Skin before and after
Credit: Uyen Cao

It’s the “hey!” that gets me. Out-of-the-blue DMs from old acquaintances always start that way. I’m usually happy to receive them; I’ve seen these distant friends’ Instagram feeds, think their toddlers are cute, and wonder whether they might be in town or have some juicy gossip about a classmate from a decade ago. “Hey!” I volley back — I’m great! They’re great! And then, the ellipses turns into a sales pitch.

All of a sudden, I feel disappointed and foolish. Had they actually wanted to catch up, or did they just see me as an untapped customer? And why does this exchange unsettle me so much that it irks me even days later?

I may call these DMs invasive, annoying, and effing with my concept of who I can really count as a friend, but strictly speaking, it’s just business. These interactions fall under a strategy called “direct sales,” in which independent sellers reach into their social networks to push products — often beauty- or wellness-related ones — onto people they know. Often, there’s a multi-level marketing (or “MLM”) aspect to it, in which sellers have the expectation to recruit other sellers, receiving a portion of their revenue in exchange. The company structures can be murky, as can the clear benefits to sellers, and they’re a frequent subject of scrutiny. Some say it’s nearly impossible to make money, and that these companies prey on financially and emotionally vulnerable individuals, mainly women. Often, they're compared to pyramid schemes, the illegal practice in which participants are paid strictly for bringing in more recruits. But for many people, myself included, the problem with multilevel marketing is personal.

As more and more of my friends sign up to sell products like LipSense, Beautycounter, Isagenix, Usborne Books, and others, I feel like I’ve become an unwilling participant in countless side-hustles and earnings schemes. For example, I see an acquaintance’s smiling selfie on Instagram. I love seeing her happy, and I agree that her pink lipstick is perfect for her complexion. I like her photo. But if I “like” it, I know a barrage of direct messages is coming, imploring me to try the shade as well, telling me about special offers, and making me feel like I’m being a bad friend if I don't make a purchase.

“There can be an expectation that you 'should' buy from your friend, even if you don't want or really need the product,” explains licensed psychologist Robyn McKay, Ph.D. “And expectations, whether they're fulfilled or not, can lead to resentments. And resentment, in turn, can create unnecessary conflict.”

This expectation can also lead to false intimacy. “I was interested in a Rodan + Fields product, and reached out to a college friend,” says Erin R., a teacher based in Secaucus, N.J. who, like other people in the story, does not want her full name used for privacy reasons. “She began asking questions about my skin, and I ended up having to tell her I was pregnant. I was only eight weeks along, and not even my real friends knew, but I felt I needed to disclose to her to get the best recommendations for my skin.” Erin felt odd about the confession, especially as the conversation shifted to labor plans. “Here I am, wanting to just buy skin cream, and now I’m talking about epidurals. It made me wish I’d just gone to Sephora.”

I’ve felt conversations with friends who sell products similarly veer into intimate territory. One time, I told a friend selling beauty products that I was watching my budget and couldn’t afford extras that month. Later, in a social setting, I was mortified when she offered to pick up the tab for wine, because of my “money troubles.” The truth was, I simply hadn’t wanted to buy the products she was selling. Saying I couldn’t afford them felt less insulting to hear than telling her I didn’t like the products, found them overpriced, or was concerned about the safety of their ingredients. At the time, I felt I had little choice but to lie. Then I committed to the lie, let her pick up the tab, and came home with a guilt hangover. We haven’t hung out since.

Credit: Uyen Cao

The ease of dashing off an Instagram DM takes away from the social exchange these business were based on, making the process feel less friendly and more strictly transactional. Consider the early days of direct sales — Tupperware parties — where guests knew they were in for a sales pitch when they RSVP’d, and could make a conscious decision to simply not go. Scrolling Instagram, on the other hand, clearly is not voluntarily attending someone’s sales pitch, and I resent the blurred boundaries.

For example, if someone hosted a sales party in their home, there were drinks to purchase, and snacks to set out, some tidying up to do before guests arrive, and then pleasantries to share before getting down to business. Even at the Pure Romance sex-toy parties that still go on today, you can visibly see your host pull out her order form, which gives you a chance to either sit down and choose a dildo, politely opt for just the smallest bottle of scented lotion, or get the hell over to the drinks side of the room until you can leave. On Instagram or Facebook, a virtual invite means you provide your own couch and wine, and tune into a sales pitch while you thought you were just relaxing with your phone. It has none of the fun, and all of the implicit pressure to pass money between friends.

“She just kept pushing.”

Jen H., a business analyst and mom of three, recounts losing a friendship over a workout product. “I’ve had some issues with disordered eating in the past, so I’m really triggered by certain language surrounding weight,” she says. The friend didn’t know about Jen’s history, and sent her an unsolicited message about a weight loss program. “It’s perfect for us new moms,” Jen says her friend messaged her on Facebook, where they often communicated about Mommy and Me activities in the neighborhood.

“I told her it wasn’t my thing, but she kept pushing, even telling me that the program could take off my ‘mom tummy.’ I never told her I had a mom tummy. Finally, I got pretty forceful, and told her that she was damaging people’s well-being.” Jen also resents that she felt she had to share her history of disordered eating in order to get the sales-friend to back off. “We were mom friends and were just getting to know each other. We hadn’t gotten to the point where we would have normally talked about body-image struggles,” Jen says. Prior to the solicitation, the two had occasionally met up one-on-one for coffee and stroller walks with their infants. After the incident two years ago, they might wave, or catch up briefly if they see each other on the playground, but they haven’t made plans to hang out again. “It wasn’t that she reached out,” Jen says. “It was that she just couldn’t take no for an answer.”

There’s an old adage (and a classic I Love Lucy episode): Never do business with friends. And that’s the core of what makes multilevel marketing a challenge to friendships. “In general, we tend to take peer-to-peer marketing as a barrier to intimacy and closeness,” explains Shawn M. Davis, LCSW, a therapist in Tampa, FL. “When we market to our social network we are selling items that have not been asked for, so the seller turns away from the friendship for the benefit of personal gain in the form of sales.” In other words, just because two friends both like skin products, does not mean that a seller-and-consumer relationship is the best way for them to share that common interest. “The key to quality relationships is about being known and understood. For some, [being sold] an unwanted product is a cue that ‘they don’t really get me,’ So we're prone to rewrite our history with this person into one that paints the seller as unkind... even if they've been a great friend in the past,” Davis says.

Credit: Uyen Cao

Perhaps sharpening the point on this is exactly what these sellers are getting out of the deal. One 2011 report for the Federal Trade Commission analyzing over 350 multilevel marketing companies found that 99 percent of sellers actually lose money on their business, once enrollment fees, purchasing inventory, and the time and expense spent on marketing and selling are factored in. While some people can be successful, many direct sellers make less than $100 a month on sales. For example, in their 2017 income statement, Rodan + Fields shares that the top 1 percent of consultants were paid more than $30,185. Way more notably, however, is that the bottom 50 percent of paid consultants earned less than $60 a month, or $650 annually. Another old adage says to make new friends and keep the old, that one is silver and the other’s gold. I don’t know what’s going on with the price of precious metals these days, but it does not seem like less than $60 a month would be worth that trade.

“I’m a friend first, and a salesperson second.”

Women who sell products are aware of some of the stigma they face, and resent that friends can’t just be honest with them. “I’m a friend first, and a salesperson second,” says Cristina A., a Denver area mom of two who sells multiple products including Usborne Books and LipSense, and declined to give her last name because she does not have company authorization to speak to the media about her experience. She even shifted the way she does business after noticing a drop in engagement between her business posts and her personal ones on social media. “It felt like the virtual equivalent of everyone leaving the room when I walked in,” she confesses. “Now, I have multiple Instagram accounts, and I have two Facebook pages. I want people to want to come to me.”

Caring for her friendships and her bottom line means keeping a close eye on follow-throughs — while she says she may circle back to a friend once, she’ll drop the conversation if it seems like they’re avoiding the subject. “I don’t like the idea people feel they have to lie to me or avoid me because they don’t want the products. I would much rather people just be honest, but if someone seems interested, of course I’m going to follow through. I don’t need pity likes.” But given an opening, she’ll certainly evangelize her products; to her, that’s just normal small-talk etiquette.

“Sometimes, sales come up naturally. That’s why direct sales are effective. You’re talking with a friend about a problem or issue you’re facing, like what makeup products you use now that you have no time, and it would be weird not to say, ‘Well, this is what I do.’” Although Cristina says the money she makes each month is “significant to her family” (she won’t disclose figures, but says that it pays for tuition and activities for her school-age kids), she says that the money is beside the point. “In college, I worked at a restaurant, and of course I’d talk the restaurant up to people who were visiting or asking about places to eat in the area. It’s not because I wanted to benefit my bottom line, but because it was something I liked.”

As for me, as variations of new year, new you posts are popping up on my feed, and old acquaintances are popping into my inbox, offering me a newer, better, prettier life if only I purchased their product, I’m going to go a different route. Instead of pity likes or secretly muting friends, I’m trying something new that can’t be sold via word of mouth: honesty.