Your phone buzzes, letting you know about a new message, and you glance down to see a notification from a friend from high school. It’s been ages since you’ve heard from them, and immediately open their message out of sheer curiosity.
At first, it appears as thought they just wanted to say hi — it’s been so long! — and catch up. When it comes time for them to share what they’ve been up to, you find out the real reason they got in touch: Your friend wants you to know about this amazing new job they just got, and tell you about a product they recently discovered that know you’ll love.
At that point, it quickly becomes clear that your friend has gotten involved in a multi-level marketing scheme (MLM). If you’ve been down this road before with another friend, family member, colleague or acquaintance, you may try to thank your friend for thinking of you and wish them luck in their new endeavour, and not look back.
But if this is your first experience with an MLM, or you’re someone who can’t say no to other people, there’s a decent chance you’ll soon find yourself eating finger food in your friend’s living room while they tell you all about their leggings/essential oils/cosmetics. Here’s how to handle it.
Why the concern over MLMs?
Many MLMs are pyramid schemes. So, your friend who is selling — sorry, a consultant for — the product was told that they could make money both from their own sales, as well as recruiting other people to become consultants. But in reality, 99.3 per cent of those who become reps for MLMs ultimately lose money, according to a report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. More than half of those 0.7% that managed to turn a profit made less than $US5,000 ($6,889), according to the AARP Foundation.
Despite their own figure, the FTC puts it relatively diplomatically:
Not all multi-level marketing plans are legitimate. Some are pyramid schemes. It’s best not to get involved in plans where the money you make is based primarily on the number of distributors you recruit and your sales to them, rather than on your sales to people outside the plan who intend to use the products.
So when you get that Facebook invitation to a friend’s nail polish or supplements party, what should you do? A recent article by the editors of PureWow breaks it down.
If they ask you to attend one of their parties
A lot of MLM product sales are made in parties held at the consultant’s home. Typically, your friend will tell you that there is absolutely no pressure to buy anything and suggests that you just stop by for a snack or a glass of wine or to say hi. There’s also a decent chance that they’ll point out that they never saw themselves selling something like this, but once they tried the product, it changed their life and they felt compelled to get involved so other people could experience the benefits.
At this point, you can simply (and kindly) turn down the invitation. But it’s best to stop there, and not try to warn your friend about MLMs, according to cult deprogrammer Rick Ross in his book Cults Inside Out. Part of their training may have included what to do when faced with “dream stealers” (that’s you) who are jealous of them and try to get in the way of their success, so this strategy may backfire.
If they ask you to come to a meeting to learn about becoming a consultant
The other way MLM consultants make money is recruiting other people to join the company. And while it’s easy enough to get out of the meeting itself (you lead a very busy life), your friend may simply keep asking you until you give in. Per the PureWow editors:
Instead, a firm but polite, “no thank you, I’m not interested,” is the best approach here. Even though it might seem like there’s no harm in attending the meeting, if you ultimately don’t want to be involved in your friend’s MLM drama, it’s best to keep it as separate as possible from your friendship. Ross’s mantra? “When in doubt, don’t.”
If they ask you to buy products because of a financial jam
If your friend is one of the 99.3% of MLM consultants who lose money, they may ask you, as a friend, to help them out by buying a few pairs of leggings or bottles of lotion. As tempting as it may be just to buy something to help your friend (and get them to leave you alone), ultimately, it’s just a temporary solution to their much bigger problem of getting involved with the MLM in the first place, the PureWow editors explain.
At this point, it may be time to gently and calmly have a discussion with your friend. If they seem open to it, you can suggest that they read (or give them a copy of) psychologist Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, which discusses how intelligent and logical people can fall for MLMs, the PureWow editors suggest.
If that doesn’t work, the next step is to contact your friend’s family and other friends to set up an intervention with a professional interventionist, which Ross says is successful around 75% of the time:
The ultimate purpose of any intervention is to stimulate independent thinking by engaging in an educational process that includes critical analysis. The person for is the focus of the intervention must be personally engaged and interested, or no meaningful exchange of ideas will occur, and the effort will fail.
If you’d like to learn more about MLMs and haven’t already done so, listen to The Dream podcast, which has done deep dives into MLMs over the course of two seasons.