fame (and recent notoriety), has been popping up in huns’ social media–and incidentally supporting MLMs like Arbonne and LuLaRoe. That trend seems new as well; before, the big names in MLM support were male (like the venerable Amway icon Zig Ziglar), and they tended to get hired by less female-specific MLMs like Amway.
These huns all seek to affiliate themselves with Christianity because it usually works grandly to gain the trust of their targeted victims. In this way, they act exactly like any other affinity scammer who infiltrates a church.
We can’t let down our guard just because someone in our group comes to us with an “opportunity.” Back when I had freshly-deconverted, I didn’t learn that lesson for a long time! Instead of auto-trusting Christians, I simply transferred that auto-trust to anyone who professed a love for Macintosh computers. Seriously. In my defense, it was the early 1990s; back then, those were still pretty new and niche machines. Thankfully, I came to no grief because of that trust, but I could have–just like I did when I over-trusted Christians!
With the BITE model, we can train ourselves to recognize the warning signs of a group that’s setting us up for a scam. No culty group starts out by slamming members full force with extreme control-grabs. They usually start with small violations and edge toward that totality little by little. Having a firm sense of our boundaries, learning to say “no,” and never letting go of our critical-thinking faculties all seem like a good start for protecting ourselves.
No reward is worth
this what these groups demand.
And maybe, just maybe, more people are starting to realize that.
NEXT UP: Why complementarian men despise no-fault divorce–and why they really, really should. See you soon!
MLM Terminology: A hun is someone shilling for an MLM. They’re called huns because they often open sales pitches with generic greetings like “Hey hun!” (They spell “hon” like that too, often.) For them, the word functions almost like a bird’s mating call. Sometimes folks call them hunbots because they act so robotically.
The person who signed the hun up for the scam is called their upline. The upline also consists of that entire line of scammers up the endless chain: the hun who signed the immediate upline up, and the hun who signed that upline up, and so on. The hun’s downline consists of everyone that hun manages to sign up, and everyone that new downline hun signs up, and so on. Uplines all get a piece of commission on the sales of their downline. (Back to the post!)
About that boost: Increasingly, I’m hearing that people have begun avoiding businesses that resort to this show of affiliation. I’m one of them and have been for years. If a business must point out its religious affiliation, that tells me they must take that step to artificially boost their chances of finding sales. Their practices and past record aren’t strong enough on their own to differentiate them. Before I made that avoidance a policy, I got cheated and scammed many times by such “Christian” businesses because I mistakenly trusted them to be more honest and ethical than their competition. (Back to the post!)
About those fire sales: Officially, huns aren’t ever allowed to set their own prices (which is weird considering most of them are totally (mistakenly) convinced they “own their own business“), but the MLM can’t really do much to the huns once their former victims decide to cut ties. Amway recently started a lawsuit against two such resellers. This time, their main stated issue with the situation was that the plaintiffs were selling damaged, used, defective, counterfeit, and expired Amway products. Some commenters on that link mention that Amway commonly sues ex-huns who try to recoup their losses in similar manner, even if the goods are new. Take that info as you like. (Back to the post!)
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Public Safety Announcement: DO NOT EVER ingest essential oils, rub them on the skin without significant dilution, or diffuse into the air around children or animals. See your pediatrician or veterinarian for advice. If you discover a health practitioner shills these oils, fire that person and get a new one–immediately. Be wary about accepting any food or drink from any hun who slings oils–they’re being advised lately by their uplines to ingest them and I’ve seen these scumbags post proudly about sneaking them into other people’s food/drinks at potlucks and parties.
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