Mums-Losing-Money: Why MLMs Suck

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Okay, look, I just need 30 seconds of your time to tell you what everybody needs to know. 

Chances are, you know someone who’s sick, whether from a terminal illness, COVID-19, influenza, or any other medical ailment. And chances are, you know them, you love them, and you want them to get better. 

Some people will tell you it’s inoperable, or incurable, or that modern medicine can’t help your loved one anymore. 

But what if I told you that I had a miracle cure, one you’d never possibly believe is true but does exist, that you can use to help your loved one. Just one pill a day is all it takes.

You know, and I know, that all of this medical nonsense is just making your loved one even sicker. This pill is all-natural, it’s perfectly safe, it’s perfectly healthy, completely organic, and if you come down to one of our monthly meetings you’ll be able to meet people just like me who have benefited from it

You know them, you love them: Multi-level-marketing (MLM) sellers. 

You know what I’m talking about. That one friend who works for a health insurance company that won’t leave you alone (“Bro, you don’t know what will happen tomorrow one, just get the basic plan”), or that 3-minute YouTube ad (“Bro, you give me 35 seconds right now, and I’ll tell you the secret to immortality).

As much entertainment as it would bring me to dive into the depths of Benny’s get-rich-quick business plan that is not not a pyramid scheme, this essay will address something far more critical, and in many cases, far more deadly than your average “Buy this for $3 from Taobao and sell it for $18 on Amazon” business MLM.

Health supplement MLMs. 

Popularised under the title of “Mums-losing-money” often from disgruntled relatives or friends of distributors, these MLM companies specifically sell quirky health products or supplements, ranging from “prescription-free masculinity enhancement”[1] to “sexual organ size enlargement”[2], to perhaps more ubiquitous, recognisable products such as essential oils and daily vitamins. 

Let me paint three caricatures for you. Choose your fighter:

The Soccer Mum

The soccer mum is a person who doesn’t believe much in medicine. She emphatically believes that genetically-modified foodstuffs and drugs are poisoning her children with harmful chemicals, things she should avoid as much as possible in favour of all-natural nutritional supplements. Of course, there’s no harm in taking an antibiotic pill or two for the occasional terminal illness but she believes what a person puts into their body should come wholly from natural sources only.

Essential oils have very much become the face of the MLM health product movement, with diffusers in households and businesses, and with heavyweight companies like Young Living Essential Oils estimated to sign up as many as 100,000 new distributors every month [3], based upon a message of “[restoring] balance” and “[feeling] your best” in a world where “modern lifestyles don’t … create optimal conditions for physical wellness” that “[leaves] the body unbalanced and [diminishes] energy levels [4]. 

This message often plays into the hands of the Soccer Mum, who feels vindicated in her distrust of modern medicine, and seeks to lead an organic-only lifestyle for herself and her family. After all, if an all-natural approach to healthcare can yield such incredible results, why bother using antibiotics and other, “artificial” medicines?

The Desperado

The desperado’s wife has just been diagnosed with an inoperable terminal cancer, and she’s been given three months to live. The desperado is anxious, frantic to find some kind of cure beyond the usual options of chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Then, suddenly, he receives a text from his third cousin, twice removed. She has just the kind of cure his wife needs! An all-natural product that has been proven to cure cancer, an opportunity that he immediately jumps upon.

That’s the kind of messaging often pushed across by MLM companies, promoting “miracle” products capable of curing every disease. What’s more, they’ve invited him down to their regional headquarters for a testimonial sharing, about how this product has saved their lives even when they were condemned to death, further enticing him to buy more.

Desperate, he buys boxes of pills for his wife, sinking tens of thousands of dollars into them. Anything to buy more time for his wife. After all, who wouldn’t spend as much as possible for just a sliver of a chance to save a loved one from death?

The Businessman

The businessman is quite the astute man indeed. With two Masters degrees from the University of Central Auckland (Online), he has spent many hours running the numbers on what he would buy if he became an MLM distributor. Anyway, the ads don’t lie. Wouldn’t he, too, want the opportunity to make $5,000 a month selling vitamins from his phone?

Such an approach, of appealing to these three predominant demographics, according to his research, is evidently working. According to a study by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), nearly one in 13 Americans reported joining an MLM organisation as of 2018 [5], with over 1,000 firms using the MLM business model within the United States alone [6]. MLM heavyweights, like Young Living and Herbalife International, racked up as much as USD 2.2 billion [7] and USD 5.4 billion [8] respectively in revenue in 2020, and are only expected to exponentially increase as far as 2027.

The figures don’t lie. After all, who wouldn’t want the chance to make free money? 

Why MLMs Suck

Well, I’d hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but for starters, most MLM health products aren’t all-natural at all. For instance, steam distillation, the most common method of extracting most essential oils, involves little more than running steam through flowers [9]. In other cases, one-third of nutritional products showed outright substitution of ingredients, “meaning there was no trace of the plant advertised on the bottle” [10]. In which case, you’re better off going out into a field and eating literal grass for your daily nutrition.

On the other hand, for the ones that do include what’s advertised on the label, there’s often not enough clinical evidence to suggest any “effectiveness in human health” in essential oils, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine [11]. In fact, the university “advises against using essential oil diffusers”, a commonplace appliance in most households that ascribe to the benefits of such essential oils. For vitamin pills and other supplements, a ten-year-long study involving around 14,600 male physicians produced only mixed results [12] when it came to a reduction in cancer and cataracts, with “the likelihood of a clear health benefit [also] very small”[13].

But, you ask, what about all those testimonials about the magical healing properties of these products? Are they not living evidence of the supplement’s effectiveness? 

Well, again, I’d hate to burst your bubble but… very possibly, no. These individuals who give so-called “testimonials” are often the same ones trying to sell you that very product, and they have every incentive to lie, or at the very least, tweak their stories to spin their product more positively. 

Alternatively, they could simply be experiencing a placebo effect of these MLM health products, or, of “a beneficial health outcome resulting from a person’s anticipation that an intervention will help” [14]. 

The Scientific Method calls for rigorous testing and retesting in order to ensure accuracy and fairness, and especially for placebo-controlled studies, where half of the participants are given placebo pills in order to rule out any positive indication of drug effectiveness being a fluke. MLM health products often do not require such placebo-controlled studies in order to push their claims. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even states on its website that “a firm does not have to provide FDA with the evidence it relies on to substantiate safety or effectiveness”[15].

Oh, and what about MLMs being a potential business opportunity?

The truth is, there is profit… for the organisation. According to the previously-mentioned AARP study [16], 47% of MLM distributors reported that they lost money, 27% reported that they broke even, and just 25% reported that they indeed made money. In addition, in ensuring that they make the money they were promised, they would have to sign up increasing amounts of people, oftentimes family and loved ones, something entirely unsustainable considering how if every MLM distributor signed up just 5 new distributors, after 16 cycles, it would quite literally exceed the global population. Hardly a free money-making opportunity.

At the end of the day, the purpose of this essay isn’t to ridicule or mock MLM distributors and buyers. It should, however, remind you that not everyone is qualified to give you medical advice, or that not every advertisement is all that meets the eye. 

Because, to be honest, if there really were a valid, scientifically-proven cure for cancer, or a surefire way to make a stupid amount of money risk-free, I’m sure you wouldn’t be hearing about it from your third cousin, twice removed, across Facebook Messenger.

[2] I knew you’d look for this.

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