I’m the sort of person who tends to cope better than most with the lockdown which has been caused by the current plague. Living in a house with large front and back yards suits me, and in early February I had the foresight to get my NBN installed and my internet plan upgraded to unlimited data.
In the age of Ubereats and Netflix, coping with a lockdown is not so difficult if you have sufficient space to prowl in.
I am currently rediscovering SBS On Demand, which seems to have many more shows to interest me than either Netflix or Amazon Prime or Disney+ or Apple TV+.
One in particular I am enjoying greatly is Kirsten Dunst’s latest work, On Becoming A God In Central Florida, about the misadventures of a widow of a man who had gotten inveigled in a multi-level-marketing scheme called FAM (short for Founders American Merchandise) which bears more than a passing resemblance to Amway.
It is set in 1992, which is quite appropriate, because it was around the end of that year or the start of 1993, during what I call my ‘airport summer’ (I spent five months as a shift worker at the airport) that I had my own personal brush with multi-level-marketing.
I got a call out of the blue from a perfect stranger, who used his association with an acquaintance of mine from uni whom I had not spoken to in a couple of years as an introduction to what he called ‘a business proposition’. I suppose from what I know now, he was the ‘upline’ to George, my acquaintance.
Out of politeness and some sense of loyalty to my not-quite-friend George (well, I did feel that I did sort of owe him a favour), I agreed to meet them some summer afternoon for a chat. I am to this day not sure that the word Amway even came up, so I am not 100% sure what exactly they were trying to sign me up to.
I do know that it was some sort of multi-level-marketing scheme, and that they used phrases like ‘they were looking for sharp people’ (‘sharp’ being something which comes up time and time again when MLMs are being pitched to the punters). They also explained how it was a great way to distribute all sorts of quality products.
I was more interested in the idea of access to quality products than I was to the idea of actually going forward with signing up other people – I really do not have the sort of thick skinned personality which would make me good at sales.
The upline, who did most of the talking, kept throwing lines at me about what did I want the money for, because I was definitely going to make a lot of it, so I needed to think up front what I wanted it for. I have since heard that this sort of sales pitch is frequently used to keep people off balance and to stop them from focusing on what the short comings of the MLM might be.
They also, I recall, played me some of motivational tape of a husband and wife who were involved in this MLM and who had been failures in life previously and now had become great successes such that they were called ‘diamonds’. Unlike the motivational tapes featured on ‘On Becoming A God In Central Florida’, this recording did not sound particularly inspiring.
George did say something which struck me as rather bizarre, that there was a guy involved in the MLM in the USA who was so persuasive that he had been able to persuade several people into committing suicide. Looking back in retrospect, I am a little ashamed that I did not feel disgusted at that, but when we are younger, we do not quite value human life as much as we should.
Anyway aside from a follow up meeting with George, where he got the general gist that whilst I might be interested in the products but not in becoming a recruiter of more people into this chain, nothing more came of it. Sleep deprived from shift work I might have been at that time, but I was still ‘sharp’ enough to see something which was really not for me.
In the weeks or months after that, I got approached by two other random strangers (a taxi driver and a security guard) about their business idea, but thanks to my experience with George, I was able to politely decline without investing more than twenty seconds of time in doing so.
Even my brother got approached twice around that time. Once by the daughter of his former (not very good) driving instructor who was looking for ‘sharp people’ (that phrase again), and once by one of his own uni friends. We are a polite family, I suppose, because my brother went to a group presentation on the say so of that friend. At that one, the presenter started talking about how you needed to decide what you were going to do with all that money – like buy your dream car.
I am proud of my brother’s level headed response. “I already have my dream car – a 1977 Kingswood”.
The presenter dismissed that with “Yeah, that’s the 20 year plan.”
Happily, I have not been approached since then, except in 2005 when a newly married close friend tried to get me along to a presentation on a business proposition (his new wife’s brother was very high up in Omega Trends, an Australian splinter from Amway which is now defunct). Happily the friendship survived my declining the opportunity to attend the presentation.
Quite separate to that, there was a rather silly fellow in the office who invested years and years (at a time when 99% of people give up on their MLM scheme inside 2 years) in trying to sign people up to Omega Trends and retire early and wealthy. I suspect that if he had invested half that level of energy in his actual job and in trying to get ahead in that, inside of skiving off every chance he had to scout ‘prospects’, he might have retired a couple of rungs higher, and not have had to use his superannuation to pay off all the debts he had incurred.
Since then, like the fascination with a slow moving train wreck, I have read the Amway expose ‘Merchants of Deception’ and recently become a fan of the hysterically negative Married To An Ambot blog.
So I know enough about multi-level-marketing schemes and how they function such that I can take a knowing chuckle every few minutes whilst watching On Becoming A God In Central Florida. The use of the term ‘Just Over Broke’ for job is familiar to me and where, without irony, one of the supporting characters and his son do a ‘FAMbot’ act is equally amusing.
But the pilot episode has one of the best scenes in it. The still living husband, against Dunst’s orders, decides to ‘retire’ from his job, under the misguidance of his upline. He shows up on his last day of work in a tuxedo and tails, makes a bit of a dick of himself as he walks out, and then gets into a hired limo to be carried off into his bright future. After changing into his own car, he crashes into a swamp and is eaten by an alligator.
Alligators eating people alive aside, this sort of scene is apparently something which really happens when people get too carried away with the potential in their MLM scheme. They do walk out of their office in a tux and drive off in a limo. The MLM itself is what eats them alive, not an alligator, which I suspect is allegorical.
I hope George did not stay long in that MLM, whether it was Amway or something else. He would have been two years out of uni with an accounting degree when he approached me with his ‘business proposition’. By now, almost 30 years later, I hope he has been able to have a successful accounting career.