Monday, August 9, 2010

Multi-Level Mayhem

How many of you have ever jumped on the bandwagon of a multi-level marketing scheme? Some may know it as a "pyramid scheme". How many of you actually made any money? (my guess is very few, if any)

Fortunately, I've never been involved in one, and I never plan to be. The nearest I came to one was during the Melaleuca craze of the early 90s. My mom signed up, and they had some decent products, but it was a financial black hole. You paid a significant amount up front to obtain your "starter kit", and in all likelihood, if you were unfortunate enough to sign up, you probably never recouped that money. It was all fine with the guys at the top, though, who were getting filthy rich just by selling these "starter kits". They had seminars, conventions, pep rallies, video tutorials - all for a fee, of course - and promised if you'd just do as they instructed, the future of your dreams was within reach.

Amway is the monster of the genre. A cult all its own, with its own lingo, manipulation tactics, groupthink, et cetera. Amway holds its own seminars and conventions where it markets the business brand, "teaches" you how to be successful, demands that you do as your leaders tell you if you want success, instructs you to separate from "losers", instructs you to be selling the brand and business model "all the time", with a strong emphasis on appearing successful even in lack of substance. Again, those at the top get rich, while most of those in the downline are caught up in a money pit. 

It's true that legitimate business models operate on a pyramid system of sorts, but there are a couple of very subtle, yet very profound, differences between legitimate business models and pyramid schemes. 

First, a legitimate business model invests its own money in its employees, training them thoroughly and extensively before releasing them to sell the product. It's in a legitimate company's best interest to do so. For years my dad worked for a major plumbing supply company. He knew water systems, pumps, and all of the assorted hardware very well, yet, he was constantly encouraged to attend (at the company's expense) all of the educational conferences and product-line schools to stay on top of the products. The company wanted its employees to know the products better than the manufacturers. If they did, the customer would reap the benefit, and everybody wins. A multi-level marketing pyramid scheme invests NO money in its representatives, but rather expects to make money from its training seminars and conventions. Representatives are sent out to sell the brand knowing little about it, poorly trained or not trained at all, hyped up on pep speeches about "wanting it" and success, having been shown models of success that "anyone can reach if you follow the principles and rules for success."

Second, a legitimate company makes its money on building a base of return, and can only do so when everyone wins. The quality of the transaction in the "pyramid", company-employee/company representative-customers, is paramount. The company makes its money, the employee/representative gets paid, the customer gets a quality product with great service, hopefully to return and do it all again at some point. Everyone wins. A multi-level marketing pyramid scheme makes its money by consuming the customer, expanding the downline, expanding the pyramid tree - knowing that most in the tree will prove expendable and wash out of the program. The product offered is entirely secondary. The focus is on the business model, and as long as the scheme gets the initial investment of its downline, it's making money. If its representatives don't find success (and few do), it's their fault - for being losers, for not wanting it enough, for failing to follow the formula. The system and formula are NEVER at fault. They can't be. If they were faulty, the company would have nothing to sell. The system is the product.

For a multi-level marketing pyramid scheme, it's all about capitalizing on the very American desire to find success and have a better life, and this is the angle they sell you on - that which you want desperately, but don't know how to get. Lucky for you, they do. They've done all the thinking for you. You just have to do what they tell you.

In recent decades, a segment of the conservative Christian community developed almost a paranoia about their existence and "success" in a secular society that they saw as a threat to their faith and family. They wanted a "godly" family. It's what any Christian parent would want, right? And into this vacuum stepped...multi-level marketing pyramid schemes.

Homeschooling conferences began hosting speakers selling their formulas for success, entire product lines emerged from various similar outlets, and consumers were consumed. "Sign up, follow the formula and family model, and you'll have the "godly" family of your dreams!!! Look how shiny it is!!! Look at these photos of a Christian family living in a perpetual picnic in a flowery meadow!!! Look at those spit-shined children!!! Oh what virtue!!! God would smile on this!!! And it's biblical to boot!!! *cough*...ahem...*cough*...I mean, we're talking about God and "godly stuff" so it has to be biblical!!! *cough*...Just trust me that it's biblical!!! This is your blueprint for success!!!"

Just like the poorly trained and ill-prepared representatives in secular pyramid schemes, fathers and mothers, desperate to follow the formula, were thrust into roles defined by the formula, whether or not their personal make-up and skillsets were cut out for it. For instance, the Y chromosome doesn't make a man a natural leader, and no one benefits when a man incapable of being a leader attempts to lead. Usually, it leads to catastrophy. But, the system and formula demands that a man lead. The system and formula demands that a woman submit, even to poor leadership, and even when she could be more effective at the forefront.

The dysfunction that results isn't really a concern of those at the top of Christian pyramid schemes, because the consumers have been consumed to levels beyond brainwashing, they continue to promote the brand despite often tragic outcomes, and they keep investing in the product lines - all while the people at the top get rich. Money, money, and more money. They desire for this pyramid to stretch across generations under the guise of "multi-generational faithfulness", eventually choking out the cultural marketplace, establishing those sympathetic to the formula and system in positions of societal power and influence.

The people in the downline become so caught up in and devoted to the system and formula that they've largely forgotten why they became involved in the first place. The people impacted most dramatically, and consumed by the system, and the children born into it who have no real choice but to accept it or live through hell - which they're prone to do either way under the system.

If you think I'm overstating, visit the Vision Forum homepage. There are 16 references to family and family related issues and events...and 2 passing references to God. They're selling the brand - a system for a "godly" family - and advertising events which sell the brand even more. Lots of "godly", patriotic looking propaganda to appeal to the sensibilities of those susceptible to the system. You'll see pretty much the same at Gothard's homepage.

These schemes are largely cults, both the secular and the religious. Multi-level madness and mayhem.

So you think it's a stretch to compare these Christian pyramid schemes to cults? You think it's out of line to lump them in with those crazy, brainwashed Kool-Aid drinkers?

Well, it didn't take much at all to convince an entire segment of Christian men to usurp and dethrone Jesus Christ and become "high priest of the home." If you'll really think about the weight of that, just how big of a step would it be from there to the Kool-Aid? 


  1. I've gotten to really anticipate your final paragraph. I like your writing style....the build up, and then the staggering, oh-so-clear, final sentence.

    Again, excellent post and right on the money.

  2. Amway is one of the biggest recruiters to dominionist churches.

    Here's an article from The Daily Koz that talks about the parallels

    My husband got into Amway because he is an addictive personality and they played on that. He left the church we attended as a family and went to a mega church in the area where his sponsors went. My church was too liberal for him.

    I can't say many good thoughts about Amway and it's attendant cults.

  3. I think you made a good comparison. Great post Lewis.

    Linda Reynolds

  4. Amway was legally proven to NOT be a pyramid. People under us made more than we did! It doesn't even go by that name anymore. However, your comparisons are good if it were true.

  5. Yep, that last paragraph nails it.

    (sez mara in a rare moment of brevity.)

  6. I've often said that about the Kool-aid when it comes to the background that I grew up in and especially in the cult that my husband was born into and left in his 20s.

  7. Fantastic article.

    I find it fascinating how people that have been attracted to cults also are attracted to pyramid schemes. I've had that happen to people close to me, and it's extremely frustrating. It seems to be that thirst for the sensational....for the better than "ordinary life". It's sad, really- it's like they're searching for something to fill that void in their life, but don't ever learn that it will never satisfy.

  8. Anon. above is right. Amway isn't legally a pyramid scheme...which are actually illegal. However, that doesn't stop them from operating very much like one. I'm currently watching loved ones who are getting sucked into the Amway stuff, spending every last penny to go to their "conferences" and spouting the "if you believe, you can be rich!" jargon. It's killing me but they won't listen. They're the ones telling ME "you don't get it, you aren't enlightened". Sounds very much like some other family members who are getting sucked into a religious cult. They all say the same stuff. :(

    Very good post, Lewis.

  9. Amway isn't a pyramid, but the thousands of dollars spent on tapes, conferences, rallies and the if you aren't with me you're against me mindset is very cultish. My husband was in World Wide Dreambuilders and they were one of the worst.

  10. I don't have any problem per se with people making money off of seminars, books, etc. However, it did bother me that Jonathan Lindvall insisted that every man should have his own business (something unrealistic for many occupations) when his "family business" was essentially just promoting his teachings. And it seems that the home business craze pushes many women to try to make money off of blogs or crafts in low demand. It's no wonder that many are attracted to pyramid schemes. I could be misreading the signs, but that's what I see happening.

  11. Oops! It posted without my whole comment:

    I was going to say that somehow having a successful "home business" has been linked to creating one's own seminars, books, etc. that follow in the footsteps of others. Vision Forum is just the younger generation's IBLP. Old material is recycled over and over because that's what defines "success"! (Okay, that's it.)

  12. I think my parents have been in two pyramid-type schemes and I watched them dream, plan, learn, buy-buy-buy and run into the ground in debt. The parallels are true, and you did a great job presenting them. In pyramid schemes you ARE selling the idea of an easy way to make money without any real, viable products.

    A formula for a "godly" family isn't a real viable product because there IS NO formula, there IS NO system.

    Just for the record, my parents are now involved in a company similar to amway. The difference is the only conference they go to is the annual one - to learn about new products. There are actual products and they actually work and people keep coming back. Instead of failure they are making gobs of money and helping others make thousands of dollars a month as well.

    So even though I agree with your post I can't throw all "pyramid type schemes" under the bus without thorough investigation.