Set in the 1990s, show focuses on negative stereotypes and egregious behavior
By Dauf Rauf
“Companies are recognizing they could get shut down for their field claiming lavish lifestyles.”
— Scott Malik, FieldWatch Services Manager, Momentum Factor
The multi-level marketing industry has gone Hollywood.
In SHOWTIME’s new series “On Becoming A God In Central Florida,” a struggling mom rises to the top of a multibillion-dollar MLM—portrayed as a pyramid scheme—called FAM. The show, a dark comedy series set in the direct selling industry’s Wild West days of the early 1990s, highlights all the negative trappings of an MLM gone awry: false income claims, inventory loading and reckless dialogue.
It’s not the first time direct selling has been spotlighted in a negative manner on the tube. Comedian John Oliver delivered a 30-minute MLM tongue lashing on HBO several years ago. And there was that time Michael Scott on “The Office” tried to recruit the crew at his paper company to sell calling cards after being roped into the ploy by a guy named Phil who “drives a Corvette.” Midway through the pitch—“You will get rich quick. We all will … raise your hand if you want to get rich”—Jim intervenes to point out that what Michael is proposing has all the hallmarks of a pyramid scheme.
This latest portrayal of the direct selling world continues to shed a negative light on the industry and feed into the public’s perception of how an MLM operates. Experts say while the show does strike some accurate chords by reflecting the MLM’s no-hold-barred era of the 1990s—if even as a parody—much has changed in the industry since then, due in large part to the involvement of regulators. But they say there are valuable lessons to glean.
“The show captures things that self-regulating companies should be on the lookout for, 100 percent,” Meredith Berkich, president and COO of Bliss Business LLC. “It exposes the worst, but there are things that we should not be doing, not because we’re afraid but because they’re bad for business.”
The main character, Krystal Stubbs (played by actor Kirsten Dunst), is a Florida mom and minimum-wage employee at a downtrodden water park. Her husband, Travis, is trying to climb the ranks of an MLM that peddles toilet paper, cleaning products and cosmetics on the surface, but exists for one reason: to sign up more and more distributors (there’s a strong emphasis on pumping up the downline at any and all costs). To Krystal’s dismay, Travis eventually quits his job to make MLM a full-time hustle—until he’s unexpectedly eaten by an alligator. And that’s when Krystal steps in to inherit her now deceased husband’s fledgling MLM business, despite having clear misgivings about the company and its business model.
By the third episode, Krystal has fallen deep into the business. At a rally chock-full of new recruits, she delivers a stirring speech that wins the praise of her upline, who declares to the crowd: “Now that is a millionaire-in-waiting.”
The scene may seem egregious considering the claim of becoming a millionaire is being tossed around. But that still happens, though it’s much more rare these days, experts say.
LifeVantage CEO Darren Jensen says the industry has evolved over the past decades and largely moved away from what he called the “greed pitch” that permeated direct selling in the 1980s and 1990s. But that mentality is still around, and Jensen says some people continue pitching what he calls the “bikini and Lamborghini lifestyle” as a recruiting tool.
He says he saw it firsthand recently in Europe at a gathering of the European Direct Selling Congress when a guy got on stage with a crown and a sceptre to deliver a spiel that was “all about wealth.” That might have worked decades ago, Jensen says, but now the “constant appeal to greed is generally considered repugnant by most.”
“What you’re seeing now is a lot of good organically grown, customer driven, product focused, very legit companies forming and growing,” he says. But some people are hanging on to the vestiges of the 1990s and hopefully the people who do that leave the industry.”
Jensen says the industry’s improvement has been driven in part by regulators but also a societal switch away from focusing on monetary gains. He also says competition from the gig economy has forced direct sellers to reconsider how they pitch business opportunities to millennials.
“We can’t be seen as used car salesmen,” he says.
Scott Malik, FieldWatch Services Manager at Momentum Factor, whose software monitors the web for improper and illegal claims for direct selling companies, says it’s rare to see reps in the U.S. portraying the millionaire lifestyle due to potential regulator action.
“Companies are recognizing they could get shut down for their field claiming lavish lifestyles,” he says. “Also it’s just not believable anymore. The general public is more skeptical because there is so much information available today that wild claims can be easily researched and refuted.”
But he says there are plenty of more subtle income claims being made by the field, including some that still cross the line. “Instagram posts of expensive cars and homes are straight up lifestyle claims. Even if they’re true, they are not typical results for most and that is frowned upon by regulators.”
“The industry is getting better in terms of claims by reps largely due to the compliance efforts of direct sales companies,” says Malik. “It’s a learning process, and the reps could always use a little more training.”
In the first episode of “On Becoming A God In Central Florida,” another stereotypical characterization of the MLM is aired: inventory loading, the practice of buying product that you don’t need and can’t sell. Krystal’s husband brings up the idea of quitting his job to focus on direct selling full time and she can’t get over the sheer volume of inventory they’ve already accumulated: “The business has made us thousands,” her husband says. To which, Krystal retorts: “And it’s cost us twice as much.”
Later, Krystal goes on to discover even more inventory her husband had been hoarding behind her back.
Berkich says this is another potential lesson the industry can take away from the show. Companies, she says, have moved away from this practice not just because of regulators but because “you don’t want people to have invested all of their life savings into a product that they can’t move.”
“It’s very painful to watch this show, and unfortunately it is feeding a false public perception of what we do,” she says. “This is where every company should take this personal inventory, and be willing to sometimes pass on immediate profit for long term profitability.”
The show has been renewed for a second season on SHOWTIME.
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