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Can We Stop Ignoring How MLMs Prey on Emotionally Vulnerable Women?

“Hey Hun, long time no see!”

You’ve spent plenty of time on social media, so you instinctually know what sentence is coming next in your DMs.

“I want to invite you to my upcoming skin-care party… and if you RSVP today you’ll receive 10% off and guaranteed lifelong happiness.”

OK, maybe I added in that last part – but the point remains the same. You are being invited to participate in multi-level marketing (MLM). Maybe you read your DM and find yourself thinking, “what’s the harm?” and “those leggings do look pretty sweet!”

I am here to tell you that the harm can be immense, and whom it harms is particularly disturbing. That is because MLMs and the folks who recruit for them consistently target a certain type of person.

They target emotionally vulnerable women.

This can include stay-at-home moms, single parents, low-income individuals, minorities, and folks with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t recruit others, but take a look at who is selling and buying from MLMs and you’ll start to recognize they often fall in the above demographic.

As a woman and as someone diagnosed with mental illnesses, I have previously been on the targeted-end of folks trying to sell and recruit me into MLMs – and I am not OK with it. Luckily I was never tempted, but many like me have been significantly harmed by MLMs.  This is why I want to ring the alarm bell and why we need to stop ignoring this.

When it comes to emotionally vulnerable women, we need to talk about the harms the lies and deceptions of MLMs inflict.

1. “You’ll make great earnings.”

There is something that is readily available, from MLMs which in most cases they are legally required to have, Income Disclosures. To quote this consumer awareness document from the FTC, (which I highly recommend reading): “The loss rate for MLMs is at least 99%. This means that less than one in 100 MLM participants make a clear profit, and at least 99 out of 100 participants actually lose money!” Also, don’t forget a profit doesn’t have to mean much; it could mean the person is making a salary of $1/year. Therefore, it stands to reason that most folks who have to pay any amount to be a seller are in fact in the red.

Yes, some make a profit – often the initial sellers do the best. Regardless, one thing is for certain, there are no guarantees of earning anything and there is a high likelihood of actually losing money. Even at the most unpleasant job you at least know how much you are earning and when you’ll get that paycheck.

2. “Be your own girl boss! Make your own hours!”

Sure someone working for an MLM may be “making their own hours,” but what are those hours? Are those hours more than 40 or on the weekends and evenings? Do they have holiday pay or sick days? Are they tied to their social media 24/7 doing “promotion?” That doesn’t sound like freedom to me.

As far as being a  “boss” (or girl boss) – according to the above data, the majority of MLM sellers should in fact be considered an unpaid employee (or worse, a person who goes into debt for their boss). Another thing to consider is whether or not they have control over products, production, cost, design, packaging, or any of the usual things a boss or entrepreneur would control.

3. “MLM products are high-quality and unique.”

It may be true that many MLM products are not available in conventional retail settings, which could render them “unique.”  Beyond that though, I doubt most claims of superiority, as do plenty of researchers.  When it comes to supplements and wellness products, do a little digging into if they are FDA-approved. This may not be that big of a deal if you are buying leggings or a mop, it’s a much different story if you are buying products that are making health claims. It’s a sad reality that many of these products can actually harm people’s health, give false hopes, and delay appropriate treatments, all while ruining people’s finances.

4. MLMs are cult-like.

You may be surprised to learn that in fact MLMs regularly use tactics that are on the same level as cults. It can be usual to experience things such as psychological manipulation, financial exploitation, relationship control, internal watchdogs, special jargon, odd mantras, magical thinking, an esteemed unquestioned leader or figurehead, and to face guilt or fear over leaving. Yikes.

I feel bad for anyone who gets caught up in an MLM, especially emotionally vulnerable women who have a mental health condition, chronic illness, disability, or other condition that makes working a conventional job difficult. People in this demographic which includes me, are already likely to be financially vulnerable. So this isn’t a matter of losing a bit of pocket money, it could be a matter of paying bills or rent. Likewise, folks in this group may be more vulnerable to work-related abuse. MLM selling can mean tolerating treatment that violates labor laws or causes burnout. For medically vulnerable people who chose to use products with dubious claims, it could mean worsened health outcomes. For those vulnerable in their relationships, it could mean isolation, manipulation, or control.

These are real and scary consequences and we need to stop ignoring them. So if you are wondering if something is an MLM or if you should join it — you may want to use this search tool and then really sit down and consider who and what you may be getting involved with — and if it is worth it.

And if you happen to be part of the one “magical MLM” that isn’t awful, spare me. I don’t want to hear about it.

If you’d like to get out of an MLM or just learn more about the topic, here are a few excellent resources:

MLM Truth


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Getty image by Squaredot95.

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