Recently, you might have spotted a beautiful young woman with a shiny new car on Instagram. Somewhere in the caption she may have referenced the company that she claims has made her glam new life possible. Perhaps a friend of a friend on Facebook has been tagging you in vague status updates, asking users to comment what they’d do with an extra £500 per month. Maybe you’ve even been directly offered the opportunity to work from home, with the flexibility and financial freedom you’ve always dreamed of. All you’ve got to do is sell beauty products online and, boom, you’re living the dream that no other avenue of work could provide.
It all sounds ideal, but just how legit are the opportunities being offered? The online selling industry is booming across the world. It’s valued at £2 billion in the UK, with hundreds of thousands of people in the signed up here alone. But a new BBC Three documentary Secrets of the Multi-Level Millionaires has lifted the lid on the darker side to this multi-billion-pound industry that mainly targets young women.
Multi-level marketing (MLM), also known as 'network marketing' or 'direct selling', is essentially the sale of products via individual distributors. Many MLM companies focus on beauty, health and wellness. They ask new recruits to sign up online, go through some form of training, order products to sell and, in theory, make money from the commission of each sale. But there’s another avenue of income within the structure which has been an increasing cause of concern – recruitment.
Because the more sellers you recruit, the more money can be made up the chain. For example, you could earn a cut from whoever you bring into the business, as will the person who recruited you, and the person who recruited them, and so on. Getting as many other sellers involved then is just as important as making your own sales. In the documentary we learn about accusations of pyramid selling, brainwashing and the systematic targeting of vulnerable people to keep these recruitment chains building. And though the network marketing companies featured in the doc give statements on how their sellers are contractually obliged to follow strict codes of conduct in this regard, an anti-MLM movement is growing online.
For Secrets of theMulti-Level Millionaires, journalist Ellie Flynn went undercover and signed herself up to two online beauty selling companies – Younique and NuSkin. Both have tapped into the social media market with the latter being worth a reported £4 billion - according to the film. But what Ellie finds as she digs deeper into the world of MLM, is that many of the sellers don’t see nearly as much money as they’re teased with at recruitment stage.
The film features Vickie, a young mum who spent six months following the NuSkin training only to make £20. Then there's Lindsay who hoped selling for Younique would help cover her medical bills while she was unable to find full-time work but three years after joining she’s now in £3000 of debt. It’s a familiar story for hundreds of women, many of whom were too afraid to speak out about the downsides of the business for fear of a backlash within the online selling communities.
Many of the women featured in the film found that their money was being drained rather than earned after signing up to sell - sometimes for a fee - and they say they felt pressured to spend a minimum amount of money on these typically expensive products themselves, despite struggling to sell them. In one of the training leaflets Ellie was provided with, she was advised to swap all of her existing cosmetics for the NuSkin ones, which would have cost her £562.31 before having sold a single thing on to anyone else.
The film shows what an easy, and attractive, web MLM is to get stuck into, though. When these young women are struggling to see any success themselves, they’ve got the persistent reminder from the (very) small percent of sellers that it has worked for. Sellers are sold the idea that all it takes is a little hard work and if they’re not doing well enough, they’re just not putting enough time in. They’re told the key to doing well is working hard and being positive – so much so that some former sellers in the film report being told to cut themselves off from friends and family who didn’t feel as positive about their new career path as them.
Though there’s a big focus on sellers adopting a can-do, positive and uplifting attitude in their work, the mode of bringing other people on board feels sinister. At an MLM convention, an audience of 2000 women is told by one male speaker that: “Network marketing is the best thing you can do for your children.” While undercover at a training day, Ellie and other new sellers are encouraged to find people’s weak points to entice and recruit them into the company. A black-status seller (someone who has worked their way up and has managed to build a big network of sellers below them) advises the audience to look for specific signs of struggle. “If someone has said they want to buy a new coat, but they don’t have enough money, that’s a weak point,” she says. “Or if someone’s talking about them not having enough time to spend with their children, that’s like ‘oh I can give you more time because I can give you this business opportunity.’”
But it’s not as straightforward as that. Though the MLM industry is supported by fierce believers, according to the film a dramatically small percentage of those who sign up (three quarters of whom are women) see anywhere near the amount of money that is suggested and instead find themselves in debt. The documentary highlights the lack of awareness around becoming involved, the true earning potential of eager new sellers and the potential risks in the seemingly minimal regulation these companies operate under. The backbone of the business, the documentary shows, isn’t as clear to the young women invited to join as it should be. Tales of more time at home, short working hours and six-figure salaries are marred by a reality that many found to have far less to do with selling beauty products than initially understood. It’s not until visiting another training day that Ellie realises the focus of what she’s signed up to. “RITA,” the MLM trainer says, “Recruiting Is The Answer”.