How the Pandemic Stoked a Backlash to Multilevel Marketing

YouTube vigilantes are taking consumer advocacy into their own hands.

Yellow background with pixelated images from YouTube videos about MLM companies.
YouTube / The Atlantic

For decades, multilevel-marketing companies had it easy. Cutco knives, Tupperware containers, and Pampered Chef bread mixes were inoffensive products sold at weeknight wine parties and, later, in themed Facebook groups. For the most part, they were an unremarkable part of women’s lives.

Multilevel marketing—a form of direct selling in which a major chunk of a person’s income comes not from the sales they make themselves but from the sales made by people they recruit into the company—was often regarded as exploitative by consumer advocates, but it rarely encountered a serious threat. During the pandemic, distributors for many MLM companies have used this lack of pushback to their advantage: On Instagram and Facebook, women have tried to persuade their followers to use their stimulus checks to join a company that sells shampoo or weight-loss products. They have used economic collapse as a recruitment tool, offering MLMs as the solution to lost income and increased precarity.

For Heather Rainbow, a 20-year-old chemistry student, these appeals were a wake-up call. In May, she made her first anti-MLM TikTok video, green-screening herself in front of what she claims is the 2018 income-disclosure statement for the hair-care company Monat, which shows that 94 percent of its distributors had an average income of $183 that year. She now considers herself something of a consumer advocate and misinformation combatant, posting about companies such as Cutco, Younique, Arbonne, and Lipsense to her 113,00 followers. “That was my first TikTok to really get views,” she told me. “I had no idea that people on TikTok would be so receptive to the anti-MLM message.” (I reached out to several of the companies named in this article, and most, including Monat, did not respond to my requests for comment. A spokesperson for Arbonne told me in an email that regulators “have recognized the legitimacy of multi-level marketing for decades.”)

The same social networks that multilevel-marketing distributors are called upon to exploit—their friends, their family, their followers, their “mutuals”—are now the social networks through which women are pushing out a completely different message. (Though men participate in multilevel marketing as well, they do so in much smaller numbers.) On Reddit, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, a huge community has coalesced around the anti-MLM sentiment, bringing together disenchanted former salespeople, curious independent researchers, and thousands of women who are just tired of getting Facebook messages about selling essential oils.

#AntiMLM is still diffuse and disorganized, but its rise poses an existential threat to multilevel-marketing companies that rely on the constant recruitment of new participants. And its newfound popularity is already presenting challenges for the community, which critiques capitalism on commercial platforms: If criticizing multilevel marketing is a good way to get views and followers and personal attention, how long will it be before that becomes the reason to criticize multilevel marketing?

On the Reddit forum r/antiMLM, members mock the industry all day long, referring to distributors as “hunbots” who lead off every conversation with a faux-warm “Hey, hun.” There is plenty of anger and caustic humor, but the community is tightly checked by moderators who insist that all screenshots have names and identifying information obscured. Self-promotion of any kind is entirely forbidden, as is commentary on the quality of MLM products, good or bad. Shaming victims is out of bounds, and nobody is painted as a dupe: “If the post does not highlight a core problem with the MLM business model, it does not belong here,” the rules warn.

The moderators restrict discussions that take away from the mission of the subreddit—to map out and dissect MLMs—and encourage conversation about the system over anecdotes about low-level bad actors. The first major gathering place for people who shared the anti-MLM sentiment, the forum was started in 2011, but had only 2,000 members before suddenly taking off in August 2017. Now it has more than 680,000 members and serves as the hub for a growing, informed discontent. Rainbow, the TikTok creator, refers to the Reddit community as the “OG anti-MLMers,” and calls it “the heart of the movement,” responsible for most of the significant work.

On Reddit, users hit the same points over and over, often explaining them from the top for newcomers who want a second opinion on what looks like a great opportunity: As a multilevel-marketing company gets bigger, the opportunities for the people who came in most recently get smaller and smaller, and many end up going into debt by buying their own products to keep their sales ranking. Others will recruit and recruit on social media, desperate to fill in their “downline” with new sellers. The industry is known for releasing very little information about the money its independent distributors make or lose, but the information that does come out is incredibly bleak.

From Reddit, the anti-MLM internet took off. At first, a handful of YouTubers in the beauty-vlogging space pivoted to testimonials about their experiences with multilevel-marketing companies. After the collapse of the leggings MLM LulaRoe in 2017, which came as thousands of sellers gave up on the business model, “Why I Left LulaRoe” became a standard video format on YouTube in the months that followed. Soon, creators who had never been part of an MLM felt compelled to research them anyway, with many diving into r/antiMLM for insight. By 2020, YouTube had a whole anti-MLM creator community, led by massively popular personalities who received tens or hundreds of thousands of views on videos pulling apart the mythology of beauty-product companies such as Arbonne and Monat, or listening in on team calls for weight-loss giants such as Beachbody.

Josie Naikoi, a 34-year-old anti-MLM YouTuber from Missouri, told me that when she left the MLM world, she was diagnosed with depression, and spent a year saying nothing publicly about her experience. “I was really struggling mentally and emotionally with what I witnessed in the industry,” she said. “Who was I to complain? I made money when so many people didn’t.” But the pandemic contributed to her visceral feeling that people were being scammed. Then, in April, the Federal Trade Commission sent warning letters to 10 multilevel-marketing companies that were openly exploiting the pandemic to make sales and recruit new distributors, and Naikoi made her first video about her experience a few weeks later. The 35-minute video, “WHY I QUIT THE MLM INDUSTRY AT THE TOP,” is now the third-most-popular anti-MLM video on YouTube, with more than 640,000 views.

Naikoi feels confident that the anti-MLM community has these companies scared—back when she was a seller, she remembers, administrators in private MLM Facebook groups deleted links to anti-MLM YouTube videos as soon as they were shared and chided whoever posted them for “negativity.” In newer anti-MLM spaces on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, people discuss pushing for regulation, legislation, or class-action lawsuits. Since TikTok banned MLM recruiting on its platform in December, creators have mentioned that other social-media companies might take similar action.

There is little information about the size of the multilevel-marketing industry, which is just one form of direct selling—but it is undeniably a large presence in Americans’ lives. Direct selling more broadly is—according to its trade association—a $35 billion industry in the United States, involving more than 6.8 million active sellers. But there is some evidence that the industry is struggling to recruit new participants, which Naikoi noted as tentative proof that viral videos and massive comment threads may be working. The industry needed charming influencers and exciting social-media messaging to keep it growing, and now those things are being weaponized against it.

While the Reddit anti-MLM community is rigidly anti-commercial, the other platforms where #AntiMLM is spreading were built to inspire self-promotion and sales.

In “Sounds like mlm but okay,” the most popular anti-MLM Facebook group, with 67,000 members, enthusiasts can buy anti-MLM merchandise, including a coffee mug with pink flowers and the message Your MLM sucks and so do you in curly script. YouTubers, many of whom have pivoted from other types of content and see greater success with anti-MLM content, also tend to offer lines of hoodies and T-shirts with anti-MLM slogans in bright bubble letters, or stickers declaring the buyer a member of the “Anti-MLM Club.”

Setting aside the silliness of mugs with rude slogans, the incentive structures of YouTube, which at the moment seem to be rewarding anti-MLM content, have complicated the community’s self-perception. Videos that go viral often have dramatic, clickbait titles about “SHOCKING HORROR STORIES” and “CULTY” overheard phone calls. These clips make money from ads, and extremely popular creators can even ask for membership fees from subscribers. There is regular talk of “drama” and in-fighting among these YouTubers, and reaction video after reaction video whenever spats play out in public.

That’s led to broader conflict and meta-arguments about whether profit is appropriate: Naikoi said that it’s not usually a problem for YouTubers to offer merch or monetize their followings with ads—making high-quality videos takes money. She feels that most creators are doing this for the right reasons and putting in a ton of work. But in the Reddit forum, the relatively small circle of popular anti-MLM YouTubers is discussed as a distraction from the anti-MLM mission; they are the flashy faces of a movement that is really made up of “hundreds of thousands of people who share their stories,” in the words of one r/antiMLM commenter.

And the YouTube community does appear to get easily derailed by arguments over who is getting paid for what, and what their motivations are for participating. Earlier this month, for instance, the anti-MLM YouTuber Kimbyrleigha denounced the community and joined Monat, one of the companies that the anti-MLM community hates most. On Instagram, she apologized for “showcasing [Monat] in a negative way” and vowed to work as a distributor at least until she could pay the company back the $6,541.86 she made off her YouTube videos. “I felt like I was in a cult when I was in [the anti-MLM] community,” she told me. “They are full of hatred.”

That move inspired plenty of reaction videos, and it briefly shook anti-MLM YouTube into chaos. (Kimbyrleigha sent me screenshots of YouTube comments calling her a “snake” and a “charlatan.”) Kimbyrleigha “is confused and she misled her audience and left a stain on the anti-MLM community and it’s sad,” Naikoi told me. “One day she’ll recognize that she too became a victim.” Kimbyrleigha refuted this, and said she doesn’t see anything wrong with trying out a YouTube trend and then moving on.

Opportunism is a common pitfall for social movements large and small, but particularly for those that happen online and rely on platforms that reward individuals for bogarting attention. This doesn’t necessarily mean that #AntiMLM is doomed. Rather, it could be a sign that the community is on the way to figuring out a more coherent self-image. Megan Sawey, a graduate student at Cornell who is writing her dissertation on the anti-MLM boom, told me that the community is “a huge phenomenon,” but one that’s still far too young to define.

A large group of mostly women is pushing back against an industry that has targeted them for years. Is it a movement? Or is it a collection of individuals expressing dissent, and sometimes leveraging that frustration into a personal brand? It seems to want to be the former, even though platforms encourage a slide into the latter.