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Cult-like techniques of promotion

Most MLM companies, operating pyramid schemes in the name of products have dedicated teams, operate in different nations and have promotional material and videos that speak of success, commitment and growing together. Drawing on deep religious metaphors Amway, Herbalife and Mary Kay cosmetics are some US direct sales companies that sell hope as much as soap, motivating grassroots sales forces to labour not merely for remuneration of commissions but out of a conviction that theirs is a sanctifying, empowering activity, according to Anson Shoppe of the University of Texas and David G Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University. "What is important here is not their ability to reconcile profit-making, wealth and materialism with spirituality but the power of these ideologies to motivate individual salespersons far beyond the scope of their actual remuneration or realistic prospects thereof," they aver.

The approach of these firms is said to be almost evangelical where members in closed door meetings are asked questions that act as emotional inducements. "Is there something missing from your life?" or "What is it that you want from life?" are a few questions that set the ball rolling. Videos and mentors speak of ways in which they can help you "reach your full potential", "find greater purpose and meaning in your life", "find the real you" or "make your relationships more meaningful". Videos of some companies speak of propelling that "one change" that will bring you happiness forever.

One of the techniques similar to cults is to ensure dependence on the company and mentors, encouraging them to discuss all business and personal problems with them. Even where there is marital discord due to the demands placed on a partner's time and priorities, the distributors are told to go 'up line' and confide in a distributor at a higher level rather than see a professional marriage counsellor. To ensure this dependence weekly meetings, held by traditional cults, are employed to reinforce values and enhance commitment through activities like confessions, success sharing and singing.

"Our only failures are quitters" and "Doesn't your family deserve what you can give them?" are questions directed at vulnerable persons from the group. People are manoeuvred into joining very large group-gatherings where they are processed through powerful psychological techniques, when they believed they were just attending an "information evening", says Melbourne-based psychologist Louise Samways in her book Dangerous Persuaders. The book is written from her experience of speaking to several people who became victims of manipulative business cults wherein she makes specific references to techniques adopted by the best-known MLM firm Amway, which began business selling soaps and now even sells cars in some countries. She says Amway distributors are often instructed not to tell anyone that they are selling Amway up front. People are asked to attend a meeting about an exciting business opportunity and the firm's name is mentioned only after a good, one-hour sales pitch.

At rallies, business luncheons and seminars, recruits are constantly meeting people who say they have "made it" but provide little transparency about how much money they have earned. Here, as a researcher working on MLM's puts it, "We don't have data, we have trust." A line given to recruits for whom the only source of knowledge about the organisation is the organisation itself is, "If you want to know whether the meat is good or not, you ask the butcher, not the hairdresser."

With models of success prominently shown in promotional films and special booklets titled 'Profiles of Success', unsuccessful distributors are told that the problem lies with them if they are unable to make money through sales. "Commercial cults believe in the dogma of greed," says Steven Hassan, summing up the psychological pressure experienced by these groups, adding, "They deceive and manipulate people to work for little or no pay in the hope of getting rich. There are many pyramid-style or MLM organisations that promise big money but fleece their victims. They then systematically destroy the victim's self-esteem so that they will not complain."

Studies have found women, particularly homemakers, vulnerable to the lures of pyramid schemes because of the promise of easy returns, independent income and flexible working hours. Companies especially target them with attractive advertisements containing work-from-home options which are difficult to resist. This is done with the complete realisation that women are more effective in persuading enrolment within the family and friends' circle.

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