The Great Pyramid of Sleaze

After a harmless lunch with an old classmate, Kayla Morrison gets suckered into an Amway motivational seminar.

I graduated from college two years ago with good grades and an International Political Economy degree that was supposed to allow me to work nearly anywhere. But in real life I have yet to hold a job that required even a high-school education and I am currently unemployed. I’ve sent out over 150 resumes since February and had exactly four interviews, none of which have led to anything of note. Recently it has gotten to the point where I can barely bring myself to search the job boards in between naps. This is what my life looked like when a distant acquaintance tried to rope me into Amway a few weeks ago.

pyramidThis clusterfuck all started because I finally gave into the endless stream of “how to get a job in this economy” articles I had been reading and signed up for LinkedIn even though it is 2012 and I’m pretty sure no one cares about LinkedIn anymore. The day after I put my profile up I got a message from a former classmate named Alison who I hadn’t seen or spoken to since graduation. She invited me to lunch, and I agreed to meet her the following week.

At the beginning our lunch was your basic catch-up lunch — talking about what we had done since graduation, where we were living, etc. — but looking back on it now I see where it took a weird turn. She started asking me questions like, “If you could travel anywhere where would you travel?” and “What would you do if you had all the money you needed and didn’t have to work?”. Then the pitch started in earnest. She told me she had been helping another classmate who was in my major, James, with the business he started after graduation. She explained that he was so successful that he was close to being able to quit his menial day job to run his business full time. This didn’t seem all that odd to me. James is very smart and if anyone I knew could make a business work it was him.

I asked what the business was and she vaguely explained that they made money from selling ads on the internet, kind of like Facebook. She added that they were always looking for help and they might have something for me to do on the side to supplement my meager unemployment income. I figured it couldn’t hurt and told her I would get in touch with James.

Later that evening I got a call from Alison. She said there was a great “networking opportunity” she could get me into the following night. It was a speech by a guy who specializes in teaching recent grads how to be financially independent in today’s economy. I keep hearing about how I should get a “network” through “networking opportunities” to find a job. Normally I would have immediately said no because I have what you might call “crippling social anxiety,” but I didn’t really have anything to lose at this point. So I said I would go.. After I hung up a little voice in the back of my head said, “What if this is some crazy pyramid scheme?” I quickly dismissed that as impossible because these people were way too smart to get involved in something like that.

The next night I met Alison in Bellevue, a city outside of Seattle, and followed her up to a private house in an expensive neighborhood on the outskirts of Redmond. There were dozens of people milling around outside shaking hands and exchanging niceties. About 70% of them were your basic MBA candidates: 25-year-old bros in ill-fitting suits who all had the exact same haircut. The rest were people like me who looked out of place and confused.

When we walked into the house, the first thing I noticed was that clearly no one lived there. There was no furniture in the front room, no small appliances in the kitchen, and no pictures on any of the walls. The second thing I noticed was the carefully curated pyramid of off-brand energy drinks on the kitchen counter and mantle. That’s when I realized I probably should have listened to that little voice the night before.

There were so many people there that they had a second room hooked up by Skype and people were overflowing out on to the back patio. The “homeowner,” a chubby middle-aged guy with the standard-issue MBA haircut, welcomed us and introduced the speaker, Bob Jones.

Bob Jones was another chubby middle-aged guy wearing what looked like a moderately expensive suit and a tie I can only describe as having the exact same pattern as my mom’s couch. He started right in, “Tonight I’m going to talk about why your job is RUINING your life and how you can trade it in for a multi-million dollar business that YOU own. I’m going to talk about how to be a REAL MAN and provide for your family while still spending time with them, and I am going to talk about WINNING.” I immediately realized that this was going to be a night fraught with stifled laughter on my part.

“How would you like to never have to go to work again and be a multi-millionaire like me? I’m a multi-millionaire and I don’t even have a desk! How would you like to be able to repossess your wife from her boss who she dresses up for every day while she wears socks to bed for you? Because that’s the most important thing a Christian man can do. It’s cowardly to make your wife work outside the home.” I couldn’t believe I was sitting in a room full of people in 2012 and no one seemed fazed by this comment at all. He quickly followed up with, “But I love women, I love working with women, they are less stubborn than men and aren’t afraid of change.”

Right, “It’s okay that I’m an unapologetic racist because I had a black friend in college!” Got it.

The next two and a half hours were basically different permutations of this same idea. “I am super rich because I’m not a ‘job person’ and you can be super rich just like me if you quit being a ‘job person’ ” sprinkled with bits of Christian dogma and blatant misogyny. The general thesis seemed to be that “job people” could never truly be free because no matter how much you make an hour you still have to show up to make it. He is truly free because he just sits at his lake house and watches the money flow in.

I wondered where exactly this money was coming from. He vaguely answered that question by asking the audience how many of us used $20 worth of “stuff” a day. After some prodding everyone agreed.

“Well,” he said, drawing a stick figure on the white board next to him, “what if instead of investing in some CEO’s stock portfolio, people were investing in you every time they bought the things they use every day?” He drew a $20 bill with an arrow pointing to the stick figure. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “This is too good to be true, it’s a pyramid, it’s a multi-level marketing scheme. Your parents will tell you, ‘Son, Amway is a pyramid scheme, don’t get involved with them.’”

It is important to note here that this is the first time anyone had mentioned Amway. Up to this point I thought this was some sort of energy drink multi-level marketing scheme, and even after this offhand mention I thought maybe he was just using Amway as an example.

He continued, “Well, I call bullshit on that. You know what is a pyramid? Your job! Your job is a pyramid!” He drew a triangle on the board and started filling it in with squiggles from the bottom. “Down here is you and all your coworkers making shitty wages and up here is the CEO making millions. If you think you’re ever going to make it to the CEO position, you’ve got another thing coming!”

I wondered how that was any different from a pyramid with him at the top and me at the bottom. He quickly answered that question by explaining that Amway (without actually saying Amway, of course) was an upside down pyramid and the harder you worked the farther you could go. There was nothing stopping you from getting to the top (or bottom?). But I thought I didn’t have to work? I thought I just sat at my lake house and let the cash roll in? Plus, an upside down pyramid is still a pyramid — that statement doesn’t actually mean anything.

In the last ten to fifteen minutes he explained how it worked. He rushed through this part and threw in more quips about how I could be rich just like him, seemingly brushing the details off. “All you have to do is establish your website, then people start buying products they use every day from you. You get a percentage of those profits, say $800. Next, all you have to do is give six other people the opportunity that you’ve been given tonight and you’ll get a percentage of their profits in addition to your own profits. So you can see how this very quickly adds up to an extra $56,000 a year. Now, the government just makes me say these numbers, your actual earning potential will be much higher.”

Wait, what? How did you go from $800 to $56,000? And who are these people that are buying stuff from me? There have got to be millions of these individual sites — why would people go to mine? None of this was ever explained except to say that the person who brought me would be in touch to go over the details.

It turns out that “the government made him” give us those solid numbers because in 1979 the Federal Trade Commission ruled that Amway was not an illegal pyramid scheme but was guilty of price fixing and exaggerating the earning potential of its members. They were forced to add some fine print into their registration materials stating that the average “Independent Business Owner” makes only $1,400 a year selling Amway. Several articles referring to interviews with former Amway sellers stated that most people end up losing money, with one family losing over $35,000 over the course of five years. These articles also stated that high-level distributers like Bob Jones actually do make a lot of money off of Amway by selling motivational books and CDs to lower level distributers. These distributers are not officially required to buy these materials, but are heavily pressured to do so to “improve their business.”

The speech finally concluded after three hours. Alison followed me out and continued the spiel in the parking lot. I told her it was a pyramid scheme and I wasn’t interested. She said she understood how I felt. She felt the same way at first! But after seeing the presentation a few times it made sense. I just needed to see the presentation a few more times! I realized we were going to be there all night if I tried to talk sense into her, so I just agreed until she let me leave. She called about a week later to invite me to another presentation given by James, but I let it go to voicemail.

So how did all of this happen? How did at least two highly intelligent people, one of whom has taken the same economics classes I did, get suckered into this? How did I get so far down this rabbit hole without catching on?

I now realize why I was the perfect person for this setup: unemployed after a period of woeful underemployment and frustrated and confused by the path my life has taken. The only reason Alison invited me to lunch was to pitch me Amway, which she did quite successfully by carefully skirting the truth. I am sure the “Where would you travel if you had unlimited money?” question came straight from their training materials as a way to make a tangible connection to the pitchee’s hopes and dreams for the future. This is Sales 101.

Bob Jones’ presentation took things to another level. It was so highly persuasive because it was largely based on shame. Everyone wants to provide as much as possible for their families and young people like myself are desperate to get started in the world. Hearing from a “multi-millionaire” that we are failing miserably is uncomfortable. Luckily, we can become just like him if we follow his plan for success!

The way he played to the male audience member’s insecurities was especially striking. He questioned their manhood by pointing out that they were poor (compared to him). He then insinuated that the ladies love a man who can provide and their respective significant others probably wouldn’t wear socks to bed if they did. And you know what no socks to bed means: BONING.

Obviously Amway’s motivational tricks aren’t anything revolutionary, so why are they so successful with educated young people like me? I think it has a lot to do with the narrative of success that we’ve heard our entire lives: going to school leads to a good job which leads to happiness. When you’ve spent your whole life working hard to get good grades and get into and graduate from the right college, only to end up working in the mall, I think it is perfectly natural to reach a point where you just give up. It’s easier to fall for Amway and all it promises than it is to keep stressing about what you are going to do with your life. You’re going to be a business owner! A multi-millionaire! It’s much easier to say “I work in the mall” when you can follow it up with “but I’m just doing that to pay the bills right now while I build my business.” God knows I would love to be able to say that to my meddling family.

Using current distributors to rope in their friends and relatives is also extremely powerful. Most of the people I know (myself included) didn’t have a plan B for when plan A of going to college didn’t work. It’s really scary to be out in the world without a plan and if someone you trust suddenly presents one to you when your options are quickly dwindling, I can see how it would be very easy to grasp onto it.

Once they’ve got you, it is emotionally difficult to get out. Bob Jones keeps telling you that you are terrible for not providing for yourself and/or your family and you will do almost anything to turn that around. Then, if you’re not succeeding with Amway, it is probably because you aren’t trying hard enough (and you should probably buy some motivational materials to help you out). After all, Bob Jones and this other small group of people did it, and they were just like you once. Above all, after you’ve failed at virtually every other tenant of adulthood, you can’t fail at this too. It seems so easy, what does it say about you if you fail?

I have to admit that there were times during Bob’s ridiculous speech where I was ready to sign up, but in the end a shame-based approach to anything rarely works on me. I think if I had seen the presentation from a different person who took a gentler approach and didn’t emphasize the Christian/misogynist aspects of the business so forcefully it may have been more successful, which is why they want you to see it multiple times from different people. Obviously, I will not be starting a career with Amway, but I now understand how people just like me could think that it would be a good idea.

In a perfect twist of fate I got a call for a long-term temp job that I really wanted with the county elections office the day after the presentation. Once again I’m at the underground garage level of the pyramid. Luckily, I really like this pyramid, even if it is a bit dull. The biggest thing I’ve learned from this whole experience is that my definition of success doesn’t necessarily have to be having more money than I know what to do with. In fact, I’ll probably be more happy in the long run if it isn’t.

Photo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Kayla Morrison’s greatest career goal as a child was to be an Olympic synchronized swimmer. This dream has yet to come true, although she is really good at holding her breath under water. If you email her she might knit you a tiny sweater or something.