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.




Below The Rind

Suji spread the pasty batter over the hot pan, widening it out into a thin circle with the back of a spoon.  Just the way I do it, actually.  Dosas only take a minute to cook, only a minute until they’re used, warm and delicious, to scoop up sambal and curry and potatoes with cumin and chili.  This was breakfast in her home on day two of our new friendship.

I took in the details of her apartment; metal plates, cups, and specialty cooking dishes.  A hefty industrial blender.  A sparkling new vintage-style bicycle in the living room with the price tag hanging on it.  The deep permeation of cooking spices so that to breathe is almost to taste curry.  Dried flowers glued to a framed portrait of Hindu gods.

I had brushed up on Indian dining etiquette before I came over, so I asked to wash my hands before I ate and carefully made sure the dosa and the sauces ended together.  I also, genuinely, complimented the food profusely which brought a quietly pleased half-smile to her face.

We went to a lecture together that my friend was giving on using natural and herbal remedies.  It was the first time she’d ever been in a church building and found it amazingly “huge”.  We visited another friend’s greenhouse and I tried to buy her flowers, but she would have none of it.  For some reason that I may never understand, the thought of it made her sad.

We talked and talked.  Ninety percent of our conversation was her asking for work, for a job, for me to tell people that she is a good cook and can sell a whole meal, that she has a clean kitchen, etc.  I honestly wish I were as well-connected as my refugee/immigrant friends think I am.  Or as rich (many have asked if they could clean for me, etc).  Most of all, I wish I were seen as a person rather than a resource.

I do understand it, I do.  It is very rattling to be without work and bills coming due.  And this all without the cushion of extended family nearby or even the security of speaking the local tongue.  After many years overseas in third world countries, I have developed a pretty thick skin to being seen as a rich resource rather than a person, but still it at times saddens me.  Can you not see below the rind?  I’m a person, not a means to an end.

Invariably though, as relationships progress, that does happen and true friendship emerges.  Sometimes they’re a bit embarrassed about how the relationship began.  In Chile a friend was chagrined that he made a big deal of showing me all the holes in his sweater the first day we met.

But here’s the grace, if you catch it….when you feel like a resource instead of a person, it is an excellent cautionary sign that you may be treating the other person like a charity case or a project instead of a person.  The sword cuts both ways.

We need to see and be seen.  We need to honor the sacred life before us and give it all the dignity owed to one of God’s creations.  We need to see below the rind and there begin, truly, to love.