Am I a Good Friend?

I have recently been troubled by something that is happening in my church. I won’t name names even though no one actually reads this, but the thing that has me concerned is a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) business that is sweeping through my church. My wife and I were one of the first families approached. I was initially turned off because it just didn’t feel right. All of the discussion was about what money could do for us and not about what we had to do to earn the money. The business is essentially an internet portal that sells its goods only to its registered Independent Business Owners (IBOs). But the big push was not to buy products over the internet but to sign up as an IBO. Then we would be able to register other people to be IBOs and the more people we got to sign up as IBOs, the more money we would make. My wife and I politely said no and let it go.

Over the course of the last few weeks, more and more families from our church are signing up. My wife and I started thinking that maybe we were missing something. The group had a monthly seminar last Saturday so we decided to go. Me, working in IT, of course had to Google this business to see what I could find out good and bad. Unfortunately the bad stuff had the truest ring to me. This is in large part why I am a conservative and a Christian, the arguments on the conservative and the Christian side make the most sense to me. Well we attended the seminar and that confirmed to me that there was no stinking way we were going to sign up. Over my dead body may have be a little too strong, but not much. The seminar told us how great the business was, but it never really told us what the business was. I also learned that in order to be really successful, I needed to buy CD/Books/Videos that would train me in how to be successful. I remember sitting in the big room with 3000 other people and saying to my wife, “either I am the only one who doesn’t get this or I am the only one who does.”

I was fine though. My friends are doing this and I am not and that is ok. Or at least I thought this until I came across this article “What’s Wrong With Multi-Level Marketing?” This article makes a very persuasive argument that rings very true with me. This is now raising the questions in my head about what I should do about my friends. My very dear and special friends who I would hope would intervene with me if I were doing something wrong. I am convicted to the point that I don’t know if I can call them my friends if I don’t make them aware of the issues with MLM. Let me just hit the key points of the article.

If this product or service is so great, then why isn’t it being sold through the customary marketing system that has served human society for thousands of years? Why does it need to resort to a “special marketing” scheme like an MLM? Why does everyone need to be so inexperienced at marketing this!

I was not able to articulate this when I heard the pitch, but this point was right in line with my thinking.

For most MLMs, the product is really a mere diversion from the real profit-making dynamic. To anyone familiar with MLMs, the previous discussion (which focused so much on the fact that MLMs are “doomed by design” to reach market saturation and thus put the people who are legitimately trying to sell the product into a difficult situation) may seem to miss the point. The product or service may well be good, and it might oversaturate at some point, but let’s get serious. The product is not the incentive to join an MLM. Otherwise people might have shown an interest in selling this particular product or service before in the real world. The product is the excuse to attempt to legitimate the real money-making engine. It’s “the cover.”

This explains, at least to me, why the “internet portal” was a side discussion and how much money could be made was the big thing.

So, MLMs profit by conning recruits up-front with a “distributorship fee,” and then make further illicit money by “confidencing” these hapless victims as they fail via the “sale” of collateral material.

Yes the “bookstore” was open for business at the seminar. And if you aren’t successful, it is because you are not following the advice given in the materials.

If you are a materialist, you only have to get over the cheekiness of the presentation. But if you do not wish to promote such ideas, if you consider them sinful, then this puts you at the focal point of a moral dilemma. Do you wish to be a salesperson for materialism?

This is where the tugging at my heart began.

It is generally agreed that to mislead people in order to get their money is morally reprehensible. It is labeled “theft” or “fraud,” and those who do it should be punished. No one is naive enough to suggest that you can’t make money at it. Crime can pay, at least temporarily.

Pyramid schemes are illegal. They are illegal because they are exploitative and dishonest. They exploit the most vulnerable of people: the desperate, the out-of-work, the ignorant. Those who start and practice such fraud, should, and increasingly are, being punished for their crimes.

But add a product for cover, and call it an MLM, and people are willing to swallow its legality. Is this true? Really? Who says so?

Wow, Now I am really convicted. This makes total sense to me and this is the road I see my friends going down and I don’t know what I should do.

And MLMs look so legitimate to the public, so decent. So many nice people are involved. Surely, it can’t be illegal! The people lower down may even defend the very organization that is robbing them, hoping that they might get their chance to make “the big money” later.

This is another big kicker. I know my friends would never do anything like this if they really understood what they are doing.

Many readers will share the experience of observing MLMs divide families, friends, churches, and civic groups. Lifelong friends are now “prospects.” The neighborhood is now “a market.” Motives change, suspicions rise, divisions form. The question is begged: “Is it worth it?”

Especially nasty is the church situation. Will the pastor join? If not, he will take a dim view of MLM proselytizing at church functions; animosity will rise, factions will form. You are either “in” or out. If the pastor joins, then those who are not “in” will feel a little uncomfortable in this church.

I can already see that this is happening in our church. Our pastor has already been pitched and I don’t know where his will land on this issue, but I think it is the start of something bad that I hope our church can withstand.

They will claim to have made “new friends,” most of which are MLMers or new acquaintances who could be considered “future prospects.” The shallowness of these “new friends,” the stilted conversations among the “old friends,” and the embarrassment, in general, for what seems clear to everyone but the MLMer go unnoticed. Callousness sets in; standards are lowered.

This is what I saw when I was introduced to the other MLMer’s during and after the seminar. People that were way too over the top friendly to be real. It was all the keys of the “How To Win Friends And Influence People” without the required authenticity. But since they were looking at me as potentially enlarging their wallet by emptying mine, I suppose the had reason to be nice.

Non-MLM real-world businesses that offer products of interest to friends, family, etc., such as insurance agents and small retail shop owners, seem to be more circumspect in dealing with personal relationships in all but a few rare (and grievous) cases. But the MLMer is recognizable by duplicity of friendship overtures, overbearing glad-handing, full-time prospecting, outrageous initial deception, and social callousness. This is no accident, but rather sheer desperation. How could it be otherwise? For the active MLMer is in a hopeless bear trap: with hubris as one steel jaw and oversaturation the other.

My job in Corporate America is in IT and I will not accept money when I work on friends or familys computers. If they what to buy me a dinner or lunch or something, that is fine as long as they have dinner with me, but I can think of little as awkward as taking money for helping my friends.

The Summary:

  1. MLMs are “doomed by design” to recruit too many salespeople, who in turn will then attempt to recruit even more salespeople, ad infinitum.

  2. For many, the real attraction of involvement in multi-level marketing is the thinly veiled pyramid con-scheme made quasi-legal by the presence of a product or service.

  3. The ethical concessions necessary to be “successful” in many MLM companies are stark and difficult to deal with for most people.

  4. Friends and family should be treated as such, and not as “marks” for exploitation.

What should I do? If I believe the above wouldn’t I be required to tell my friends if they truly are my friends. But my friends are good people and they would never be involved in something like this if what I believe is true. Anyone who happens to read this, please pray for me to reach the right decision.