Asking For Health Advice On The Internet: Attack of the MLMs.

I’ve learned a few things in my tenure as SciBabe. I’ve learned to apply a fairly scientific burden of proof to claims on the internet. I’ve learned to tell people “okay, I’m going to go watch porn on somewhere like shemale hd now” when I’ve decided I’m done arguing online because it’s significantly less masturbatory than arguing on the internet. And I’ve learned never to ask for medical advice online. 

However, most people don’t have the luxury of telling people that they’re full of shit for a living, so what do a lot of people do when something more serious than the sniffles hits and WebMD tells them it’s either a hangnail or cancer? They ask their friends on facebook to pin the tail on the diagnosis. 

And then the Fuckersburgery really starts. 

One of my friends posted today “I’m tired all the time.” This wasn’t the type of person who you’d expect to hear this from. My friend who posted this was an exercise junkie. She was exhausted no matter how much sleep, caffeine, or self-care she attempted to give herself. It was time that she headed to a doctor, not post about it on facebook. 

Immediately, I knew what was going to happen. There was blood in the water, and the sharks were going to circle. Judging by her age, demographic of friends, and social circle, the friends who were “just trying to help” with Plexus, Thrive, and Shakeology were going to show up. 

The products from the common multi-level marketing rackets (MLMs) aren’t necessarily bad. However, the way they’re sold and marketed is the problem. They’re not even good business for the people who sell them a vast majority of the time. As Robert Fitzpatrick, MLM researcher and author of False Profits, documented on his site:

In the largest of all MLMs, Amway, only 1/2 of one percent of all distributors make it to the basic level of “direct” distributor, and the average income of all Amway distributors is about $40 a month. That is gross income before taxes and expenses. When costs are factored, it is obvious that nearly all suffer a loss. Making it to “direct”, however, is not a ticket to profitability, but to greater losses. When the Wisconsin Attorney General filed charges against Amway, tax returns from all distributors in the state revealed an average net loss of $918 for that state’s “direct” distributors.

The people who own these companies generally make a profit off of the salespeople because they have to make an initial investment to start selling, generally a $500 kit. The salespeople are told they will continue to make money off people who they recruit to sell and work as their “team,” and they’ll make commissions off their team’s sales. However, good luck getting as many people as you actually need to make an income to join your team to nag all of your friends and loved ones into buying makeup or milkshakes or patches or… what the fuck does Amway even sell? 

As for the product, I’m sure a shake from Plexus or Shakeology can be a part of a healthy diet, but products like this are not marketed merely as breakfast. Plexus is marketed as some sort of cure-all, and has been warned by the FDA for their health claims. Thrive? It’s basically caffeine and questionable appetite suppressants with no real evidence of efficacy, and it’s sold for a few hundred dollars a month. I’ll stick to coffee, thanks. Shakeology tells you that a “coach” will help you lose weight, but it’s just fancy Slim Fast, and selling it does not make you a certified coach of anything. It makes you a milkshake sales person

And why am I bringing this all up in the light of a friend who asked for health advice? Because no sooner did she ask for health advice than the vultures arrived.

*one of those should be you’re. All that money from Thrive did not buy decent grammar.

Well aren’t you a ray of fucking sunshine. 

There were more messages and other comments ranging from “meh” to “questionable” in terms of how scientific the advice was, but guess what nobody said before doling out health advice:

When is your doctor’s appointment? When was the last time you saw a doctor?

Have you had lab work done yet?

What, if any, are your pre-existing conditions?

How long has this been going on for?

Have there been any changes to your diet or exercise routine, and when?

Do you have any other symptoms? 

You know, medical questions. But there were a lot of people- just from hearing “I’m tired”- trying to sell a product or suggesting which supplement to take. Luckily my friend reads my newsfeed and told a good number of people selling bullshit to fuck right the hell off. I’ve never been more proud.

The sad thing? I know her friends meant well. Truly, they were trying to help. Yeah they were trying to make a profit too, but I’m sure nobody was thinking “I will sell her this overpriced supplement instead of suggesting a doctor and fuck up her health even more,” .  It’s easy to think the worst of people at times like this, but it’s not the case. 

Why does this happen then?

MLMs come to you with a message of empowerment. “Run your own business and break free from the shackles of financial insecurity,” they say, and that gives you confidence. The term con man was originally the term confidence man, and it’s for good reason. These MLMs, unfortunately, put a desperate new sales associate into a system that makes good people complicit in their bullshit system. They give you so much confidence in yourself and the product that, without seeing any medical tests, you feel good telling a sick friend who you genuinely care about that your fancy overpriced bullshit milkshake can cure them. You feel confident selling essential oils that have been rebuked by the FDA for claiming that they can cure ebola. And you have so goddamn much confidence that you’ll tell friends how to treat everything from diabetes to cysts in the brain for their children. I know because I asked my readers if they’ve ever been through this, and here are just a sample of the responses I’ve gotten:

Some of the posts are horrifying. I’ve asked permission to screencap everything used here. There are many more stories through the comment thread that rivaled these. I highly suggest you take a look through them if you still need convincing that MLMs are dangerous and predatory.

Even more disheartening, remember that the people who are doing this both (1) think they’re being helpful and (2) are friends of the people they’re doing it to. I’m also sure that, somewhere on the internet, someone who sells Plexus or Thrive or one of the others is reading this thinking that I “just don’t understand.” You know, because I have a masters degree and eight years of working as a chemist and they… took a two week course on essential oils so they have a deep understanding of biology or nature or… something. I don’t know, I’m not fluent in bullshit.

What I do understand, after a few years of writing about critical thinking and applying scientific reasoning in every day life, is that the overreaching claims from MLMs fall flat time and time again. If a well meaning loved one tries to sell you one on the internet, you should probably tell them you’re going to go watch porn. 



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About SciBabe 78 Articles
Yvette d'Entremont, aka SciBabe, is a chemist and writer living in Los Angeles with her husband and their four pets. She bakes a mean gluten free chocolate chip cookie and likes glitter more than is considered healthy for a woman past the age of seven.

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