This article is a collaboration between Bot Watch and John Evans. John runs Juice Plus Lies Exposed on Facebook.
Let’s not tiptoe around the subject. Many people are afraid to stand up and say MLMs are cults because they are concerned they will be labelled ridiculous or over reacting and not be taken seriously. I will say it. MLMs are cults. Here is why.
Many observers have commented on how MLMs seem cultish. They notice how their friends seem to change their personalities and their lives are consumed by spreading their opportunity. Their social network feeds are full of inanely smiling people, untruths and details of conferences that look very culty. But what do the experts say on the subject? Is there any truth in the theory?
Steve Hassan is a cult expert. He was once in a cult called the Moonies and he now counsels people and families affected by cults. He has written books on the subject and runs a website that educates and supports people affected by cults. He calls Network Marketing a ‘commercial cult’. His website is a mine of information. Here is an article from it that discusses Herbalife and the concept of the commercial cult.
Psychologist and author Michael Langone, created a 12 point checklist of what makes something a cult.
Here it is below with some observations under each point.
The Cult Checklist.
1) The group is focused on a living leader to whom members display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.
In every MLM there are those shill adherents who apparently earned millions in that particular MLM. Every MLM has at least one without exception.
They started the business just like any adherent at the bottom and worked their way up to superstardom. They move from company to company, taking their followers with them.
These guys are the role models for all the others and stand up on stage at the conferences and show pictures of their cars, houses and general lifestyle. Everyone worships these guys and come away thinking it’s possible for them too.
The overall leader of the company is often worshipped too. If they ever make an appearance or are mentioned somewhere, they are treated like royalty. There is often an amazing story behind them. They discovered a product that is so wonderful and will help humanity. The leader cares about all the adherents and wants them all to do well and they are very generous and kind.
Much is made of rewards like holidays that the wonderful leader bestows on them. The fact that they are often billionaires, made off the backs of hardworking people who are losing money is glossed over. It doesn’t matter that the ‘holidays’ are really just a work trip that they have to work incredibly hard to get sent on.
2) The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members and/or making money.
Adherents who are deep in MLM mindset will be obsessed with growing their ‘business’, often to the point when it overshadows every other aspect of their lives. MLM is not just a job, MLM is a mindset, a way of life.
The most committed MLM adherents do not switch off from their MLM, ever.
It’s all about the constant recruitment and money making. The only way they can make money is if they recruit people and if those people recruit. So, not only do they need to recruit, they need to make them recruit others and ‘train’ them. They then need to make those people sell products or buy stuff themselves. The money has to keep coming in and flowing up the pyramid. Every waking minute is taken up with the obsession of recruiting more people. Talking to everyone about ‘the opportunity’, posting daily pictures and updates to try and entice people to ask about joining.
MLM adherents think nothing of posting their cheques or posing with piles of money to show everyone how much they are making. This seems quite tacky, greedy and outrageous to the casual observer but MLM adherents have no concept of how abnormally they are behaving.
3) Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged.
You’re not allowed to be doubtful or be negative in MLM because it will put people off joining the business or buying the product (see point 2).
This is true of all MLMs.
Adherents are told that having a doubting mindset will attract failure. They are forced to be positive all the time, so it attracts success. It’s the good old law of attraction.
Some MLMS take this way too far. Like Valentus who are currently trying to convince people that all their new reps are earning 4 figures a week and choosing new company cars and being promoted to diamond status, after only being in the business for a very short time.
But imagine if one of them spoke out, and was negative about the MLM in some way…imagine how she would be treated by the upline and other adherents.
I’ve heard stories from people within MLMs about what happens if you question things too much or come across too negative. Bullying is rife, contrary to the happy family image they put out.
Point 3 on the cult scale is absolutely true for MLM.
Some Law of Attraction memes that illustrate the kinds of things adherents are encouraged to believe.
Much is made of people’s ‘why’. They are initially targeted by the group based on their ‘hot button’ such as the desire to make a future for their child, spend more time with family, earn money to support their family. They are reminded of this by their upline, their company and continuously at conferences and meetings. People are led to believe that their deepest desires and wishes are dependent on their success in the group. If they drop out, they are giving up on their ‘why’. This ensures a deep emotional link between the MLM and the person’s needs. This would be vey hard to break.
If you really believed in the Law of attraction you might think that you must not question what you are doing. As soon as you express doubt, your business will fail. If you can really believe it will do well, you will try harder and harder to make it work. You will make yourself believe and block out all reasoned arguments and stop listening to your concerned friends. You lie to yourself as much as you lie to everyone else.
4) Mind-numbing techniques (for example: meditation, chanting, denunciation sessions, or debilitating work routines) are used to suppress members’ doubts.
Now, I want you to look in your mirror every morning, and say to yourself “I WILL BE A PMD” – “I WILL BE A PMD”, say that 100 times each morning.
Techniques like this would only ever be dished out in MLM.
Go to You Tube and type in an MLM’s name and ‘rally’ or ‘conference’. Most of them have rallies/ success days/ conferences. Watch one of them and see if you think it looks a bit like a cult. There are bright lights, music, chanting, repetitive stories. They wave flags and hear from their leaders with loud, exciting entrances. People come away enthused and ready to put more effort into their ‘business’.
Adherents are encouraged to ‘work on themselves’. If they aren’t making loads of money, it is through their own fault. They have to change the way they think and just trust their uplines. They are actively encouraged to stop questioning themselves and do what their uplines and the company tells them to do.
After a long, hard day of cold calling, trying to infiltrate groups, driving for hours and lying on social media they are tired and quite possibly missing their young children that they have had to put in childcare for the day. At the end of the day they may have to speak to their upline and do some training or work on themselves. Right at the end of the day, when they are exhausted, they are encouraged to list the things they are thankful for. They call this doing their ‘gratitudes’. This is to shut down any concerns they may have about what they are doing and to divert any critical thought.
Have a look at one of the company’s training manuals if you can. See what sort of behaviours they are advocating. Forever Living’s manual is full of lists to complete, reminders of the success you can achieve. People are advised to contact 5-10 people a day, write lists of everyone they ever knew, plan what they would do with more money. They are encouraged to ‘touch the business every day’.
5) The group’s leadership dictates how members should think, act, and feel
One of the first things you are told when joining an MLM company is this,
“You’re going to get negativity, people telling you it’s a pyramid scheme and that you’re wasting your time. But these people are just those idiots who want to live normal lives working for someone else. These people are not interested in fulfilling their dreams. They don’t understand things like we do. Don’t listen to them. JUST. GET. RID. OF. THEM”
MLM adherents spend an awful lot of their time getting rid of people from
their life, just because their MLM told them to.
So yeah. MLM qualifies for point 5 on the cult scale.
Some memes spotted on adherents’ social media are shown below. Shutting out people from their lives and embracing the group serves to isolate the adherent and further entrench them in the group. They lose perspective and support, becoming dependent on the group for everything. this is very dangerous.
Adherents have to think ‘positively’, follow the plan provided by the company (uplines and manuals), block out anyone who doesn’t support the business, spend their money on the company, turn their life over to the company and be grateful for the opportunity.
Pretty soon, the adherent finds themselves losing control of the situation and either need to immerse themselves in their new ‘family’ or risk ostracism from the group and the embarrassment of returning to their rejected friends with their dreams in tatters. People end up lying to themselves to protect themselves from the reality they find themselves in. It is a desperate situation.
6) The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members to save humanity.
MLM reps really do think they’re the shizz. Everyone else just doesn’t understand what they’re missing. In the worst cases of MLM-fever, normal people are looked down upon and the MLM rep will try to save them from their normal life.
The rep will never EVER admit anything negative about their MLM. They are 100% totally committed to the company and give it total admiration at all times.
So yeah, MLM can definitely make people elitist.
What’s funny is when people move from one MLM to another and their loyalty shifts from one company to another SO quickly. Suddenly they’re just as passionate about coffee as they were about skin cream.
The whole belief in the Law of Attraction has a part to play here. People are taught that they bring bad or good things upon themselves with their thoughts. If they are negative, they will fail. If they are positive, they will succeed. MLM adherents really seem to believe this and are afraid of bringing bad vibrations upon themselves. If they shut out any negative influences from their lives, they stand a better chance of succeeding. This is pretty close to religious belief and it really drives people. Imagine believing that being negative could cause cancer, floods, plane crashes, obesity, illness, business failure. I can see why this idea is so rife and popular. It also means that any failure is down to failed adherent’s negative vibrations. They just didn’t believe enough or try hard enough. This is often enough for the escapee to keep quiet about it all and want to slink away in shame. This is why people are loathe to go to the authorities or the press. They think it is all their fault.
7) The group has a polarized we-they mentality that causes conflict with the wider society.
MLMs quite often go on about how dreadful the commute to work is, they call normal jobs J.O.B.s (Just Over Broke), they maintain that normal jobs are taken by people who are conned into spending their time for little reward. Normal jobs are worthless and cannot earn as much as their MLM. They cannot see that it is not this simple. That a lot of people love their jobs and have rewarding careers. They don’t believe that their earning potential is actually really low. They just think their way is better than the traditional way. They think that everyone should be in MLM and anyone who isn’t is a fool.
“GET. RID. OF. THEM.”
The words from a mindset coach recently. But it sums up MLM mentality pretty well. What a destructive message. It’s simply toxic.
I’m imaging how I would feel if my daughter started a job and I didn’t agree with it (for valid reasons) and I tried to discuss it with her, but she was told by one of her advisors to GET. RID. OF. ME.
It really is WE-THEY. If people don’t like the adherent’s MLM life then they can fuck off. Simple as that.
MLM often causes intense conflict and has been known to destroy families when one person in the family throws themselves deep into MLM and it begins consuming their life. Here at Botwatch we have heard time and again about people who have lost contact with their loved ones because of the MLM they joined. It is very sad hearing these stories and we try to support them as best as we can. We are hoping to educate people to help prevent people in the future being lost.
Most adherents will admit that they’ve had to shut people out of their life after getting involved with MLM. Some are proud about it and post about it.
“Another snake gone from my life!”
Why is shutting people out your life so common in MLM?
It’s not normal to shut someone out of your life because they don’t like your job.
7 on the cult scale is another hit for MLM.
8) The group’s leader is not accountable to any authorities
This is another hit for MLM. Sadly. I trust point 8 will only be true for a little while longer until advertising authorities can introduce proper regulation.
At the moment MLMs can make claim after claim and are not accountable to any authorities.
Hundreds or even thousands of false medical claims, earning claims, lifestyle claims and product claims are posted daily and the worst that happens is the individual post gets removed.
All the blame and risk is taken by the individual adherents and they are dropped as soon as they break any rules. Even if these rules are broken with the knowledge of the company and its leader. The leader is able to get away with anything if they shift the blame onto their rogue members.
9) The group teaches or implies that its “superior” ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group.
I saw an MLM adherent recently who left one MLM company to join another. In the first company she didn’t really make ‘too’ many crazy claims. She seemed really quite genuine and down to earth.
It was interesting to see her suddenly change when she started the new MLM. MASSIVE earnings claims started almost immediately. After only a few weeks she was making “4 figures a week”. Her team were smashing the promotions, crying with happiness etc.
Before being part of this MLM she would not consider behaviour like this to be moral or good.
“Fake it till you make it” is basically lying yet most MLM reps do it, yet they know lying to be wrong. People pretend they live in huge houses that they are really renting. They pretend their new car is a result of MLM, not their proper job’s wages. They pretend their illnesses have been cured by the wampum they are selling. They pretend they have/ had illnesses to push their products or get into groups. They pretend they are getting large paycheques and will be millionaires soon. They have to pretend to be achieving all this so that people will join them, hoping for the same. They tell themselves that soon, they really will be earning all that money and then it won’t be a lie anymore. This is the means to an end.
MLM mindset definitely makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do.
10) The group’s leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them
MLMS will often accidently or deliberately use guilt to keep people from quitting and to influence people to join the company.
This guilt can be from either the upline to the downline, or the downline to the customer.
“Do you want to give your kids the best life?”
“Do you want to stay stuck with no money for the rest of your life?”
“Do you want to give up after all the time I’ve spent training you?”
“Do you want to give up and waste all the time you’ve put into this business?”
“Giving up is a sign of failure”
“Wanting to give up is just a sign that success is right around the corner, you can’t quit now”
Stuff like this.
Making someone feel shit about wanting to leave is about the best method MLM has in keeping people from quitting.
Another hit for the cult scale.
11) Members’ subservience to the group causes them to give up previous personal goals and interests while devoting inordinate amounts of time to the groups.
MLM hammers the point home that the harder you work, the more you will earn. Often this causes adherents to go MLM crazy. It consumes their life and becomes part of their life-blood. At conferences they are told that to be successful they have to literally live and breathe the product.
Uplines are trained to put pressure on their downline to put as much time as possible into the business in order to maximise on success.
I’ve seen adherents give up their full-time job under the guidance of their upline, only to be forgotten about and left on the scrap heap and slowly descend into failure.
Adherents are unable to enjoy their previous activities because every single social activity, every outing to the shops, every meeting of other people is just a recruiting exercise. They are unable to shut off. People try to recruit their hairdresser, bank clerk, supermarket cashier, fellow mothers at soft play. One of the things that escapees say is that they are able to once again enjoy meeting people and having normal interactions once they have left. They didn’t realise how they had been behaving until they left.
People have left their university courses, believing MLM would be more lucrative.
‘Inordinate amounts of time’ are indeed spent by adherents. They are encouraged to wake really early every day and work as much as possible. They often have late night conference calls and training events and have to go miles away for ‘success days’ and company events. They were initially drawn into the company on the promise of ‘part time work for full time wages’ or being able to work and be with their children. Pretty soon every minute of every day is spent working for the MLM.
Point 11 is spot on for MLM.
12) Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
I think being in MLM eventually goes this way. Especially when adherents are told to get rid of people so spontaneously.
After really getting into MLM, normal people aren’t going to understand their world-view anymore.
Adherents will be mostly be friends with others in MLMs. They treat these friendships as just as important as the friends they leave behind. They call them their family or sisters. They are working towards common goals and are in contact with each other constantly. They rely on each other for encouragement and validation. They want to please their leaders and are happy to receive recognition from them.
They even have ‘recognition’ events where adherents leave their children behind, drive for miles, pay for tickets and get to stand up in front of people in their group to receive a pat on their back. They have to pay for their own food and drink and possibly a hotel stay. They then drive home and post pictures of the event saying how great their group are for recognising them. They assert that this is better than a traditional job where they got no recognition.
It’s ridiculous. Every point on the 12 point cult scale is relatable to MLM mindset and behaviour.
For anyone wondering if MLMs are cults, here’s your answer.
What to do if you or someone you know is in a group like this.
Steve Hassan, a cult counsellor, says that everyone can be helped. No one is in so deep that they can’t be helped. His website called ‘Freedom of Mind’ has information you might find helpful.
His books are very informative.
I have written some guidance on how to help someone in an MLM. There is a lot of information and some practical suggestions in that post.
TINA have written an article and guide on what to do if you are the parent of a college student who has been sucked into an MLM. The advice is relevant to anyone concerned about a family member.