Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

Instagram, Multi-Level Marketing, and the False Promises That Fuel Them

"Work from anywhere!" "Be your own boss!" "Hey, girly!"

A friend of mine has recently started posting Instagram stories advertising a company she's joined and encouraging others to do the same. I immediately saw it as a red flag.

Many girls are all too familiar with that pyramid scheme cliche—“joining a team of entrepreneurial boss babes.” Granted that pyramid schemes are illegal, this seemed to be a similar kind of beast, yet permissible in the eyes of the law.

The company in question is the multi-level marketing (MLM) giant Arbonne. MLMs often get confused for pyramid schemes, but there are some distinctions.

A pyramid scheme is a business model where profit is made only through recruitment of other representatives, who are then forced to buy large amounts of product inventory that they cannot sell. The companies’ products are mainly circulated through affiliates rather than any real outside consumers.

MLMs, on the other hand, have to rely on actual product sales for profit, not just recruitment. MLMs start to venture into pyramid scheme territory when distributors are forced to pay expensive membership fees or are misinformed about what kind of success they will receive.

That being said, Arbonne struck me as different from other MLMs I had encountered because of who I saw primarily promoting it on my social media feeds: teenage girls. This is no Mary Kay, where women 40 or older are convincing their fellow friends to buy anti-aging creams. Arbonne has managed to tap into a youthful market of consultants, giving them a conveniently trendy, modern image.

Upon visiting their website and reading their ingredient policy, it’s not difficult to see why. Arbonne is capitalizing on the millennial and Gen Z desires to shop ethically by offering vegan, cruelty-free beauty products. Their attempt at transparency seems genuine; they even include an exhaustive list of over 2,000 ingredients that are not allowed in their cosmetics.

Probably one of their most profitable departments among young women is nutrition. Arbonne sells herbal teas, protein shakes, and energy fizz sticks as part of their special value pack. Many Arbonne consultants post "before and after" photos of the 30-day nutrition plan on Instagram, boasting slimmer waists and improved energy levels.

In fact, as I sit in Starbucks writing this article, a nutrition value pack sale has occurred right before my eyes. A teenage Arbonne consultant has successfully recruited another while also confirming her $260 purchase (for supplements only, mind you).

Now, I don’t discourage buying a nutrition plan to better your overall wellbeing, as overpriced as it may be. What I find problematic is how consultants may feel pressured into purchasing Arbonne’s products, including the plan, as an investment that may pay off later.

All of the consultant Instagram profiles I've seen include story highlights of them using Arbonne’s products. It makes sense to create a feeling of trust with the consumer by claiming that the product works for you, and maybe even showing some proof.

However, it’s pretty common to see little to no return on investment. Customers are wary of businesses that look like pyramid schemes, and Arbonne’s products aren’t exactly affordable to teens working part-time jobs and handling the costs of tuition.  

Herein lies the problem with Arbonne: it not only enables its consultants to stock up on their products, it encourages it. In order to make a substantial amount of money in an MLM, you must have a powerful salesforce beneath you. To earn any commission on the earnings of your recruited consultants, you first have to attain Arbonne’s “qualified status,” meaning you reach a minimum monthly PQV. PQV, personal qualifying volume, includes how much product you sell through your website and how much you purchase for your own use.

So if a consultant has done an outstanding job recruiting multiple girls, but hasn’t had enough traffic to her website, she may buy products for herself to increase her PQV.

Another troublesome aspect of the company’s business model is the hierarchy of consultants. There are five levels a consultant can reach that come with increased benefits and higher wages. One of the benefits that consultants use as a selling point is a cash bonus towards a white Mercedes-Benz upon reaching the fourth level. To receive it, you must host a “car presentation” to let all your recruits know what they can achieve with hard work. The Mercedes-Benz is dangled over low ranking consultants’ heads, along with paid company vacations, gifts, and opportunities to stand “on stage in front of cheering thousands.”

What Arbonne’s dazzling promotional material doesn’t reveal are the statistics of the actual consultant experience. Their consultant compensation disclosure includes the average earnings of those who made money in 2018. What it doesn’t include is the percent of consultants who earned nothing or lost money. According to a 2017 lawsuit, Cynthia Dagnall vs. Arbonne, only 14% of Arbonne consultants made a profit. The Dagnalls found themselves in the other 86% and lost $2840 in fees and products. 

Keeping these numbers in mind, those who qualify for a white Mercedes- Benz and are able to make a living wage find themselves in the top 0.3% of all consultants. However, the overwhelming message by those trying to recruit is: that can be you. MLMs prey on people down on their luck, whether that be single moms or college students struggling with loans. A vast majority of them are not going to find success within the business, but recruiters will keep posting about “changing your life” and “becoming your own boss” until they break through.

When visiting Arbonne’s website, I was assigned my own personal consultant, Hope. Tapping through her highlights, I see the same rhetoric of her Arbonne peers, with inspirational quotes regurgitated from some positivity Pinterest board. She writes, “In less than a year, you could be earning a six-figure income working part-time,” and I struggled to keep my eyes from rolling back into my head.

I don’t judge Hope or any other girl involved in Arbonne or other MLMs. They’re simply doing what they need to in order to generate sales and recruits, so I respect the hustle. One of the most difficult aspects of a job like this is how easily your peers become convinced that you are indeed a part of a pyramid scheme.

“I feel like there’s a social stigma against businesses like it," said one 19-year-old Arbonne consultant I spoke to. "People think they know how the business works and that it’s a scam, etc. but in reality, it’s the complete opposite.”

And she’s right. Arbonne isn’t your one-way ticket to living the life of your dreams, but it’s not a scam either. Though I don’t find their business plan the most ethical, they don’t actually force you to spend any of your money, except for a small entrance and renewal fee. Whether you end up purchasing their products as an “investment” is up to you.

So, as monotonous and persistent Arbonne girls’ IG posting may be, I do find them admirable. They recognized the risk of an MLM business plan and took a leap of faith regardless. They put a lot of time and effort into making it work. I think these girls show how eager women are to occupy entrepreneurial spaces and the dedication that they offer.

Their talents should be put to work at companies that actually offer them real economic mobility rather than empty promises. Women are largely underrepresented in business leadership positions, and I think corporate America could actually learn a valuable lesson from MLM’s like Arbonne: Welcome hard-working women with open arms!

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