Online cults part 4: “Multi-Level Marketing”

Continuing our series to help make church leaders aware of the online cults out there vying for the attention of your members, so far we have looked at “the manosphere”, “that girl, girl boss, and trad wife”, and “hustle culture” content. I’ve alluded to it before in how it intersects with the girl boss, but today we’ll look a bit closer at “multi-level marketing” or MLM and how they are one of the most cult-like online dangers for your church.

What is multi-level marketing (MLM)?

Multi-level marketing, also known as network marketing, is a business model that relies on a network of distributors to grow and expand the company. In this model, people make money by recruiting others into their “downline” and earning a commission on all downline sales. Although multi-level marketing can have legitimate products and services, the focus on recruitment often creates a pyramid-shaped income structure where those at the top benefit more than those at the bottom. They regularly exhibit highly cult like behavior in exerting control and the need to conform.

How to identify multi-level marketing (MLM)?

Multi-level marketing has been around a long time and are constantly evolving. There are the more obvious approaches used in multi-level marketing content and then there are more sophisticated soft approaches appearing today. We’ll look at both, but most of the MLM content does share a few commonalities::

  • It almost always targets and features millennial aged women, particularly ones with children.
  • The underlying promise is always to “have it all”: to be both an available mom and successful entrepreneur.
  • Invitations to “exclusive” or private online groups.

Here’s what you’ll see from the obvious multi-level marketing content:

  • Regular “North Korean dictator style” praises for providing a particular living standard.
  • Attributes big item purchases to the MLM.
  • Frequent testimonials of how the MLM has changed the life of the person writing the post.
  • Use of cringe hashtags like #bossbabe, #girlboss, and #mompreneur.

Here’s what you’ll see from the sophisticated multi-level marketing content:

  • Heavy use of attraction marketing.
  • Obfuscation of brands and multi-level marketing company (they’ll even turn the product around so you can’t see the brand label).
  • A lot of demonstration of free time or a seemingly carefree lifestyle like park visits or cooking with the family.
  • Sophisticated demographic targeting.
  • Family life livestreams that don’t mention products.

There’s also a very common tendency for people who have not been in contact for decades to suddenly start messaging all their existing social media connections. This is encouraged for growing a downline and most middle-aged women will have been approached by an old acquaintance they haven’t spoken to in years suddenly trying to befriend them to recruit them.

The hulk getting involved in multi-level marketing meme

Why is multi-level marketing (MLM) so prevalent?

First is feminism. Look, like it, love it, or hate it, it’s come as a bit of a double-edged sword. The latest iterations of feminism have told women that they need to meet certain business expectations, yet, society hasn’t really adjusted in such a way that familial expectations were alleviated. This leaves women trying to find a pathway to be both model mothers and successful entrepreneurs… neither of those things is particularly easy in and of itself. I want to be very clear: I’m not advocating a return to a time prior to women entering the workforce, that’s not realistic or particularly helpful, but I am pointing out a factor in why multi-level marketing is especially alluring to middle aged women.

Ironically, some MLMs… particularly LuLaRoe… will start with a feminist empowerment message but the further a woman goes into the MLM, the more expectation there is that the husband is actually involved and in-charge of the family and the multi-level marketing activity. This is another of those areas where hard and soft complementarian churches need to be on their guard because it can completely fly under the radar at those churches that the couple is going deeper into a controlling MLM.

Second, when poor economic times hit, people become more desperate to find ways to supplement their income. We saw this during the 2008 recession, which was probably the first major recession where social media was prevalent. Multi-level marketing isn’t necessarily unique in this regard, other grifts also do well during economic downturns. It would appear that there are economic downturns around the corner so we are due for another round of MLMs preying on desperation.

Third, multi-level marketing promises freedom. Most people are actually not that productive in their jobs. Most people are actually operating within Parkinson’s law which is basically stated as “work expands so as to fill the time which is available for its completion”… and yes, it happens at your church: statistically, if you offer a half-day then most of your team will finish the whole day of work before noon. Anyhow, as the great resignation shows us, a lot of people really want their time they are wasting back and that’s a desire that MLMs are great at exploiting.

How multi-level marketing (MLM) groups become cults

MLM’s get heavily into controlling the lives of the people who get sucked into them. They will dictate what to wear, what to say, and they excommunicate anyone who criticizes their leadership. They leverage shame, guilt, and fear to coerce the people trapped in the MLM. One of their most nefarious is to convince people and spouses to quit their jobs. This makes families 100% dependent on income from the MLM and effectively traps them.

They also tend to have retreats or “conferences” that are heavily into affirmation from motivational speakers and quasi-religious experiences. These include things like “white parties” where people will all dress in white to see and meet boy bands from their youth at the private multi-level marketing event. As people go upward in the MLM they become a bit like “youth camp junkies” that are hooked on the emotional highs from the motivational speaking and other high-energy entertainment. Some MLM events have been compared to the type of religious atmosphere you would find from Kundalini/3HO.

Beyond that, they also engage in the standard array of love bombing, gas lighting, dissociating from those who might try to dissuade the person from continuing deeper into the MLM, and toxic positivity. Those tend to be used more-so to bring people in or manipulate them into the point where they are trapped. They are also utopian and often employ a retributive principle in assigning blame… a bit like Job’s friends did to Job, failure rests on the person but nobody stops to question the legitimacy of the retributive principle… or, by extension, the legitimacy of the MLM!

Countering multi-level marketing (MLM)

First, your church needs to have a “no MLM sales and marketing” policy. The amount of damage they do to the relationships at churches can be absolutely devastating. You may want to include soliciting for other “investment” and “business” opportunities while you are at it. I’ve recently seen small groups ravaged by obvious Ponzi schemes as well.

Second, your church should provide the occasional workshop or speaker that can talk about the realities of entrepreneurship and side-hustles. Churches often have gifted businesspeople who are effectively pew sitting and would love to share their knowledge for the benefit of the congregation. In short, when you arm people with good information, they are less susceptible to bad information!

Sometimes that person you haven't seen in 20 years wants to talk to you because they are into multi-level marketing

Similarly, people who have been inside multi-level marketing will often end up in a financial mess. It’s worthwhile either setting up a financial counseling ministry in the church or partnering with a local financial counseling ministry. It’s not uncommon that people who have been involved in MLMs need help structuring debt, making payment plans for utilities, resume writing, and may need assistance with basic needs like food. Even the ones that appeared very successful will often have spent any earnings they did have to support appearances of success.

Third, churches need to communicate the reality of suffering and contentment. I was recently listening to Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” which, despite the shocking title, nearly parallels the message of the New Testament: you have to choose your suffering and choose what is worth suffering for… that would be the Kingdom of God in our case… and not be bothered if you don’t measure up to expectations that don’t really make sense to begin with. Again, in our case, that might be rejection of wealth to find joy that we have our spouse, our kids, a place to sleep, and food on the table… as Jesus pointed out, we can’t add a day to our life through worry, nor does wealth follow us to the grave.

Finally, we must change the way churches approach shame and isolation. Some shame is a good thing, it’s probably God-given to help us turn back to him, but shame can also lead to hiding things from Christian community and subsequent fear of isolation from both an MLM and the church. Since MLMs rely on fear of isolation, loss of financial stability, and of shame, we need to accept without judgment when people come forward for help after having been involved in multi-level marketing. Sunlight is often the best disinfectant, and openness in the church really helps keep predators like MLMs out.

Closing thoughts

Unfortunately, you’ll always end up with a few people in your church running around trying to recruit more people to sell essential oils, ugly leggings, or whatever new crappy product MLMs put out. What you can do is create an environment where it’s harder to spread and easier to drop out.

Isaac Johnson

Isaac has been in professional ministry since 2002, holds an M.Div. from Moody, and his goal is to equip churches to reach digital natives.

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