They might be a joke to some, but to those inside the world of multi-level marketing (MLM), it’s super serious.
“We’re not necessarily here to talk about why multi-level marketing is silly, we’re not really even here to talk about why it’s scammy,” Montell said. “We're here to talk about why it’s culty, which I think might be a new idea for some people.”
While researching for her book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Montell looked at MLMs specifically and found that they fall along the cult spectrum. Even though they are scam like in nature, MLMs tend to go deeper than the typical pyramid scheme.
“They are these complex, life consuming organizations that are missionary in character,” she said. “Members come to revere the people at the top as almost like a spiritual leader.”
For instance, MLM companies will hold large conventions packed with high energy speakers, giveaways, and more. Team members in the company pay to attend the conference and leave with a renewed sense of purpose and community. However, it is a system built to string its employees along while milking them dry.
“People have done the math and 99% of MLM recruits never make a dime,” said Montell. “It is only possible for people who get in at a certain time and are able to recruit and recruit and recruit (to get rich) and when those people become millionaires, it’s all at the expense of everyone they’ve scammed below them. Except the people below them look up to them.”
What starts as a group of friends holding each other accountable quickly turns into a cycle of shame and gas lighting as team members work to meet impossible business goals. While some of these toxic values can also be found in traditional workplaces, MLMs don’t guarantee their employees a base salary, retirement account, or healthcare plan.
“Because your success as an MLMer depends on the success of everyone in your downline, these really co-dependent relationships form,” Montell said.
While joining an MLM is easy, leaving can be very difficult. Team members risk losing their newfound “work family” and become an object of shame in the community. They weren’t good enough, couldn’t make it work, they were so close to the next level, but now they’ll be missing out.
“If you leave, if you give up, you’re giving up on the American dream itself,” said Montell.
Listen to “The Cult of Multi-Level Marketing” to hear the full discussion on MLMs and their cult like behavior. Curious about what companies are considered MLMs? The Anti-MLM Coalition maintains a master list of known MLMs on their website.
Sounds Like A Cult releases new episodes regularly and hosts Amanda Montell and Isa Medina investigate different zeitgeisty groups to see if they could be considered a cult. Find the show on the iHeartRadio app or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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