• 'On Becoming a God in Central Florida' is a hilarious and dark exploration of the MLM craze that swept through America during that (Supplied, SBS)
MLM schemes are more prevalent than ever - they’ve just taken on different guises.
By
Beth Hadfield

7 Nov 2019 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 19 Nov 2019 - 9:35 AM

“How often are you offered the opportunity to make money, make a difference, and have fun all on your terms?”

A few years ago, a well-meaning friend quietly sidled up to me and wanted to know if I’d be interested in ‘running my own business’.  She earnestly told me that I’d be fantastic at it, and promised she’d be in touch shortly with details about an ‘amazing’ opportunity and ‘incredible’ products.

It was all very mysterious  - and I was intrigued.

Then I discovered the ‘amazing business opportunity’ was the chance to become a participant in a skincare and cosmetics multi-level marketing scheme. I came back to earth with a thud, and the words ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ echoing in my ears.

Multi-level marketing is a method that some direct sales companies employ to encourage existing distributors to recruit new distributors. Their websites and social media pages are full of glowing testimony from “consultants” who say things like “I love running my business from my cell phone” and “I made a choice, I took a chance.  I changed my life!”

Multi-level marketing is a method that some direct sales companies employ to encourage existing distributors to recruit new distributors.

According to Direct Selling Australia, 57 per cent of participants in MLM are aged between 25 & 45 - and 75 per cent are women. The higher ratio of women participating in MLM schemes may be explained by the psychological marketing that MLMs utilise, often promising ‘work life balance’ and a chance to earn money independently from home.

The Australian Consumer Law and Action centre notes that MLMs can encourage “a sort of family or team-like atmosphere, so people tend to think they’re getting something out of it beyond the business outcomes that it’s delivering.”

In MLM schemes, there can be hundreds or thousands of members globally or nationally, however few go on to earn meaningful incomes, with some reports estimating those figures to be as low as one per cent.

In Australia, laws stipulate that as long as most of the scheme's money comes from selling a product, instead of signing up new people (recruiting), then it's not an illegal pyramid scheme.

In Australia, laws stipulate that as long as most of the scheme's money comes from selling a product, instead of signing up new people (recruiting), then it's not an illegal pyramid scheme.

However...if my well-meaning friend had thought the product was so wonderful, and her income stream came from product sales why did she not simply try to sell me some, rather than recruit me to the cause?

In 2019, you can get everything from leggings to water filters to make-up to supplements available via “direct selling”, but consumers are savvy and cash strapped in the new millennium and there are entire websites, subreddits, and social media pages warning the public about potential “pyramid” schemes.

But the heady days of the 1990s were a multilevel marketer’s dream - greed was still good, big hair reigned supreme and double denim was in. 

On Becoming a God in Central Florida (Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky) is a hilarious and dark exploration of the MLM craze that swept through America during that time.

Krystal Stubbs (Kirsten Dunst) is left in drowning in debt and fighting to keep her home after her husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgaard) dies and she discovers he’s sunk the majority of their life savings into the Garbeau System, a MLM scheme selling FAM household products.  


Funke and Lutsky were originally intending to create a series around cults, but were swept up in the ’gnarly’ world of MLM conventions during a weekend away in Las Vegas.

In publicity for the show, Dunst has explicitly compared FAM to the notorious Amway brand, an MLM scheme that took Australia by storm during the last two decades. Declaring itself a ‘progressive, modern, innovative business practice with strong traditional values and ethics’ it’s estimated there were as many as 100,000 Australians were involved with Amway in the mid 1990s, selling over 2500 different products. 

Like the fictitious Garbeau Systems, Amway Australia made much of their money selling motivational self-help tapes and CDs - without which, Amway upline managers reported, distributors would be destined to fail.

Amway tapes (available also for ironic purchasing via Ebay and Gumtree) were ‘tools’ designed to motivate distributors with success stories, encouraging the listener to believe that their dream life was just a short sales away - just out of their reach.  

The tapes would admonish distributors to keep the faith, even if they weren't making money, and labeled distributors ‘losers’, if they were thinking of quitting.

It may all seem ludicrous now, but with the rise and rise of social media, MLM schemes are more prevalent than ever - they’ve just taken on different guises.  And whilst there are still people willing to buy into the fantasy, there will be a MLM scheme, ready and waiting to sell them their impossible dream.

On Becoming a God in Central Florida starts on Thursday, 21 November at SBS On Demand, and on SBS with a special double episode at 8:30pm. Remaining episodes will air at 9:30pm weekly thereafter.

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