Note: This post is not intended to make anyone feel bad about their work. If you’re involved in an MLM company, you enjoy it, and you’re happy with it, I’m happy for you. This article is intended to expose MLM practices that are harmful to many people in recovery, but if you haven’t been harmed, great! I just want to make people aware of these issues so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to join an MLM

The Allure of the MLM

Multi-level marketing companies are everywhere. From leggings to essential oils, makeup to hair care products, jewelry to even children’s books, it seems like there isn’t a type of product that I’m not seeing pushed all over social media. Something that concerns me about it is that it seems like a good portion of people that I’ve met in treatment facilities, hospitals, and detox centers, along with people I know to be in recovery, are signing up as representatives for these companies. What are they and why are they so appealing to people in recovery? I wanted to find out.

What is Multi-Level Marketing?

Some people call them pyramid schemes, but it’s important to note that the U.S. government does not consider a business model a pyramid scheme unless there is no actual product being sold. MLM companies do sell products, so they technically aren’t pyramid schemes. But they get the name from the pyramid-shaped selling structure.

Here’s how it works. You get invited by a friend, high school acquaintance, co-worker, family member, or someone else to a meeting to discuss a “business opportunity.” You go and find out all about this amazing product you’ve never seen in stores that they are selling. They want to sell you some products and then get you on board also selling the products. You learn that the more people you have selling under you (your downline), the more money you’ll make. All you have to do is pay something from $10 to $1000 to buy a starter kit and suddenly you’re an entrepreneur.

Here’s what it looks like visually:

You know, like a pyramid.

Anyway, the idea is that your friend (upline) get a portion of what you earn, and the people you recruit (downline) give a portion of what they earned to you. The higher you are in the hierarchy, the more money you make.

Other terms for MLM

Another term you might see is “Network Marketing.” It’s called this because the primary way that you get customers and recruits is through your existing social networks. This is why you see your friends and family posting about their MLM products all the time. They are using their existing networks to build a client base because it’s difficult or impossible to build an MLM business that attracts people who don’t know you.

Finally, you might also see “Direct Selling.” This is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, you are directly selling the products to your clients instead of selling them to businesses that then sell them to customers. However, it’s still not direct because you are purchasing products from the company. You are that middle business.

It seems like people in recovery are in the target market

I’ve seen tons of people in recovery get sucked into MLM companies, but I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t alone in that observation. I made some posts in various online communities that exist to call attention to the problems with MLM companies. Many of them almost act as support groups for people who are getting away from the MLM life. Here are some of their observations (initials used to protect privacy):

I know several friends from high school who started selling this mess after cleaning up/rehab…It seems their model is predatory that certain types of women tend to get sucked in!
-S.M.

It seems like a never-ending chain…because they, in turn, start supporting others as they get clean and sober…only to pull them into a pyramid scheme.
-A.B.

Every MLM claims that they can help you get your life on track or help make ends meet in some way. I can see it being very easy for a vulnerable person to get sucked in.
– J.O.

After a mental breakdown and becoming newly sober and a struggle to find a “new normal,” the “sisterhood” and support system and positivity they preached seemed extremely attractive to me at the time.
– M.F.

A.B. mentioned two people she knew that got sucked into MLM companies after post-partum depression and drug addiction. S.S. said that most of the women who attended NA and AA with a clean and sober motorcycle club she attended ended up selling Avon and other MLM products. She said, “it promises SUCCESS to a group of people who have typically hit rock bottom.”

Some people mentioned a different, but still problematic, phenomenon – MLM recruiters targeting people with health conditions with some pretty extreme claims, like:

  • Claiming that essential oils will take away cravings (K.B.)
  • Targeting Plexus as a way to solve “thyroid issues” and “poor gut health” when, in reality, the person in question had an eating disorder (S.B.)
  • Hounding someone with bulimia to buy ItWorks because it would help her lose weight and “feel better about her body” (N.Z.)
  • Pestering someone in recovery from anorexia to get into Shakeology because they would be “such an asset for having connections to that market.”

So not only are the companies targeting people in recovery because they are a receptive audience, but they are actively recruiting people who are sick in an effort to tap into markets of sick people. This wouldn’t be so terrible if it was an actual treatment or medical product. But instead, it’s snake oil and weight loss supplements sold to people with eating disorders because they’d be an asset to their sales. Absolutely disgusting.

Why are MLM companies so appealing to people in recovery?

1. They often sell health products

People in recovery often take the opportunity to create a total lifestyle change that includes addressing their physical health. Many people lost track of their physical health goals and habits while sick and jump into revamping their routine with gusto. With a lot of enthusiasm for “life transformation,” it’s easy to see why marketing pitches for health products are so successful with us. So what’s the problem?

Problem 1: They aren’t just health products, they’re “miracle products”

I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an MLM health product being pitched as simply a low-calorie meal replacement option, or a multivitamin, or something similarly unexciting. They are always pitched as miraculous products that will cure any disease, transform your entire body, and make you your best self. Rather than going to the grocery store and buying some “big brand” that skimps on quality, people are encouraged to buy this amazing new product sold through real people that actually WORKS. Except, MLMs are still big brands and the products are usually about the same, if not worse, in quality. For example, let’s compare the contents of One-A-Day Women’s vitamins and Plexus X-Factor vitamins:

Comparing One-A-Day Women's Multivitamin with Plexus X-Factor

On the right, we have One-A-Day, which lists the quantity of 21 essential vitamins and minerals, while Plexus, on the left, lists only 10. One-A-Day takes care of twice your daily micronutrient needs compared to Plexus. You’ll also notice that One-A-Day only provides quantities above daily recommended values for 4 of 21 micronutrients while Plexus does it for 6 of 10. There really isn’t much point in supplementing above recommended daily values. Excess micronutrients are processed through your kidneys and urinated out. So, basically, Plexus is just charging you extra for pricy urine.

Speaking of which, let’s get to the price issue. A 250-count bottle of One a Day Women’s, from which you need to take one pill a day, costs $14.24 on Amazon right now. That’s about 6 cents a pill. A 60-count bottle of Plexus X-Factor, from which you need to take 2 pills a day, costs $39.95. That’s $1.33 a day. That’s over a 2000% increase in price.

The claim is that X-Factor is aloe-infused, therefore absorption is far better, therefore you have “optimal nutrition.” But if the absorption is so much better, why do you need so much more of each micronutrient per serving? And if we’re looking for “optimal nutrition,” why does it have fewer micronutrients than in than the big brands?

In this one, Plexus (specifically the “pink drink” Plexus Slim) claims to help with blood sugar, inflammation, and gut health. But the ingredients indicate that it’s just some vitamins and caffeine mixed together. Which you can get by taking a One-A-Day and drinking a cup of coffee if you are so inclined. Sure, caffeine helps you lose weight by making you more energetic and less hungry, but that’s nothing new. It’s no miracle.

In sum, it isn’t a miracle product. None of them are. They’re just regular, often lower-quality products that benefit from hype and an expensive sales structure. People who are interested in health should compare products and decide which one offers the most benefit for the best price!

Problem 2: Sometimes they make health claims that are outright dangerous

I see this particularly frequently with essential oils. Essential oils are pretty big in the recovery game, I’ve had therapists use them in therapy sessions, and all that. Essential oils do have proven benefits, like feelings of calm and relaxation, easing nausea, and, in some cases, killing bacteria. However, MLM companies selling essential oils seem to have developed a narrative that essential oils are the cure for any and all ailments. And that’s dangerously untrue.

For example, here’s some “information” from doTerra, one of the larger MLM distributors of essential oils.

Not only do they make the absolutely false claim that essential oils can somehow “delete faulty information from cellular memory and repair DNA” (pseudoscientific nonsense, that is), but that essential oils can replace medications! With people in recovery often feeling averse to pills as it is, offering up nonsense to encourage people to quit them in favor of concentrated flower oil is completely irresponsible.

In this one, they put SSRIs in the same category as marijuana and ecstasy, then claim that essential oils can repair serotonin levels just like SSRIs can. Dangerous. Pharmaceuticals prescribed by a trained physician to treat a health condition cannot be replaced by concentrated flower oil sold by a girl you knew in high school.

In this one, they claim that you can replace an actual pharmaceutical to treat ADHD (which isn’t treated with Xanax in the first place) and anxiety in children. By mixing up a cocktail of flower oil and applying it to wrists and feet. Again, research shows that essential oils DO have calming effects. But to label it as a replacement for a prescribed pharmaceutical for actual mental health conditions is dangerous.

Problem 3: They can target their health products toward people’s insecurities in the worst way

We saw a lot of quotes above from people who said that they were targeted for weight loss and health supplement MLMs while they were in recovery from an eating disorder. But even the products themselves can target people’s worst insecurities. For example, the BeachBody 21 day fix and other diet programs target people with unhealthy relationships with food with their ultra-restrictive food plans and body-shaming “support” tactics.

An alkaline water MLM claims that consuming their water can help “accelerate recovery,” targeting the all-too-common insecurity that we aren’t recovering “fast enough.” For the record, alkaline water doesn’t do anything. Nothing at all.

In summary: People who are in recovery are attractive to MLM schemes because they often are interested in health. A large portion of MLM schemes are health products but, unfortunately, they are usually lower-quality and higher-priced while making “miracle” health claims. They make dangerous health claims to people in recovery and their marketing tactics actively target people’s insecurities. Overall, it’s just gross and it stinks of taking advantage of people.

2. They pitch the promise of a better life with no barriers (except that pesky starter kit)

This is a second reason why these companies are so appealing to people in recovery.

Take, for example, Scentsy. These are grabbed from their recruitment page on their website:

Who WOULDN’T want to get involved in a company that promised a deep sense of purpose, lifelong friendships, and amazing adventures. Especially people in recovery! People who have used substances or had a mental health condition for a long time may not have a clear idea of their “purpose” in the world. They might have dropped their substance using friends and are working to build a new support system. They might have just been 3-4 months in a rehabilitation facility where they were absolutely no adventures to be had. It sounds like a dream, right?

It Works!, the company that sells plastic wrap to put on your tummy so you sweat out some water weight, claims that It Works is an opportunity to dream big and start living life on your own terms.

After spending years feeling like life was dictated by your mental health or substance use condition, or that you were stuck in dead-end jobs because of your condition, why wouldn’t you want to join with that kind of pitch?

And then the “buttery soft” leggings people at LuLaRoe. They’re promising that LLR creates freedom, strengthens families, and helps people achieve their dreams through purpose, confidence, and trust, among other things.

Don’t you want freedom from the constraints of your health condition? Don’t you want to be confident and feel trusted? Of course! So join LuLaRoe, right?

People in recovery are an ideal market for these types of messages. Some of us have minor criminal convictions that might hinder traditional employment. Some of us have a history of job-hopping to avoid suspicion when it comes to substance use. Some of us have serious financial concerns due to hospital bills, getting into debt to afford substances, and/or spending money recklessly when we weren’t well. When an old friend comes along promising that all of these problems can be solved for the low, low price of whatever the entry fee is, people are going to be tempted.

The problem is that it’s a lie. The entry fee isn’t your entry to a successful and profitable business that will turn your life around. It’s your entry to further financial difficulties, overwhelming stress, and feeling enslaved to this huge company making millions of your sweat and tears.

Research published by the Federal Trade Commission, which exists to protect consumers, reported that 99% of people involved in Multi-Level Marketing schemes lose money. Negative money isn’t much to get you started on your brand new fantastic life, is it? But say you aren’t sure if you trust the FTC. That’s okay. Let’s look at income disclosure statements published by the companies themselves. Please keep in mind that these are income, not profits. So these don’t even take into account what distributors have spent on products, websites, Facebook ads, travel, parties, or anything else.

  • 94% of Young Living distributors make an average annual income of $12. 99.4% make an average of $6,168 per year or less. That’s just under $3 an hour.
  • 79% of BeachBody coaches make an average of $367 per year. That’s $0.18 an hour.
  • 96.5% of Plexus distributors make an average of $3778 per year ($1.82/hour) or less. 82.41% make an average of $301 per year.

Again, that’s only income. Not net profit. I’ll say it again. No matter what the company or its recruiters tell you about creating a fabulous, independent new life full of financial freedom, you have a 99% chance of losing money. The only people that are making good money are the fraction of a percent that got in at the very beginning. If you’re just hearing about the company now, it’s probably too late to make money with them.

3. It gives the appearance of a tight-knit, supportive community

There’s no denying that there seems to be a lot of love and support going around the #bossbabe circles. If you have anyone on your Facebook friends list that does MLM, you might see their posts getting showered with affection from people in their MLM. You might see the LuLaCruise and feel a pang of jealousy. Search Instagram for #bossbabe and you’ll find a whole subculture of women building each other up as small business owners.

Of course this is appealing to people in recovery. Like a lot of other groups, people in recovery have a significant life circumstance in common and they like to surround themselves with people who have similar experiences. People who are religious have that in common, and like to gather in places of worship. People who are vegans have that in common, and they join Facebook groups, go to meet-ups, and maybe participate in activism to meet others like them. This isn’t a unique phenomenon, but people in recovery are a unique group of people. They might have recently lost a whole lot of people that they used to have in their social circle because they had substances in common. Now, they’re looking for a new “tribe.”

Enter the MLM. It’s a group of people that have financial concerns and desire for meaning, purpose, and success in common. They have had something happen that has excluded them from the workforce (whether willingly or not), like having a baby or needing inpatient hospitalization. They find a group of people that, like their existing recovery support group, just wants them to do well. It meshes well with us.

Unfortunately, this comes at a terrible price. Watch an MLM person’s Facebook long enough and you’ll see that the only people still commenting are other MLM people. Their real-life friends and family are tired of hearing about it, so they stop bothering. Marriages get seriously strained under the mounting debt, increased time away from the family, and cult-like atmosphere. People see their spouses spending every waking moment watching videos, listening to motivational seminars, planning parties, doing Facebook live sales, posting to Instagram, and texting everyone they’ve ever known and wonder “where did my spouse go?” This phenomenon is so common that blogs like “Married to an Ambot,” posts on marriage advice forums about getting a spouse out of MLM, and Facebook groups like “Husbands Against LuLaRoe.”

Is it really worth the risk of straining your remaining relationships to get involved in a supportive community of people encouraging you to bankrupt yourself? I think not.

Resources

My goal with this report was to show how multi-level marketing companies work and why they are so good at attracting people who are in recovery from mental health and substance use disorders. But also, I want to bring attention to the fact that it’s largely a predatory type of business that depends on swindling people out of their money in order to make the owners wealthier. While these companies might themselves be multi-million dollar organizations, the lack of wages at the bottom shows that they are taking advantage of people, not rocking the market with a magnificent product. Here are some further resources for you depending on your circumstances:

If you want to get out of an MLM company

If you want to figure out if a new opportunity might be a predatory MLM:

If you’re concerned about a friend or family member:

Most of all, take care of yourself. Look out for your best financial and emotional interests. If you’ve already gotten involved and want to get out, don’t beat yourself up. They wouldn’t be working if they weren’t appealing. It’s not your fault.

Kate Fitch

I've been with the Network since 2015, when I started as a volunteer. I've been on staff as the Communications Specialist since January 2017. I'm currently in college and pursuing a dual BA in Public Health and Public Administration. I'm most passionate about making sure that people with mental health conditions are fairly represented in the media, at policy tables, and in treatment system planning. In my spare time, I like to crochet, knit, and be the best cat mom ever.

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