The Mirage of Multilevel Marketing

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Don't be surprised if a friend or acquaintance tries to sell you vitamins, herbs, homeopathic remedies, weight-loss powders, or other health-related products. Millions of Americans have signed up as distributors for multilevel companies that market such products from person to person. Often they have tried the products, concluded that they work, and become suppliers to support their habit.

Multilevel marketing (also called network marketing) is a form of direct sales in which independent distributors sell products, usually in their customers' home or by telephone. In theory, distributors can make money not only from their own sales but also from those of the people they recruit.

Becoming an MLM distributor is simple and requires no real knowledge of health or nutrition. Many people do so initially in order to buy their own products at a discount. For a small sum of money—usually between $35 and $100—these companies sell a distributor kit that includes product literature, sales aids (such as a videotape or audiotape), price lists, order forms, and a detailed instructional manual. Most MLM companies publish a magazine or newsletter containing company news, philosophical essays, product information, success stories, and photographs of top salespeople. The application form is usually a single page that asks only for identifying information. Millions of Americans have signed up, including many physicians attracted by the idea that selling MLM products can offset losses attributable to managed care.

Distributors can buy products "wholesale," sell them "retail," and recruit other distributors who can do the same. When enough distributors have been enrolled, the recruiter is eligible to collect a percentage of their sales. Companies suggest that this process provides a great money-making opportunity. However, it is unlikely that people who don't join during the first few months of operation or become one of the early distributors in their community can build enough of a sales pyramid to do well. In July 1999, the National Association of Attorneys General announced that complaints about multilevel marketing and pyramid schemes were tenth on their list of consumer complaints.

A recent analysis of Quixtar's reported income figures indicates how poorly most MLM distributors do. In a declaration filed in 2007 a suit by two former Quixtar distributors, he concluded:

A statistical sample of distributors revealed that 99.4% of the IBOs [independent business owners] earned on average just $13.41 per week—before product purchases, all business expenses, and taxes. This average income is far less than the costs of the business, resulting in 99% of victims of Quixtar making no net profit. Fewer than 1 person in 10,000 are at the "Diamond and above" levels, the upper ranks of the Quixtar chain that every new recruit is urged to aspire to. . . .

The massive loss rates among Quixtar victims that are revealed in Quixtar's own data are the inevitable mathematical result of the endless chain business model. In this model, the success of the IBO is based on continuous recruiting of additional distributors (IBOs), who are induced to make monthly purchases for their own consumption, rather than on making retail sales in the open marketplace. In the recruitment model, only those participants at the top levels of the pyramid can earn true profits, since the source of a participant's real income is the expenditures of individuals below them on the pyramid, and only a small percentage can be in those top positions. The untenable model result in approximately 70% of IBOs quitting Quixtar within the first year. The mission of this deceptive business model is to continuously enroll losing investors (IBOs) and replace them as they suffer losses and quit the program.

Many distributors who stock up on products to meet sales goals or increase their hoped-for commissions get stuck with unsold products that cost thousands of dollars. Some companies permit direct ordering of their products, which avoids this problem, but the risk of failure is still high. Buying sales aids, marketing tools (such as Web sites), and lists of prospective customers and attending conferences can result in even bigger financial loss. Former Herbalife distributors have spotlighted these costs in a remarkable video on the Facts about Herblife site.

Dubious Claims

More than a hundred multilevel companies are marketing health-related products. Most claim that their products are effective for preventing or treating disease. A few companies merely suggest that people will feel better, look better, or have more energy if they supplement their diet with extra nutrients. When clear-cut therapeutic claims are made in product literature, the company is an easy target for government enforcement action. Some companies run this risk, hoping that the government won't take action until their customer base is well established. Other companies make no claims in their literature but rely on testimonials, encouraging people to try their products and credit them for any improvement that occurs.

Every company I have looked at has done at least one of the following.

Most multilevel companies tell distributors not to make claims for the products except for those found in company literature. (That way the company can deny responsibility for what distributors do.) However, many companies hold sales meetings at which people are encouraged to tell their story to the others in attendance. Some companies sponsor telephone conference calls during which leading distributors describe their financial success, give sales tips, and describe their personal experiences with the products. Testimonials also may be published in company magazines, audiotapes or videotapes. Testimonial claims can trigger enforcement action, but since it is time-consuming to collect evidence of their use, government agencies seldom bother to do so.

Government enforcement action against multilevel companies has not been vigorous. These companies are usually left alone unless their promotions become so conspicuous and their sales volume so great that an agency feels compelled to intervene. Even then, few interventions have substantial impact once a company is well established.

Motivation: Powerful but Misguided

The "success" of network marketing lies in the enthusiasm of its participants. Most people who think they have been helped by an unorthodox method enjoy sharing their success stories with their friends. People who give such testimonials are usually motivated by a sincere wish to help their fellow humans. Since people tend to believe what others tell them about personal experiences, testimonials can be powerful persuaders.

Perhaps the trickiest misconception about quackery is that personal experience is the best way to tell whether something works. When someone feels better after having used a product or procedure, it is natural to give credit to whatever was done. However, this is unwise. Most ailments are self-limiting, and even incurable conditions can have sufficient day-to-day variation to enable bogus methods to gain large followings. In addition, taking action often produces temporary relief of symptoms (a placebo effect). For these reasons, scientific experimentation is almost always necessary to establish whether health methods are really effective. Instead of testing their products, multilevel companies urge customers to try them and credit them if they feel better. Some products are popular because they contain caffeine, ephedrine (a stimulant), valerian (a tranquilizer), or other substances that produce mood-altering effects.

Another factor in gaining devotees is the emotional impact of group activities. Imagine, for example, that you have been feeling lonely, bored, depressed or tired. One day a friend tells you that "improving your nutrition" can help you feel better. After selling you some products, the friend inquires regularly to find out how you are doing. You seem to feel somewhat better. From time to time you are invited to interesting lectures where you meet people like yourself. Then you are asked to become a distributor. This keep you busy, raises your income, and provides an easy way to approach old friends and make new ones—all in an atmosphere of enthusiasm. Some of your customers express gratitude, giving you a feeling of accomplishment. People who increase their income, their social horizons, or their self-esteem can get a psychological boost that not only can improve their mood but also may alleviate emotionally-based symptoms.

Multilevel companies refer to this process as "sharing" and suggest that everyone involved is a "winner." That simply isn't true. The entire process is built on a foundation of deception. The main winners are the company's owners and the small percentage of distributors who become sales leaders. The losers are millions of Americans who waste money and absorb the misinformation.

Do you think multilevel participants are qualified to judge whether prospective customers need supplements—or medical care? Even though curative claims are forbidden by the written policies of each company, the sales process encourages customers to experiment with self-treatment. It may also promote distrust of legitimate health professionals and their treatment methods.

Some people would argue that the apparent benefits of "believing" in the products outweigh the risks involved. Do you think that people need false beliefs in order to feel healthy or succeed in life? Would you like to believe that something can help you when in fact it is worthless? Should our society support an industry that is trying to mislead us? Can't Americans do something better with the billion or more dollars being wasted each year on multilevel "health" products?

Physician Involvement

Many physicians are selling health-related multilevel products to patients in their offices. The companies most involved have included Amway (now doing business as Quixtar), Body Wise, Nu Skin (Interior Design), Rexall, and Juice Plus+. Doctors are typically recruited with promises that the extra income will replace income lost to managed care. In December 1997, the American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs (CEJA) advised against against profiting from the sale of "non-health-related products" to their patients. Although CEJA's policy statement does not mention products sold through multilevel marketing, CEJA's chairman said the statement was triggered by the growing number of physicians who had added an Amway distributorship to their practice.


Consumers would be wise to avoid health-related multilevel products altogether. Those that have nutritional value (such as vitamins and low-cholesterol foods) are invariably overpriced and may be unnecessary as well. Those promoted as remedies are either unproven, bogus, or intended for conditions that are unsuitable for self-medication.

Government agencies should police the multilevel marketplace aggressively, using undercover investigators and filing criminal charges when wrongdoing is detected. People who feel they have been defrauded by MLM companies should file complaints with their state attorney general and with local FDA and FTC offices. A letter detailing the events may be sufficient to trigger an investigation; and the more complaints received, the more likely that corrective action will be taken. If you possess a distributor kit that you no longer need, I would be pleased to add it to my collection. If you would like to help Quackwatch gather information on MLM companies on the Internet, click here.

This article was revised on May 5, 2014.

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