Multi-Level Marketing Has a Problem: YouTubers Keep Talking About it
The biggest issue for multi-level marketing companies is stopping YouTubers talking about their bad experiences
Multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) hoping to attract young recruits have a problem — former coaches are taking to YouTube to explain why they quit.
MLMs promote the idea that you can make a real income while working flexible hours, mostly from home — Avon and Mary Kay are some of the most well-known examples — but former MLM representatives are posting videos that paint a very different picture.
In a video entitled “Why I Quit Limelife/ Limelight by Alcone…and Why MLMs are the Worst,” young stay-at-home mom Savannah Whitaker (who goes by Savannah Marie on YouTube) explains that: “When I joined LimeLight, there wasn’t a video for me to watch…It was just a bunch of people talking the company up.” Whitaker’s video details how hard it was to sell to her circle of friends, as most MLMs encourage, and how her sales pitches became such a nuisance that even her closest friends unfollowed her.
MLMs rely on turning customers into salespeople, whose sales then count toward their recruiter’s income. This creates what a 2011 FTC report called an “endless chain” that is “flawed, unfair, and deceptive.”
MLMs require that you buy inventory to get started, and the pressure for sellers to maintain their inventory guarantees income for their recruiter, and their recruiter’s recruiter, in a business model that looks awfully… triangular. (It’s important to note that these businesses aren’t necessarily pyramid schemes, which are illegal.)
Most importantly, the FTC reported that 99% of people who join MLMs lose money. When you see posts about new cars and tropical vacations by fabulously wealthy MLM members, know that MLMs rely on a tiny number of top-tier earners to create the illusion that their level of success is a distinct possibility for new recruits.
Whitaker is part of a groundswell of creators who are helping to burst that bubble. Kiki Chanel, a growing channel with over 20 million views and over 200,000 subscribers, is dedicated to exposing what they allege are predatory MLM sales tactics. YouTube searches for the term “anti-MLM” have shot up dramatically in the past two years, as has the popularity of the subreddit r/antimlm, where users share their distaste for spammy messages from former high school classmates, many of which start with the suspiciously friendly salutation, “Hey, Hun!”
Comments on Whitaker’s anti-MLM videos typically fall into two camps: MLM participants who wish she would “do her research”, and people thanking her for convincing them not to join. “It’s all very validating,” she says from her home in Arizona. “I can legitimately say that I’m helping people, and that’s really cool.”
Some MLMs, like LuLaRoe, who did not respond to a request for comment, are by now notorious for their poor treatment of their independent retailers. But others, like Younique and Plunder Design Jewelry, have an A rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Not everyone wants to read the FTC’s 40-page report, but channels like Whitaker’s put a friendly face on a bleak reality.
And Whitaker isn’t alone. Chrissy Antoniotti’s video, “Why I Quit Beachbody — the Truth!” has amassed over 340,000 views since she uploaded it in August of 2017. Chrissy’s experience wasn’t great from the start — she didn’t like the plan’s “Shakeology” shakes — but she also took the time to explain the negative aspects of her life as a coach. She found it difficult to meet the demands of her recruiter, and when she wasn’t able to find enough genuinely interested recruits, she caved to the pressure: “I was persuaded to sign up my husband, and I paid for my friend to sign up…it wasn’t 100% honest,” she says.
Whereas MLMs have a reputation for alienating friends, Antoniotti’s video has helped her make new ones. Melinda Duso, another former Beachbody coach, reached out to let Antoniotti know her video clinched her decision to quit, and today she is working on building a blogging career instead. The two still consider each other friends, but Antoniotti can’t say the same about her recruiter. Another upside to quitting — she has made far more money from AdSense revenue on her “Why I Quit” video than she ever did with Beachbody.
The growing number of anti-MLM voices isn’t enough to convince everyone. In July 2019, Vice published a documentary about Jill Domme, a 34-year-old woman who filed for her second bankruptcy after her LuLaRoe shop went bust. (She mentions that she filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2015, which she blames on a shopping addiction.) One of the top comments on the video points out, “She is now selling yet another MLM product…I don’t think she’s learnt her lesson at all.” Indeed, Domme’s Instagram and Facebook page are devoted to another MLM, Plunder Design Jewelry.
Domme receives plenty of nasty messages about her decision to work with Plunder, as well as offline criticism from her loved ones. “My friends, my boyfriend, my mom — they hate that I do Plunder,” she says. But she insists she only sees Plunder as a hobby, and points out that on the BBB website, “LuLaRoe has an F, and Plunder has an A.” (As this story was published, LuLaRoe has a D+. LuLaRoe did also not respond to a request for comment.) Domme recently added yet another MLM to her busy schedule, and is happy to announce that she has lost 20 pounds thanks to Beachbody.
Domme has seen Antoniotti’s “Why I Quit” video, and says that she experiences similar pressure to recruit. She also says she understands that in MLMs, “people who get in the earliest are at the top.” And yet, she has had success with Beachbody, and loves her massive collection of Plunder jewelry, so why should she quit?
Whitaker has a different perspective, and says that while she genuinely enjoyed her LimeLife makeup, she wouldn’t purchase from them again since her involvement would “benefit a predatory business model”. She hopes her YouTube channel continues to serve as a support for people who have been hurt by MLMs, as well as those buckling under pressure from family members to join, since, “When it comes to people we care about, it’s harder to say no.”