Multi-Level Marketing and It’s Impact on the Fitness Industry

There is nothing more annoying and rage-inducing than getting a DM from someone trying to recruit you for their MLM. You know, messages like this:

 

If this has never happened to you before, consider yourself lucky.

I created a poll on instagram and facebook asking who has received messages about this, and the results were shocking, but not entirely unexpected:

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MLMs, or Multi-Level Marketing companies have seen a huge boom with the rise of social media. It just makes it so easy for the (usually) women involved with these companies to expand their reach.

Before I go any further, let me explain what an MLM is and give you a few examples:

According to Wikipedia, “Multi-Level Marketing (also called pyramid selling, network marketing, and referral selling) is a marketing strategy for the sale of products or services where the revenue of the MLM company is derived from a non-salaried workforce selling the company’s products/services, while the earnings of the participants are derived from a pyramid-shaped or binary compensation commission system.”

Now, let’s look at MLM’s compared to Pyramid Schemes, and why one is legal and one is not:

MLM

vs. Pyramid Scheme
“Marketing Strategy” vs. Fraud
Commission is paid to distributors at multiple levels when a product is sold vs. No real product is sold
Pay upfront in order to enroll, and then make money from enrollment fees of distributors underneath you and by selling products vs. Pay upfront in order to enroll, and make money by enrolling others below you
A channel for selling real products vs. No product except a fake investment
Legal vs. Illegal

If that’s at all confusing to you, MLMs are basically pyramid schemes that are legal because there is actual product being sold. You have one person at the top, seemingly raking in the cash, who has other people below them recruiting others and trying to sell the product. The person at the top is called the “upline” – or, the person who signed you up to “work” for them or their team. Normally, the recruits are required to buy a ton of product to try to “push” to anyone they can – family members, friends, social media followers, complete strangers, etc. Anytime a recruit makes a purchase, their upline gets commission. Anytime a recruit recruits another person, they become that person’s upline….get it? No? Here’s a visual:

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Some examples of hugely popular MLMs include:

  • Beachbody
  • Arbonne
  • LimeLife
  • Isagenix
  • Mary Kay
  • ItWorks
  • BeautyCounter
  • LuLaRoe
  • Avon
  • Herbalife
  • Tupperware
  • Young Living
  • doTERRA
  • Aloette
  • Rodan + Fields
  • Monat
  • Advocare
  • Younique
  • Plexus
  • Amway

So can you actually make money with these companies? Once in a while, yes. However, according to reports from the Federal Trade Commission website, “the overwhelming majority of MLM participants (most sources estimated to be over 99.25% of all MLM distributors), participate at either an insignificant or net nil profit. The largest proportion of participants must operate at a net loss (after expense are deducted) so that the few individuals in the uppermost level of the MLM pyramid can derive their significant earnings” . How’s that sound to you?

So what does this have to do with fitness? Well, some of the biggest companies on that list are health and wellness companies. Beachbody, Isagenix, Herbalife, ItWorks, Advocare, and Arbonne, just to name a few. These companies mainly sell supplements, but Beachbody (arguably the biggest and most well-known) also has online workouts. I’m going to focus on Beachbody for the remainder of this article, because that’s the one, in my opinion, doing the most damage.

Beachbody has two parts: the supplements and the workouts. The supplement line is most famous for “Shakeology”, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. The entire line includes meal replacement shakes, protein shakes, preworkouts, energy powders, and protein bars. The workout programs are all online, and have names like “21-Day Fix”, “Insanity”, “80-Day Obsession”, etc. etc. I’m not going to get into why the supplements and workouts themselves are terrible. I’ve touched on it before in other articles, which you can find here and here.

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According to a PubMed study (linked at the bottom of this article), “While considering that multi-level marketing of dietary supplements and other nutrition products are a legal business strategy, we affirm that it is an unethical practice. MLM products that have nutritional value or promoted as remedies may be unnecessary and intended for conditions that are unsuitable for self-prescription as well” Basically, these supplements have not been thoroughly tested, and could cause harm. Science says that this is unethical, and I believe we should listen to science.

I want to pause here for a second to say this: many people use Beachbody or other MLM companies’ products/services to kickstart their workout regimen. I have no problem with this. Are there better ways to do it? Absolutely. But if Beachbody workouts are what gets you moving, then that’s great. I’m never going to shame someone for trying to better their life in some way.

Alright, back to why these companies are terrible.

Supplements and workouts aside, the basic business practices of this (and all) MLM companies are, frankly, atrocious. As a follow-up to my poll on social media, I asked which companies recruited the most often and the most aggressively. Almost every single person said Beachbody:

 

Beachbody “coaches” (we’ll get to this) do the modern version of “cold-calling” – they randomly message you on social media. I’ve had messages come from girls I knew in high school, old acquaintances, and total strangers. This is problematic because:

  • They are extremely predatory, targeting women who might not know any better.
  • They target people in specific careers and then use that career as a marketing ploy. Example: “I see you’re a teacher, you must be underpaid! Come join my team and increase your income all from the comfort of your home!” or “As a stay-at-home mom, you must be itching for a way to make easy money!”
  • They make assumptions about your personal health, saying things like “you look like you might want to join a fitness journey” ….not only is this incredibly insulting, but you cannot make assumptions about people you don’t even know. What if the person you just said that to has body dysmorphia but has been feeling good lately? That comment can send them off the deep end. Or what about someone who has an eating disorder that they’re working through? YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT PEOPLE GO THROUGH PRIVATELY. Making these assumptions about people is dangerous, rude, and unethical.
  • If you have a chronic illness, they’ll use that to try to entice you. “So and so product is great for treating ______”. Are these claims backed up by the FDA? Ask them. Ask them for studies confirming this. Watch them fumble.
  • They make promises that you can work from home, earn a ton of money, and maybe even win things like a car or a vacation. I mean that all sounds great, right? But remember the quote above: most participants operate at a  net loss.
  • Some are required to send 60 cold messages A DAY (I have heard this from multiple people)…meaning that you’ll probably get multiple messages from the same person until you either join them or block them
  • They entice you with things like a “no strings attached free two weeks” but surprise! there are strings attached because they will bombard you with messages and requests to join after the 2 weeks, until, again, you either join them or block them.

The coaches are encouraged to confront their friends and family to get them to “invest in their business”. They are required to buy product that they can hand out as free samples. They are required to sign-up other coaches. They are required to post on social media about their workouts and their shakes. They are required to post before and after shots – real or fake. They are required to sell, sell, sell, regardless of who they alienate in the process.

I think the worst part of it, though, is that they call themselves coaches. There is no certification process for becoming a Beachbody coach. Anyone can sign up and become a coach. Anyone. Regardless of whether or not they have any education or experience in the fitness industry.

GUYS. YOU CAN’T JUST CALL YOURSELF A COACH BECAUSE YOU SIGNED UP FOR A PYRAMID SCHEME. THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS. AT ALL.

When I say that Beachbody is “ruining” the fitness industry, this is what I mean. Beachbody (or *insert any other health/fitness MLM company here*) coaches take value away from REAL fitness coaches and promote dangerous or just straight-up wrong information because they don’t know any better.

You don’t get to call yourself a chef because you read a cookbook.
You don’t get to call yourself a surgeon because you’ve seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
You don’t get to call yourself a CPA because you use TurboTax to do your taxes every  year.
So why, WHY, do people think what Beachbody coaches are doing is ok?!?!?

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To quote an instagram follower who was kind enough to share her experiences with me, “Beachbody totally undermines and devalues those who have spent countless hours in research and training….not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars spent in furthering their education and expertise at accredited institutions.”  She totally hits the nail on the head here.

What did I have to do to earn my career as a fitness professional?
*4 years at a private college, Ithaca College, which at the time cost close to $50,000/year to attend. This is an accredited school.
*I took classes in various topics such as Anatomy & Physiology, Exercise Physiology, Biomechanics, Program Design, Nutrition for Athletes, Cardiopulmonary Assessment of Exercise, Neurophysiology, Strength & Conditioning, and more.
*I was required to complete 2 fieldworks and an internship. My first fieldwork was at Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning, a world-renowned facility in Massachusetts. My second was at Brockton Hospital’s Cardiac Rehab Facility. My internship was a full semester long, and I did it at Island Health & Fitness, a medically-focused fitness facility in Ithaca.
*My certification, American College of Sports Medicine’s Certified Exercise Physiologist, is a test you can only take if you have a degree in a health-related field. It was an extremely hard exam, which costs $279 to take.
*In order to keep my credentials, I am required to earn 60 CECs over a 3-year period. Some are free but most cost money (ranging in $25-$300). I am also required to upkeep my ACSM membership, which costs $240 per year.
*If I don’t get 60 CECs, I have to retake the exam, which costs $175
*I’ve also completed certifications in other areas, such as becoming a Precision Nutrition Certified Coach ($1,000), becoming TRX Certified ($300), and doing a Biometrics Certification ($500)…..all in the name of furthering my career as a fitness professional

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May 20, 2012, my graduation from Ithaca College

And yet….all it takes to become a Beachbody coach is to sign up on somebody’s team, buy hundreds of dollars worth of product, invest their own money into their new “business”, likely go into debt in order to hit their monthly sales goals, ignore warnings from friends and families, and lose friends in the process. These coaches are supposed to help “guide” you on your health and fitness journey….fam, how can someone who has never been educated in health and fitness help guide you on your own journey???? This honestly makes no sense to me and I struggle to understand why anyone would listen to someone who has no education or experience. I mean, would you let your car mechanic drill your teeth?? It’s literally the same thing.

Here some examples of the crazy MLM practices I found during my research:

-In the podcast “The Dream” (highly recommend if you’re interested in MLMs), one of the producers signs up for a company to get the real experience. She pays $200 for her starter kit, but if she wants to go from “Beauty Guide In-Training”  to “Beauty Guide”, she has to sell $1,000 worth of product. The fastest way to do this, as told to her by her upline, is to purchase product herself-to use for parties, giveaways, and samples. If she does this, her upline makes a commission off of it and she is out $1,000.

-On Instagram, I asked people to share their stories if they had ever been involved in an MLM. One person told me all about how her upline was basically forcing her to send messages to random people and how uncomfortable it made her feel. Eventually, she ended up losing friends over it and decided she wanted to get out.

-Another girl showed me the response she got when she called someone out for being involved in a pyramid scheme. Unfortunately, this is a pretty standard response that I’ve seen other people spew:

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It’s interesting to me that people deny, deny, deny when they get called out. It’s also interesting to me that they all seem to say the same sort of thing. Do they teach you this response? I wouldn’t be surprised!

I’ve been asked to join Beachbody more times than I can count. Maybe it’s because I’m already a fitness professional, but any real fitness professional knows this company is whack. When I see fellow fitpros shilling a health/fitness MLM, I get irrationally angry. You should know better!!! What are you doing???? GET OUT!!! My philosophy is, if you call yourself a fitness professional, a personal trainer, or a coach, but you need to sell hundreds of dollars of supplements in order for your clients to get results, you aren’t good at your job. PERIOD.

Another thing that pisses me off? Since Beachbody is so rampant on social media, people see me or my business instagram page and immediately assume that because I run my own (legit) online coaching company, that I must be a BB coach. WRONG! I don’t even CALL MYSELF A COACH ANYMORE – because BB has ruined the word. You can call me a fitness professional, a personal trainer, an exercise physiologist, but do not call me a coach. I don’t want to be associated with BB in any way shape or form, and that word, unfortunately, associates me with it.

Health, wellness, and fitness MLMs likely aren’t going away anytime soon, regardless of how many lawsuits are filed against them (there are many). But, if we as consumers stop buying into them, stop making BB coaches famous, and stop giving these companies our hard-earned money, then maybe they will slowly fade away.

As for their impact on the fitness industry, they promote quick fixes and miracle results, when in reality, there is no such thing as a quick fix. People have become so obsessed with instant gratification, that no one wants to work for anything anymore. But guess what? The ONLY way to improve your body composition is through hard work, patience, consistency, and time. You cannot rely on shakes and powders. You cannot rely on 20-minute home workouts. You cannot rely on a coach who has no experience in the fitness industry. In my opinion, Beachbody sets their consumer up for failure. Personally? I like to set my clients up for success.

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I’d like to end this post with some horror stories that my followers were willing to share with me. These are all from people who were involved in an MLM and have since gotten out of it. No names are being shared, for obvious reasons:

“I was a coach for about 3 days. A girl on the team showed us a BOOK filled with names of people she “invited” (aka sent messages to) on instagram.” **This person also sent me messages from her coach, basically degrading her for not doing enough to get her business started. THREE DAYS she had been a coach!

“We had a Zoom conference call with our entire team to learn how to use Facetune and other photoshop apps to alter our progress pictures to make our results seem more dramatic. We were taught how to stand so that we looked “bigger” or “smaller”. We were told to push out our bellies as hard as possible and then suck in as hard as possible. It’s all fake.”

“I was told that I had to reach ‘first rank’ in one week after signing up to be a coach. To do this, my upline told me to purchase two more coaching subscriptions under the names of family members (this equals $300 per subscription and ~$20/month for the coaching fee PER ACCOUNT).” **So basically, this person bought 3 subscriptions, one for herself and two fake ones, totaling $900, then had to pay monthly coaching fees for all three accounts, totaling about $60/month. This is how people go into debt!

“I was told that I had to have a party to promote my new ‘business’. I had to buy product to have on display at the party, and for samples. I also had to buy food and drink for the party. Then I was told I had to buy prizes to give out for various games I was encouraged to play. All in all, I spent close to $1200 on this party (between products, food/drink, and prizes), and did not come close to breaking even” **This wasn’t a health/fitness MLM, but a good example of other ways people can end up in debt

“We had a shared Google drive full of “marketing material”. They were basically those cookie-cutter facebook posts you always see. There were tons pictures of random people we were encouraged to use. I once took one because I was being forced to post a progress picture of “someone on my team” and I didn’t have anyone on my team. I posted the picture on instagram, claiming it was a team member and praised her ‘amazing’ results from using Shakeology. I got an angry DM from the actual girl in picture demanding I remove it because she doesn’t use Shakeology and I didn’t have permission to use her pictures. My upline literally stole this person’s progress pictures, put them in the Google drive, and encouraged us to use them to promote our product. After this incident, I was done”.

“I was taught to make it look like open coaching spots were always in high demand, even if they weren’t. So basically, they told us to “open up only 5 spots” and if they fill up, SURPRISE! I had so many people interested that I’m opening 5 more! The kicker here is that they tell you to say this exact thing even if your original 5 spots DON’T fill up. You’re supposed to make it look enticing and competitive when in reality, no one was jumping at the chance to join me.”

So….still think MLM companies are ethical businesses?

If you’re interested in further reading about MLMs, here are some of the sites I used while doing research for this post:

Is Beachbody’s Shakeology a Scam?

Why I’m No Longer a Beachbody Coach


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29779808
Welcome to Elle Beau’s Blog
https://www.reddit.com/r/antiMLM/
https://mlmtruth.org/
https://www.mlmwatch.org/

Additionally, “The Dream” podcast was a huge part of my research for this article. It talks a lot about the history of pyramid schemes and MLMs, and has a ton of interesting and slightly scary information. I really enjoyed it, and it came highly recommended to me from many people!

 

 

 

 

 

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