Multi-Level Marketing Hurts Relationships (ack, I said it)

I was waiting for my kids’ bus in the hot May sunshine, my toddler lounging in his stroller, both of us wilting a bit.  A lady with a tot of her own approached, waiting for her kids as well.  We struck up a conversation, and within a minute there was a glossy Mary Kay or Herbalife or some-such catalog pressed into my hand.

“Um…I actually don’t use much on my skin other than coconut oil…I…uh…”  She wouldn’t take the thing back.  “Just look it over!  Let me know if you need anything; you can return it to me later if you don’t want to order”.  Right.  Thank you for saddling me with this catalog that I think you probably even had to buy, and which I will guiltily put into the trash, because this stuff is all expensive.


A friend’s dad offered to drive me home from summer camp along with his daughter.  It was a two-hour drive during which he played back-to-back Amway motivational tapes.  I came home marveling that anyone who wanted to have everything they ever wanted, especially a mansion with horse stables, could certainly do so, if only they’d believe, reach their goals, become a Diamond, or a Super Duper, or a some-such.  I visited their home a year later and was sort of struck dumb by all their homemade posters with motivational phrases plastered all over the walls.  They lived in a very sad little home; I wondered when their ship was going to come in.  The posters said it was right around the corner.


I’ve been to my fair share of “parties”, even hosted one Pampered Chef one, mainly to please a friend and to eat snacks, but I felt like a heel.  I know how I felt when attending one; flipping through the catalog and thinking, “What is cheap enough that I can buy and not disappoint my friend by buying nothing.”  As I saw people I loved filling my living room I wondered if they were thinking the same thing, feigning the same “interest”.

There is a specific cringe I feel, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, when anyone announces via social media that “I’m starting my own business!” and it’s one of the myriad of multi-level marketing companies.  Always the glowing triumphalism, the certainty of a changed life, the financial compensation to come, the invitations to parties, e-parties (which, I mean, there aren’t even snacks!!), and on and on.  After a while it seems my Facebook feed is one long infomercial.

And then there’s the heart-to-heart with a friend when all of a sudden they’re recommending one of their products as the solution to your problem, and you just feel sort of…used, targeted.  Like some marketing strategy or salesperson just butted-in where the intimacy of friendship was filling it’s healing, commiserating role.  C.S. Lewis, in his book “The Four Loves” remarks on the disinterested nature of true friendship, to be understood as not wanting the friendship for anything other than the friendship itself.  It is not a means to any other end.

“A friend will, to be sure, prove himself to be also an ally when alliance becomes necessary; will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in our sickness, stand up for us among our enemies, do what he can for our widows and orphans.  But such good offices are not the stuff of Friendship.  The occasions for them are almost interruptions.  They are in one way relevant to it, in another not.  Relevant, because you would be a false friend if you would not do them when the need arose; irrelevant, because the role of the benefactor always remains accidental, even a little alien, to that of Friend.  It is almost embarrassing.  For Friendship is utterly free from Affection’s need to be needed.  We are sorry that any gift or loan or night-watching should have been necessary–and now, for heaven’s sake, let us forget all about it and go back to the things we really want to do or talk of together.  Even gratitude is no enrichment to this love.  The stereotyped ‘Don’t mention it’ here expresses what we really feel.  The mark of perfect Friendship is not that help will be given when the pinch comes (of course it will) but that having been given, it makes no difference at all.  It was a distraction, an anomaly.”  -C.S. Lewis “The Four Loves”

I do not disparage here the products themselves; I have no doubt that the clothing or the make-up or the essential oils or the purses, or whatever they are, are of high quality.  I do not doubt even that my friend’s lives have been enriched by their use.  I do not make argument against them developing true friendships with others they’ve met and interacted with in their meetings.  I take issue with the pyramid-like nature of the marketing.  Downlines reek of graft and greed, no matter what words are used to describe them, such as “teams” or “communities”.  And the carrot dangled before them of wealth, health, and all other pot-at-the-end-of-the-rainbows, all demand a price, and often that price is the health of the participant’s relationships.

One particular area of discomfort for me are the companies that supply “life-changing” supplements, oils, etc at extraordinarily high prices.  There is a strange philosophy at work there, something to the effect of:  this ____ can change your life, it is very expensive but so worth it, if you get enough people to buy it from you it’ll be basically free for you, and they’ll be changed too so you can feel good about your compensation from their purchases and their subsequent downlines.  My question is, if the product is so important for human thriving, why not lower the price of it and sell it via traditional means so that it doesn’t depend on burdening human relationships and can be more accessible to those who would benefit from it?

We have all been shocked and disgusted by the pharmaceutical drug company CEO Martin Shkreli who raised the price of life-saving AIDS medicine by 5,000% in an act of wanton greed.  Was it good for share-holders’s profits?  Sure.  Was it good “business”?  Maybe on paper.  But the cost to those who could benefit from the drug is much, much too high, literally and figuratively.  This is an extreme example, but hear the heart of it; “good business” may in fact, be bad.

I have been terrified to write this article and avoided it for several months, because many people I love and cherish are involved in multi-level marketing.  I risk the offense because I think some may be unaware of how their business is affecting their relationships in a negative way.  None of us wants to feel like a potential customer, potential downline, potential anything, other than friend.




12 thoughts on “Multi-Level Marketing Hurts Relationships (ack, I said it)

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, Sarah. Even though you were hesitant to do so. I think this was important to say because I think that sometimes people are unaware of how these types of businesses affect (and sometimes damage) relationships.
    I had an experience where a “friend” from the past called up and asked to get together and catch up. I was surprised, but pleased. She remembered me! I must have been more important to her than I thought! I was excited – until the true reason for her visit was revealed. She wanted to recruit me, add me to her down-line. Which of course meant some income (and hard work and hitting up all my family and friends) for me, but more hurtfully, meant greater income for her. Ouch. I wasn’t a long lost friend. I was potential income.
    Ever since then I’ve been waging an internal battle when presented with these sorts of businesses: What will win? My desire for more income, or my desire to keep my friendships untainted by obligation and money. I balk, even when I find a company whose products I really like. Host a party? Maybe, but only with the clear understanding that I just like this stuff and thought you might too. There is NO obligation to spend a cent, and certainly not for my benefit. But I haven’t done it yet because I’m just not sure that my non-expectations of my friends’ purchases can be separated from the culture these types of businesses have created. I want my friends to remain my friends, not customers or business associates.
    For now, I don’t mind attending parties and have made peace (mostly) with the fact that I’ll probably eat their snacks without a reciprocal purchase on my part. But it is uncomfortable. And I’m not ready to make my friends and family feel that way myself.

  2. I think the point of the article was made when you said, “And if I have to share it with friends who need it too in order to cover the cost well I absolutely will.” If you’re using your friends to your own benefit, is that not damaging to the relationship?

    1. Just wanted to chime in one more time 🙂 The friends who have purchased from me are grateful. I’m not trying to swindle them out of money. I’m telling people (on my fb page) how my life has been positively impacted by the product. That’s how the company spreads the word. Not by celebrity endorsements or advertising. They use a product of the product. As far as pricing, I was spending close to $800 a month to treat my Lyme disease. $110 a month was a total blessing! And last but not least I do in fact buy products for several friends every month with the money I earn. Because I can. If I wasn’t selling I wouldn’t have the extra income to give freely. Everyone has the right to scroll past my posts or hide me or delete me. But for those who are still suffering the way I was I will continue to post and share and be paid for doing it. I’m not sure why it’s wrong to be paid for doing a job?

  3. Thank you so much for articulating this! I signed on with doTERRA in December, and I love the oils, but I haven’t really committed to it or jumped into it because of a nagging sense of not being fully behind it. I’ve also worked in sales and marketing for years, and I’m currently thrilled to be out.
    Thank you again.

  4. Thanks for writing this article. I think it’s particularly difficult for me to align myself with it publicly (like by sharing it on facebook, though that’s how I found it) because so many people in my church circles are doing Jamberry, Rodan and Fields, or some oils thing, and I can’t see a way in which they would take my alignment with it as an insult against them. That said, I don’t think they know how much they are harming their friendships, so statements like this need to be out there.

    The reason I worry about being rude to people who evidently don’t worry about being rude to me is that it makes sense to me. I can see the culture of the church and its issues with women playing out in the narratives my friends use to explain their enthusiasm for the company. I understand how tempting the narrative is and that they’ve framed it in their minds (with well-funded assistance from the company itself) as if they aren’t using and hassling their friends. That doesn’t change the experience, of course. I hate that I think twice before reaching out to or accepting an invitation from so many of my friends.

    For what it’s worth, I hide all of these posts and report them as spam, and when they ask me how my experience reporting went, I write a note about how I wish I could hide posts not just from certain accounts, pages, or websites (the company’s coach them to not share from separate pages because they know it’s easy to block such posts) but by the name of the company or hashtags (#healthywildandfree). I don’t know if it will do anything, but maybe if FB is convinced that it effects user experience so negatively, they will adjust. (After all, facebook is funded by paid ads, not social ads like these.)

    One last thing– I wanted to thank you in particular for not making this a gendered post. It would have been easy to single out and respond to the MLM companies that focus on women, because it seems to be most of them (though certainly not all). The tactics of Jamberry and Mary Kay et. al. leverage socialized traits, habits, and norms of women, but that’s not why they are destructive.

    Sorry I went on a bit– I’ve been bothered by this a lot since one of my few friends in a new city got sucked in to R+F and then invited me to a disguised sales event. Ugh.

    1. Hi Karen! It surprises me, considering the range of topics that I take on, that this was one of the most scary to write. I wanted, and continue to desire, to honor my friends who feel quite differently than I do about MLM companies, while also exposing the unintended negative impacts that type of marketing can have on family and friends. I have received a large volume of private feedback from people who don’t want to publicly align, like yourself, for the same reasons, and I completely get that. I had to pray and wait and pray and wait until I felt a way to express my concern on such a sensitive subject.

      I don’t know if it will change any hearts, but it has certainly sparked a lot of “me too” among my readers. Thanks for coming by the blog; blessings!

  5. I completely agree, and have always been reluctant to say anything about it because I don’t want to hurt or scandalize my friends who are doing this… but it’s true, and they’ve cheapened their relationship with me.

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