MLM and the Gig Economy

An article from late last year provides some interesting insight into how multi-level marketing companies (and their recruiters) are exploiting the “gig economy” to recruit new victims. It’s entitled “MLMs Take the Worst Parts of the Gig Economy, Then Make You Pay.” That’s right, you get to pay to be a member. You don’t actually make money.

The gig economy is focused on contract type of work… short term projects to make some money. It sounds great, but may not necessarily be wonderful when people are doing it out of necessity. They can’t find a full-time job, so they take contract positions to help pay the rent.

MLM preys on this necessity. You need to make some money, and they tout their scheme as a way to make extra (at worst) and a lucrative living (if only you’re willing to try hard).

From the article:

These days, who wouldn’t turn down an opportunity for a little extra income, especially when all it theoretically takes is hitting up your high school pals and former coworkers on Facebook? Enter multilevel marketing, or MLM — the commercial juggernaut that birthed the Hydra’s head of pushy sales pitches for patterned leggings, long-wear lipstick, weight-loss wraps, and eyelash extensions that dominate your social feeds. More than 20 million people in the United States are involved as independent sellers in an MLM or direct-sales company. (Quick semantics note: almost all direct selling organizations employ the hierarchical recruitment structure of MLMs, which means that almost all direct-selling organizations are also MLMs. For our purposes here, the terms are used interchangeably.) In 2017, there are more direct-sales organizations than ever before, and an estimated one in six U.S. households is involved in one, according to the Direct Selling Association.

That statistic is staggering, but perhaps not that surprising for anyone who’s had access to a social-media newsfeed in the last year or two. MLMs and their acolytes are ubiquitous, and they’re thriving — especially among women, who in 2016 comprised nearly 75 percent of all U.S. direct-sales consultants.

But this article points out how MLM recruiting language is adding to the extra income story. They’re now more focused on building your own “side hustle”.

On consultants’ Instagram feeds, in between the product promo, before-and-afters, flash sales, and giveaways, there will typically be a substantial dosage of #GirlBoss content: lots of “hustle” in gold script; lots of Pinterest-worthy inspirational quotes about taking risks and forging your own path and being the CEO of your life. Posts are often bolstered with many, many hashtags, including but not limited to: #slay, #grateful, #blessed, #MomBoss, #BusinessBae, #AmbitionOnFleek. Memes and blocks of emoji-laced “copypasta” text about supporting entrepreneurs and championing local businesses make the Facebook rounds, over and over again.

The article’s author has MLM’s number. She explains that the money in MLM isn’t in selling products, it’s in recruiting.  Thus the nonsense about “building my empire” and things of the sort.

MLMs train their consultants to do this:

Amber, who sells nail wraps for Jamberry, says the company offers online coaching groups that include sharable motivational memes. Elle, a former Younique seller who detailed her experiences on her blog, writes that she was initially attracted to Younique after seeing an acquaintance’s posts about “rocking” her business, escaping the 9-to-5 life, and witnessing her life change for the better after taking a bold leap of faith into the unknown. “Scarlett looked so cool, so self-assured, so… business-like,” Elle writes. “I wanted that, too.”

Via email, Elle tells me that after experiencing it in her Younique seller’s group (the Butterfly Babes), she now sees this kind of verbiage across MLMs. “It seems to be learned behaviour,” she says. “The downlines see their uplines spouting this inspirational trite; they think their upline is being successful, so they want to emulate them. Thus the behaviour spreads like a disease.” A quick look at the #JoinMyTeam hashtag on Instagram reveals a mosaic of platitudes — “Building my empire one mascara at a time,” “Goal Digger,” “The dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately” — accompanied by captions that promise freedom, flexibility, and success for those who are willing to take the leap. “Do something brave and LET’S DO THIS,” a LipSense distributor writes. “People are going to judge you no matter what you do… might as well be living a lifestyle you LOVE!”

All the MLMs are selling a dream. Social media has made it possible to sell it 24/7. You can put whatever image you want on Instagram or Facebook. You can make your MLM life look sucessful, no matter how much money you’re losing.

Does this work? Of course it does, or they wouldn’t do it.

But to be a part of the company, you must pay. Many require inventory purchases to et started, but even with those that don’t, there are still fees to sign up. The REAL gig economy works because people are actually making money. They’re using their car to drive others around for a fee. They’re using their skills to complete projects for pay. But in Mary Kay and other MLMs, you’re paying all sorts of money to get involved and stay involved, and you have very little chance of turning a profit.

Excellent quote from the article:

“What good is a side hustle if it doesn’t help to pay the bills, or if you’re spending more on inventory than you make in sales and commissions? That’s not a side hustle; that’s an expensive hobby.”

43 Comments

  1. Cindylu

    Sad really that we’ve reached a point where our children etc. have to take on two or three jobs just to survive. Sheer greed by mlm’s and corporations exploiting those just trying to get by. My SD actually recruited someone who used their grocery money to buy that stupid pink useless make up kit.

  2. Jason Houston

    Poor ol’ America just keeps getting dumber and dumber. Everything just keeps getting more and more ‘user friendly’, so no one has to think, reason, or fret about how to make intelligent choices. The Internet alone has taught us not to question anything we’re about to buy. Just pay it and take your chances. And when you get ripped off oh, well…

    America’s intelligence barometer can be seen in the level of the presidents we elect, and in the 2000s, the selections keep spiraling from bad to worse. One recent stat I read estimates 70% of those voting for Donald Trump never completed high school. Schools today don’t teach how to identify employment scams, or even how a checking account works. Is it any wonder the American literacy quotient is among the lowest in the civilized world?

    It’s no wonder MLMs are doing a box-office business. If they were on the NYSE they’d be one of the hottest picks.

    1. cbbgreat

      “…..or even how a checking account work”
      funny story from my hairdresser: the son of a client brought a check from his mother to pay for his haircut and did not know how to complete it. On the Pay To line, he wrote the amount for the haircut, in the box where one prints the numbers, he had added a TIP amount, and then he had to ask my hairdresser where to put the total and sign – as if it were a credit/debit card! He had never used anything except a debit card in his life.

      1. Jason Houston

        My gawd… that would be hilarious, were it not so sad! I knew someone recently who, at age 40 and with a HS diploma, had to call his bank each time he wanted to use the debit card, because he had no idea how bank accounts work. I got him a pocket calculator and a check register and showed him how to use them, but it was a complete waste of time. He can only print in capital letters, and misspells as many words as he gets right. And, no, this fellow is not retarded or mentally handicapped in any way, just a product of today’s education system.

        1. Changeyourthinking

          I’m sorry but I don’t know what education system you’re talking about. I’m 33 so technically considered a millennial. I can write a legible sentence. Please don’t lump everyone together under “today’s education system.”

          1. Jason Houston

            I can’t find anything I said that would “lump everyone together”, but if you got that impression, I apologize. The fact is, the bulk of kids coming out of high schools today with diplomas can barely read them. And a lot of these kids can’t even pass basic remedial courses at a community college, because they’re still functioning on an 8th-grade level. The end result is they get put out to pasture because they can’t compete. I’m glad you made it and did well!

            1. Barbie

              There have always been people who reached adulthood without the necessary skills. It is not unique to this most recent generation. It’s easy to look at older people who’ve been “put out to pasture” and assume that they’ve been displaced by any number of interlopers, but that’s not the case. Many of them simply lack the skills to adapt to the ever-changing world.

              I know a lot of young people who are articulate and intelligent. They are feeling their way through a world that no one has experience in. The challenges they face are so different from the challenges faced by previous generations, that those challenges can’t be judged using the same metrics.

              As for those young people who are struggling, and there certainly are many, making fun of them for what is objectively a failure of their parents’ generation seems pretty low.

              On top of that, paper checks are an outdated form of payment. It would be foolish to put a lot of resources into teaching kids how to write checks, or even complete deposit slips, as most banks are phasing out paper slips, and more and more companies don’t even take checks. Sure, cover it briefly, but focus more on critical thinking rather than memorizing processes and facts. Critical thinking gives people the power to figure it out. Critical thinking will never become obsolete.

              1. Jason Houston

                I’m not convinced blaming the parents is always a reliable remedy. I came from one of the most abusive set of parents even Jeffrey Dahmer couldn’t imagine, and I survived. Too many folks these days want to lay the blame on everybody but themselves. “It was the dysfunctional childhood I had that caused me to commit crimes!”, etc. And as long as judges, juvenile courts, law enforcement and lawmakers keep buying into that, the worse the outlook will become.

                1. Changeyourthinking

                  But aren’t you doing the same by blaming the school system? Education does not begin and end with school. There’s only so much time in a school day and half of it is spent on lunch, recess, and discipline, and social/emotional problem solving. Should more practical skills be taught? Sure. But to blame someone’s inability to read and write on today’s education system is ludicrous. I went through the same exact English courses as my peers. I know the difference between “your” and “you’re” but many of them do not. I can write an essay and a research paper, many of them can not. On the other hand, I suck at math and barely made it past Algebra 2 but many of my peers went on to calculus and trigonometry.
                  As far as parenting and upbringing goes, the way a child is raised actually does leave a blueprint on their brain. Abuse of any kind actually changes a person’s DNA. I do believe in personal responsibility but a child who is raised in chaos and abuse is much more likely to act out in self destructive and/or criminal behavior. So if we’re blamkng anyone here- yes, I do blame parents. I blame parents for not reading to their kids at night (which has a huge impact on literacy) or for not teaching them to balance a check book which should go along with other life skills like laundry and rising a bike. Our education system is by no means perfect but it can not and should not be blamed for someone’s stupidity.

                  1. Barbie

                    I’m hesitant to even call it stupidity. I would say ignorance, but the negative connotations would eclipse the true meaning.

                    We don’t want to admit it, but as a society, we have a lot of forgotten people. I think we’ve gotten so wrapped in the narrative of personal responsibility, and pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, so to speak, that we often don’t consider the circumstances that put people where they are. I’m not saying people aren’t responsible for their actions. But by learning how they ended up where they are, we can work to prevent it from happening more. Just because some people are able to pull themselves out of the destructive spiral through sheer grit, doesn’t make that the solution. When someone expresses that “I struggled, so you should have to struggle, too,” that tells me that they still have some healing to do, not that they’re the shining example of someone beating the odds.

                    It’s also easy to think that some fundamental difference is why some people are successful and others struggle. It’s a lot more comfortable to think, “I’ll never be homeless because I don’t do X,” than to realize how few steps you may be from a crisis. It’s actually quite similar to the logic the MK defenders use when they come here. They say all you have to do is try hard, work hard, believe. And if you’re not successful, it’s because you didn’t try hard, work hard, or believe enough.

                    When I’m feeling particularly frustrated, it’s really hard to see this attitude as anything other than an excuse to not have to care about people.

                  2. Jason Houston

                    You’re confusing stupidity with ability. These are two separate genres of discipline. Have you ever taught in the public schools? I have, and it has deteriorated downward since the 1970s. By the late 1990s, high school kids were being promoted each year, even though they were failing every subject. And here they come, into their first year at community college, and can’t even do 8th-grade math, writing or reading. That is neither the parents’ nor the kids’ fault. It’s the rotting schools’ fault. Have you looked at the schools in Detroit? That’s the legislators’ fault, who refused to fund teachers, infrastructures or supplies.

                    You are of course, quite correct, parents need to be a large part of their kids’ lives. Too many want to dump the whole responsibility on overcrowded, under-funded schools. As for time wasted on lunch recess, discipline, etc. what about PE? Is it really necessary that everybody learn how to play football or tetherball or broad jumping, compared to basic life skills?

                    Have you seen what Japanese schools are like? They start around 7 am and go to about 5 pm. One lunch/recess and no sports. Guess where these kids are in contrast to America’s kids? Look who their legitimate graduates elect for leaders, then look who our forced-graduates elect for leaders.

                    You wrote, “Education does not begin and end with school.” No, only about 85% of it. If the parents and schools don’t give a shot, then who will? Roy Moore? Joe Arpaio?

                    1. Changeyourthinking

                      To clarify, I did not say that recess and lunch were a waste of time. I actually think recess is just as important as reading, writing, and math. As well as music, art and other extracurriculars. Perhaps kids in Japan are treated like adults from the time they are 7 and excell in academics but I’m more interested in a well rounded human being.

                    2. Formykids

                      Japan has the highest suicide rate in the Advanced world. Largely due to stress caused by overwork and too high of a demand on their people. Heck of an example though:)

                    3. Autumn

                      While yes, Japan does have the highest suicide rate in the industrial world, one also must consider the different cultural attitude toward suicide. It doesn’t carry quite the stigma that it does in Europe and North America. They also are aware that their school system has it’s own issues, one of which is the exam system, which can determine the course of a 12 year old’s life…not a great thing.

                    4. Barbie

                      I think that’s a great example of why we shouldn’t look to any one education system (or society, for that matter) as the one that’s gotten it right.

            1. Changeyourthinking

              You just contradicted yourself. First you said that your friend was a product of today’s education system. Now you admitted that he’s a product of yesterday’s system. 🤔.

      1. Jason Houston

        Thank you for your response. Sounds awfully redundant to me. All the other blogs I’m on keep my info indefinitely, and even after two or three years, they still remember my sign-in info! Anyway, thanks again for your help. Now, I know not to be surprised. 🙂

  3. Shay

    imdeanmcdermottEnjoying a beautiful evening with my beautiful wife in Hawaii. This could be you and Your better half. Want to find out how to change your life and the life of your loved ones? Earn trips to exotic locations, pay for you kids college, buy that car you’ve always wanted, spend more time with your family and not be stuck in an office! Go to jointori.com and find out how you can start your own beauty business. If you’re tired of working for somebody else, and want to live the life you’ve always dreamed of, go to jointori.com #changeyourlife

      1. Shay

        The post above by Tori’s husband is what is wrong with the MLM industry. Notice how it talks about vacations, life changing and nothing about the actual product?

        1. PinkyTuskMascara

          Or the fact they have celebrity names to cash in on with people wanting to be on their team because of it. Regular people can’t even compete with that fact either.

    1. Jason Houston

      If that Hawaii you’re referring to is the same one I’m thinking of, and if that car is a silver Mustang, I’ll stay where I am, and you can continue to enjoy all that great lifestyle, even if it’s imaginary.

  4. GMB SUCCESS

    MARA KAY IS NOT “MULTI LEVEL MARKETING” MACY KAY IS DUAL MARKETING!! BE YOUR OWN BUSYNESS! NOBODY NEEDS J.B.O.! GARLIC MARFELD BLANK IS NUMBER ONE NSA! CATHY HELLO IS A TOTOL FAILURE! ONLY MARY KEY IS ONLY BUSYNESS THAT YOU MAKE CASH!!! MUST WORK BUSYNESS AND MAKE SEVERAL DOLLAR!

      1. Shay

        Sometimes I clear my cookies so I don’t have to sign up and pay to read the Washington Post etc. call me cheap-I call it smart. LOL. I would be broke if I had to subscribe to every paper / site I read since I have to do research for my work. I’m a free lancer per say. (A free lancer that gets paid by signing up with my little company and the companies contract my company and not me! Ahem.. MK!)

  5. I made the choice to start my own business, and is IS a “gig business.” I am a Mental Health Educator. I have a Bachelors and a Masters of Social Work, and worked inpatient forensic mental health for 10 years. All of that is to say I am well qualified to do what I do. My job is to go to colleges, high schools, and businesses and give presentations about mental health. I teach people how to recognize signs and symptoms that someone may need help, and then teach how to access help. The hardest part of my job is getting “gigs.” But the thing is, it’s MINE. I don’t answer to an upline. It really is MY business. I do it because it’s a cause that’s near and dear to me. It was something I felt needed to be talked about, so I created a business to talk about it. The irony is that it really does give me the freedom the Kaybots spout about. I’m home when I need or want to be because I make my calendar. It’s not based on arbitrary numbers. I set my rates. I have relationships with my clients. I have a professional name that matters to me.
    I’m lucky that my husband has a steady income, and I have a small retirement income from my years at my forensic job. That doesn’t mean we are well off by any means, it just means we won’t lose our housing, and will be able to eat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that MK tries to tell us that one size can fit all. Anyone can make MK their gig if they just do everything right. The thing is, there is no one size fits all. I wouldn’t recommend what I do except to very few people.
    All my best to everyone. Be well!

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