Three years ago I walked out of my house and put a .32 pistol to my head.”
Jared Allen, a property manager from Idaho, chokes up as he tells this story, a tear running down his weathered face. Jared didn’t kill himself that day. He fell to the ground and begged the Lord for help, and soon, his brother-in-law arrived from Canada with a dietary supplement he had designed, EMPowerplus Q96.
In the years since his brush with suicide, Jared has gone off Lithium. He works 14-hour days and doesn’t even get tired. Now, he’s in business selling the supplements—or, as he sees it, helping others find happiness. “There aren’t too many things in this world that will pay you a lot of money and give you that fuzzy, warm feeling,” says Esther, his wife.
EMPowerplus Q96 is a capsule of grainy, off-white powder, with an odor that recalls chewable Flintstones vitamins. According to its package, it’s a blend of minerals, vitamins and amino acids specially formulated to supply the brain with nutrients—but this does little to explain how it makes people feel. Swallow one, devotees say, and the negative thoughts cluttering your mind might gradually melt away, like patches of snow on mountains in the distance.
It’s early May and I’m at a Marriott hotel in Salt Lake City for a conference of Q Sciences, the company that sells EMPowerplus Q96. Here, everyone but me is a salesperson, which means these testimonials are also pitches. Q Sciences is a multi-level marketing company, selling not in stores but through regular people, who earn commission from selling products as well as recruiting others to do the same. This last bit makes multi-level marketing unique—and controversial. Trying to wrap your head around the concept of selling a business opportunity to sell a business opportunity to sell a business opportunity can feel like being lost in a hall of mirrors (after ingesting grainy, off-white powder). It’s profitable: The industry’s biggest players, like Amway, Mary Kay and Herbalife, each bring in upwards of $4 billion per year, according to Direct Selling News, a trade publication.
Q Sciences HQ in Pleasant Grove, Utah
To figure out how much the workers make, head back to the hall of mirrors. Tales of newly-minted millionaires circulate like cash, as do stories of people who’ve lost fatal amounts of it. Money is only part of why one joins, though: Here in Utah Valley, distributors preach a gospel of mind-body wellness, founded on healthy supplements and spiritual growth. These suburban towns nestled at the foot of the Rockies are the epicenter of a global industry worth $183 billion. Depending on who you ask, this industry is either a bastion of American innovation or a scam of epic proportions, the Giza of pyramid schemes. Meanwhile, facts that might help you decide which one it is—such as whether distributors earn or lose money, and how much—are difficult to pin down.
At the Q Sciences conference, facts are swept up in avalanches of feelings. One activity consists of standing up and telling the person next to you, “You’re the smartest person I’ve met all day.” A motivational video teaches that success depends not on your circumstances, but your state of mind. “You gotta want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe!” proclaims a voice out of a Rocky movie. One company doctor gives a speech wearing a white coat, yet turns out to have a degree in Psychology and Christian Counseling when I Google him. He introduces a gadget that looks like a set of VR goggles, a kind of hypnosis device to help you lose weight, quit smoking or relax. It works in part by flashing light into your ears. You aren’t able to hear the light, but your brain understands its frequencies like “computer code.” It’s for sale in the gift shop for $495.
After two days, I realize that the most mystifying thing about the Q Sciences conference isn’t that the facts don’t add up—it’s that no one but me cares. Something about being part of this company is appealing enough to make the 300 people here look past reality in favor of something more transcendent. I don’t know what that something is, but I suspect it’s pretty great. So, on my third day in Utah, after dinner and a bath, I swallow my first capsule of EMPowerplus Q96.
After a week of wearing the Thrive nutritional patch, Denise Holbrook discovered what seemed like superhuman strength. When her husband fainted outside of a hospital, she caught him. “How the hell am I holding up a 200-pound man by myself?” she remembers thinking.
In December 2014, weeks after Denise caught her husband, he died of leukemia at the age of 30. (Denise is 26.) Nine days later, Denise invited her friends on Facebook to learn about Thrive. In a post, she announced that she thought it would be selfish not to share the supplement, considering it had allowed her to stop taking anti-anxiety medication and stay awake after sleepless nights amid her husband’s deterioration.
Denise Holbrook with her Thrive patch
Denise lives in South Jordan, Utah, off of Interstate 15, the aorta of Utah Valley. As I drive up and down it, I count multi-level marketing office parks marked by pastel signs: eight in Orem, five in Pleasant Grove, four in Provo. There are more of them here than anywhere in the world, though exactly how many is difficult to say, as they open and close as fast as start-ups in a different Valley. Everyone I talk to gives the same reason why: Mormons make up 82 percent of the population in this county, and Latter-Day Saints consider it a joy and privilege to share their religion with others, which makes them amenable to sharing products, too. Mormons also tend to be more open-minded about natural medicine, while abstaining from alcohol, coffee and tobacco. Multi-level marketers here mostly sell dietary supplements. Around the world, though, they promote an arsenal of products—greeting cards, coupons, gas-enhancing liquid, real estate coaching, gold bars.
According to trade association figures, global participants in direct selling, which includes multi-level marketing, earn just $1,833 a year on average. If you think of it as a salary, this is very low, particularly considering the initial investments some distributors make to grow their businesses. Yet the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations, which published the figures, notes that some participants are only looking for part-time income, or hoping to get discounts on products they use themselves. Meanwhile, those who join to make money rarely see what they do as a job—it’s an opportunity to pursue the American Dream, determine their incomes based on hard work and embrace a positive outlook.
From this perspective, $1,833 a year is a steal. Denise makes $1,000 a month already, she says, not yet enough to quit her job at a dentist’s office but a decent part-time income. She hopes to one day earn all her income working for Thrive’s Dallas-based maker, Le-Vel.
When I meet Denise, she has talked to more than 100 people about Thrive in the five months since her husband’s death—on the Internet and in grocery stores and on a trip to Hawaii. She regularly posts selfies to Facebook and Instagram displaying the Thrive patch, which looks like a quit-smoking aid made by Lisa Frank, on her forearm. (Hashtags: #ThriveOn and #Thrivin.) Thrive’s patch—officially called Premium Lifestyle DFT™, for Derma Fusion Technology—puts antioxidants, fruit extracts and other supplements into your body via your skin. The company recommends it be used along with daily capsules and a nutritional shake. A month’s supply of all three is $190, but if you sign up two customers at that rate, you can get yours for free.
It’s easy to find rapturous stories about Thrive on the Internet—and almost as easy to find distressed, furious reviews. “It is basically legalized crack,” writes one former distributor on a forum. “I’ve never been down right drunk, and never been a drug user, but I’m assuming that this might be what it feels like to come off of some kind of heavy drug,” writes another. Claims a third, “Literally would get lost leaving my home going to the post office (this has never happend before). By day 5 & 6 I was slurring all day-i couldn’t make it stop.” Others complain of chest pain, blood-pressure spikes, heart palpitations and trips to the ER for caffeine overdose.
In equal proportion are distributors professing their love for Thrive and its positive impact on energy, mood and weight. But even some supportive testimonials speak of bizarre side effects. “Help! I LOVE this product…but when I take it, by 4pm, I smell like I’ve rolled in a can of hot chicken of the sea!”
I found all this through a simple Google search, and the reviews go on forever: One forum contains 700 comments (35 pages) about Thrive since 2013, as of publication. Le-Vel promoters must see these, yet it doesn’t dissuade them from joining. Judging by the comments, many are intrigued by the apparently very real effects of weight loss and energy—and skeptical that the FDA stamp of approval means much. Unlike drugs, the FDA does not approve dietary supplements before they go to market, though it does govern what kinds of claims they are allowed to make: nothing about curing, treating, mitigating or preventing actual diseases.
Still, few dietary supplements have the kind of negative reviews that Thrive does, and many have been evaluated with much more thoroughness by the scientific community. (Q Sciences, for instance, claims its products are backed by research at 15 universities.) So why do distributors choose Thrive, in spite of so many stories about sketchy side effects?
I ask Denise this question a few weeks after our initial encounter, via Facebook message. Her reply: “It’s the internet. Haters gonna hate lovers gonna love ?.” In our initial conversation, her explanation about Thrive’s health effects was similarly succinct: “It just works!” she told me. “Even though I’m going through the worst time I’ve ever gone through, I’m finding a big sense of purpose.” As she launched her Thrive business, she moved into a new place, got a dog and started teaching violin again. She’s now supporting herself financially. Happiness is a choice, she says, not a result of circumstances: “It’s a lot of mind-over-matter.”
Mind-over-matter” is the ethos that unites dietary supplements and multi-level marketing. In America, taking a supplement necessitates optimism in the face of limited facts: that the company’s claims are researched, that the ingredients are safe and that what they make you feel is more than the placebo effect. Of course, participation in the mainstream medical system requires optimism, too, when many drugs approved by the FDA turn out to be unsafe and are recalled, or are marketed for unapproved uses. Multi-level marketing, meanwhile, requires distributors aspiring to build businesses to have faith that their opportunities will yield more than $1,833 per year.
Usually, when a multi-level marketing company makes the news, it’s because distributors made less. One couple from New Mexico accumulated more than $100,000 worth of debt over five years as distributors for Reno-based MXI Corp, they told the Washington Post last year. The losses came largely from buying up large quantities of the company’s chocolate—or rather, “Xoçaí HealthyChocolate”—in order to advance in the distributor hierarchy and receive higher commissions. They’ve since filed a lawsuit calling MXI a pyramid scheme. The chocolate is so expensive (roughly $140 for a month’s supply) that the only people willing to buy it are trying to build businesses themselves, plaintiffs say. (In the U.S., multi-level marketing companies are generally considered illegal when they generate a majority of income through recruiting, rather than selling products to consumers.) The couple’s story encapsulates almost every negative stereotype about the industry: greedy corporations, quacky, expensive products, brainwashed distributors. It’s a reputation enhanced by a track record of targeting vulnerable communities, including Hispanic immigrants (Herbalife), indebted college students (Vemma) and unemployed workers in China.
The thing is, little of what I’ve read on the Internet about multi-level marketing applies to what I see in Utah. No one I talk to is poor—most are suburban moms, some with college degrees, who cheerfully explain that the industry has empowered them to work flexible hours and spend time with their kids. Partially, this reflects the state’s demographics—Utah had the sixth highest median household income in the U.S. in 2013, $62,967—but also the fact that the Mormon church encourages female members to stay in the home. A recent New York Times analysis estimated that 46 percent of prime-age women in Utah Valley are not working, compared to 8 percent of men. As a result, their vision of economic success is unique. At a Mother’s Day Boutique in South Jordan, a craft fair where half of the booths have nothing to do with crafting, multi-level marketers talk about their operations less as businesses than passion projects. They’re not selling anything, they say, but sharing things they love, including candles, body scrubs and charm bracelets.
This cheerfulness could be a trick, fostered by companies in order to keep distributors peppily treading water while they sink money into something that’s never going to pay off. Or could it be the real deal, evidence that something is paying off? My conversations don’t lead to any more definite answers than the income statements and cryptic compensation plans of publicly-held multi-level marketers. One Boutique vendor says her scented candle income has been enough to allow her to comfortably stay at home with her kids for years while not otherwise working (though she doesn’t give exact numbers). Another confesses she’s $2,000 in the hole after less than a year selling printed dresses, which are piling up in boxes around her living room.
Amid the uncertainty, two things are clear. First, no one is doing this full-time, to support her entire family. Second, whether they’re losing or earning money, the women here are getting sincere, emotional satisfaction out of this work. They’re #Thrivin! So does it really matter if this is a job or merely the illusion of one?
For Jeanne Call, who invited me here, it matters a lot, because she has invested significant time and money into building a business with dōTERRA, a “therapeutic-grade” essential oil company. Jeanne left a traditional job as a mental health nurse—with a guaranteed paycheck—a few months ago to pursue health coaching, and decided to become a dōTERRA Wellness Advocate because of how much the company’s oils had helped with her own health. She currently spends $100 to $200 a month on oils for her family of four to use, and isn’t breaking even yet, but hopes to one day earn upwards of $56,000 a year from sharing the products. The dream? Bring her husband, who works as a supervisor at an electrical warehouse, into the business, where they’d coach their downline of recruits not only on healthy living but on how to become successful dōTERRA leaders.
This dream is a long way away. There are eight dōTERRA Wellness Advocates in a two-block radius of Jeanne’s house, and today, there’s even one across the room—a planning error, since Boutiques are supposed to only allow one vendor per company. Meanwhile, Jeanne’s friends and family (her “warm market”) have not been as receptive as she’d hoped. Because there are so many multi-level marketers in Utah, outsiders are often sick of being pitched. It would be easy to conclude that Jeanne’s facing an uphill battle, and would be better off directing her efforts towards stable, full-time work with guaranteed income and benefits. Yet to do so ignores the fact of her passion. Jeanne is sacrificing money and stability for something less quantifiable but still immensely important—doing what she loves. In the long run, she’s confident that her business can grow, because she believes the oils help people.
Jeanne Call’s dōTERRA oils
You see her sincerity in the way she applies a lotion containing wintergreen, camphor and peppermint oil onto the neck of an old lady so frail she looks like she might be blown away by Jeanne’s dōTERRA diffuser. The woman had surgery, and can barely move her neck because of the pain. “I take pills but they don’t work,” she whispers. “It feels like I’ve got a built-in piece of two by four.” Later, she comes back to take one of Jeanne’s cards. The lotion helped, she says.
I try a peppermint oil myself on my last day in Utah, when I’m having allergies. Jeanne had mentioned it was great for sinus problems, so I place a few drops under my nose and wait optimistically. The spicy candy cane smell helps clear my sinuses exactly as much as the EMPowerplus Q96 helped me overcome my irrational fear of wrecking my rental car: not at all. On my way to the airport, still sniffling, I stop by a coffee shop and order a lavender Kombucha. Bubbly, sour, fragrant, tonic…the liquid does everything the oil didn’t. As I sip it and think about how in a few hours I’ll be home, rental car safely returned, the mucus in my throat washes away. Maybe it was the Zyrtec I took that morning, or maybe it was something more transcendent. To quote Denise, it just worked.
Mind-over-matter optimism is not unique to multi-level marketing, or Utah. It’s part of almost anything we buy with an emotional payoff. Green juice doesn’t cost $10 for 8 oz. because it cleanses your digestive tract (Note: this statement has not been approved by the FDA). It’s because it makes you feel clean. People spend chunks of their paychecks on clothes not because they need fabric to cover their bodies, but because clothes help them inhabit identities. Jewelry designers and sweater knitters on Etsy look past their businesses’ bottom lines because they’re living their dreams. The strain of criticism that argues multi-level marketing brainwashes people ignores the larger context: We all spend money on products with intangible, unproven effects, we all disregard reality in favor of feelings, and we all want a piece of the American Dream.
Yet, whether or not participants’ dreams become a reality, multi-level marketing companies themselves make money, which is why Jon Taylor considers the industry exploitative. Now in his seventies, he spent a year as a distributor for the Provo, Utah-based Nu Skin in 1994—long enough to lose $50,000. Jon, who had an MBA and a Psychology PhD and had been working as an insurance salesman, tried to use his business savvy as a leg up, buying newspaper ads and paying teenagers to plaster car windshields with advertisements. Like the couple suing MXI, he also spent money on inventory, in an attempt to reach higher sales volumes and qualify for better commissions. Eventually, Jon’s wife did the math—and threatened to leave him.
Jon left Nu Skin instead, and in the two decades since, has devoted his life to debunking the industry, via books, a website, MLM-TheTruth.com, FOIA requests and serving as an expert witness in lawsuits. Jon is a devout Mormon, and in his eyes, the business model preys on Latter-Day Saints’ innate desire to share. Jon’s wife recently tried to talk him into quitting multi-level marketing once and for all, but he hasn’t been able to. “I get emails all the time from people who have a loved one involved and ask what to do,” he says. “There’s an addictive quality.”
After lunch with Jon in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, a missionary gives me a copy of the Book of Mormon. The great thing about her religion, she says, is that no one can talk you into believing it. You have to discover it yourself. “You must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you,” reads the piece of scripture she points out.
I think about these lines when I get home and take my last EMPowerplus Q96, still waiting for something to happen. Perhaps the problem is I never really believed it would work. To be converted you have to have faith, and then maybe you’ll uncover a burn in your bosom that validates it. I imagine that burn to be so sublime, your external world becomes inconsequential, because you are the ruler of your mind. I’ve never found such transcendence, but I’m convinced it exists. I’m still looking for it, in places different, but no better than, that grainy, off-white powder.
This story has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Alice Hines is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter @alicehines.