From The Archive
Matt Roth
No. 10  September 1997

Dreams Incorporated

 Living the delayed life with Amway 

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WHAT IS YOUR DREAM? demanded a booming voice. The ballroom went dark and the audience settled in for a fifteen minute video catalogue of the stuff dreams are made of: a blur of luxury cars, sprawling mansions, frolicking children, pristine beaches, hot-dogging jet-skiers, private helipads, and zooming jets—all set to caffeinated, John-Teshy instrumental music. The voice returned: “It’s about family!” (A shot of kids collapsing on an oceanic lawn, love-tackled by Dad.) “It’s about security!” (A shot of a palatial house.) “It’s about you!” (A close-up of toes, gently lapped by the incoming tide, wriggling in white sand.)

This was Dream Night, and it was about Amway.

There are some one and a quarter million Amway members in the United States, roughly one for every two hundred of the rest of us, all of them eager to spread the gospel of salvation-through-selling-Amway-products. Considering Amwayers’ penchant for compiling long lists of names, accosting strangers, and generally striving to collapse the degrees of separation between them and other humans, the chances of an American being asked to an Amway meeting are quite good—somewhere between having a condom break during sex and being dealt a straight in a hand of poker. For a certain segment of the struggling middle class, where there’s a magic mixture of disposable income and status insecurity, the odds are nearer those of catching a cold. And for someone like me, a post-collegiate pre-professional with a solid future in temping, Amway is more or less a mandatory rite of passage.

Dream Night was not the first Amway event I had been to, but it was the most hallucinatory. It began with the triumphal entrance of the Amway Diamond couples, half-jogging through a gauntlet of high-fives to the theme from Rocky, as the audience whooped and hollered and twirled their napkins over their heads. When the standing ovation finally tapered off, the emcee offered a prayer thanking God for (a) the fact that we lived in a free enterprise system, where there were no government agents kicking down the doors of meetings like Dream Night and (b) His Blessed Son. As dinner wound down, the video screens displayed a picture of what the guy next to me was quick to identify as a $20,000 Rolex watch. (He went on to tell of a fellow he knew who had a $30,000 Rolex and who couldn’t tell the time for the glare of the gold and diamonds.)

The evening closed as we all held hands and sang “God Bless America”—and then broke into a triumphal cheer.

As its hands reached “midnight,” the Rolex dissolved into a series of video montages depicting the consumer Shangri-La that our own forthcoming Amway success would open for us. We leered as a day in the life of a typical jobholder—all alarm clocks, traffic jams, and dingy cubicles—was contrasted with that of an Amway distributor, who slept in and lounged the day away with his family. We gawked hungrily as real-life Amway millionaires strutted about sprawling estates (proudly referred to as “family compounds”) and explained that such opulence was ours for the asking. We chortled as a highway patrolman stopped an expensive sports car for speeding—only to ride away a moment later with an Amway sample kit strapped to his motorcycle. Our laughter became a roar of delight as the camera zoomed in on the sports car’s bumper sticker: “JOBLESS … AND RICH!”

Interspersed with Dream Night’s audiovisual assaults were six Castro-length harangues, which toggled along in a sort of good coach, bad coach routine: One youngish Amway Diamond would assure us that we could do it!, after which an older, sterner Diamond hectored us to stop making excuses for not doing it. The evening closed as we all held hands and sang “God Bless America”—and then broke into a triumphal cheer.

The Amwayers who had brought me to Dream Night were flying high on the drive home, whooping occasionally just to vent their exhilaration. I felt as though I had just sat through a year’s worth of infomercials, with some high school pep rallies and a few Tony Robbins lectures thrown in. But to see all this as an exercise in mass hypnosis, according to Amway’s literature, would be to “misunderstand” what is, simply, “the best business opportunity in the world”—an assessment, strangely enough, with which the rest of world is starting to agree.

The Best Business Opportunity in the World

The Amway Corporation was founded in 1959, ostensibly as a small-scale manufacturer of “biodegradable” detergents (beginning with Liquid Organic Cleaner, the patent for which Amway acquired from a struggling Detroit scientist). It has since grown into a $6 billion-a-year consumer-products behemoth selling everything from groceries to lingerie to water filtration systems. These products aren’t available in stores, though. The key to Amway’s success is its curious distribution system: Instead of using retail outlets and mass-media advertising, Amway licenses individual “distributors” to sell its goods from their homes. The distributors are independent franchisees; they buy products from Amway at wholesale and resell them at the “suggested retail” price, pocketing the difference as profit. Distributors are also paid a percentage of their sales (from 3 percent to 25 percent) by Amway itself. But the detail that distinguishes Amway’s “multilevel marketing” scheme is that it rewards distributors for bringing new recruits into the sales force. Distributors get a cut not only of their own sales revenues, but of sales made by their recruits, their recruits’ recruits and their recruits’ recruits’ recruits, a branching pyramid of lineally descended Amwayers known as a distributor’s “downline.”

The Amway approach supposedly avoids impersonal door-to-door sales, as each distributor need only sell directly to a small customer base of friends and family. Business “growth”—and an ascent to the flashier “bonus levels” (Ruby, Emerald, Diamond, Executive Diamond, Double Diamond, Crown Ambassador)—comes mostly through expanding one’s downline. In theory, this odd marketing system ensures that benefits accrue not to Madison Avenue slicksters, but to ordinary folk capitalizing on their close-knit community ties—a scheme that seemingly reflects the small-town, Protestant populism of Amway’s co-founders, Rich DeVos and Jay VanAndel.

Amway blamed its seamy image on a few “bad apples,” impossible to avoid in a business that is open to all.

Such pandering to heartland values has (along with record-breaking donations from Rich DeVos) endeared Amway to the Republican Party. But the company has also had its share of critics. In the seventies a succession of defectors charged that The Business (as the faithful call it) was a pyramid scheme, a fraudulent enterprise that made money by recruiting new members and channeling their fees to higher-ups in the organization. A 1979 Federal Trade Commission investigation concluded that Amway was not in fact a pyramid scheme—only that some of its claims to prospective distributors were overly optimistic—because most of its revenue came from sales of actual products.[1] But that didn’t end the company’s troubles. During the Reagan years, Amway was the butt of jokes and the target of exposes. Senior distributors set up private “distributor groups,” organizations dealing in motivational materials and notorious mass rallies.[2] Dexter Yager, founder of the Yager Group, was known to leap around stages brandishing a giant gold crucifix.

Amway blamed its seamy image on a few “bad apples,” impossible to avoid in a business that is open to all. (When Procter & Gamble, a competitor in the soap business, sued Amway for spreading rumors that P&G was a hotbed of Satanism, Amway shifted the blame to overenthusiastic distributors.) Since the eighties, the corporation has dealt with the issue by encouraging distributor groups to train Amwayers in “professionality,” and by promulgating elaborate rules of conduct and a code of ethics for distributors.

The reform efforts seem to have paid off. Today Amway is portrayed as a model business. A spate of articles in newspapers around the country have crowned “multilevel distribution” the Third Wave of marketing: If it looks like Amway, we’re now told, then it’s not a scam. Trade magazines laud Amway as a high-quality manufacturer; the United Nations has given it a rare Environmental Award; Jay VanAndel, the recipient of a score of business awards, served a term as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Ted Koppel has cited Rich DeVos as one of America’s premier philanthropists; Larry King blurbed DeVos’ book, Compassionate Capitalism, as “a credo for all people everywhere.” Even the Wall Street Journal, which delights in mild ridicule of Amway spectacles, never completely laughs off The Business. The paper is always careful to mention Amway’s billions in annual sales, the new class of professionals flocking to it, the FTC decision ruling it legal, and its remarkable global expansion—especially in Eastern Europe.

But Dream Night brought all the questions back to the surface: If Amway isn’t a scam, why did it seem so much like one? It may win heaps of praise nowadays, but Amway doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. Perhaps what’s changed is us. While Amway is the same as it ever was, the rest of us have made peace with commercial insanity. Maybe capitalism has finally reached the stage of self-parody, unblushingly celebrating a house-of-cards as its highest achievement. And maybe Dream Night, instead of being the ritual of a fringe cult, is the vanguard of the future.

First Look

Fittingly, my encounter with Amway began during a long-term temp assignment at Andersen Consulting’s ENTERPRISE 2020 project, an ongoing exhibit to which consultants would bring potential clients to scare them about the future. The main attraction was a battery of “industry experts” who produced customized nightmare scenarios to help manufacturing executives from across the globe see the Third Wave coming at them. The experts would discourse gravely about globalization, accelerating technology, managed chaos, self-organizing supply chains, flex-this, flex-that, and nano-everything, eventually arriving at the message of this elaborate sideshow: The future is not to be faced without an Andersen consultant on retainer.

Sales pitch though it was, E2020 subscribed to a worldview that’s now ubiquitous in the wider culture. Its central metaphor was overheatedly Darwinian—the global economy as nature run riot, lush for the dominant, unforgiving for the slow to adapt—but also strikingly theological. In the next millennium, a resurgent Market would act as the vengeful (invisible) hand of God, laying waste to the Second Wave’s many Towers of Babel—government planning, welfare states, unions, warehouses, consolidated factories, even mega-conglomerates. Thus, “progress” required that we bury our arrogant bids for security and clear the ground for a new order of pure Nietzschean struggle.

I don’t know how the CEOs stumbling through E2020 felt about this, but from what I could gather, the prospects for people like me were distinctly mixed. On the one hand, as a customer I’d be awesomely empowered—whole industries would rise and fall according to the butterfly effect generated by tiny shifts in consumer taste. But as a worker I’d be downgraded to “enabled.” I would have to eschew “third party” union representation, sacrifice guaranteed benefits, dispense with government protections, and forgo lifelong employment; instead, I’d accumulate “human capital” to sell in an open labor market. Of course, “change” would repeatedly render that arduously amassed human capital obsolete in the space of a nanosecond, after which I was to uncomplainingly set about accumulating more. This was called “being adaptable.”

I jumped at the chance to meet this mysterious man of money, although from totally insincere motives—the old anthro major in me was hankering for a bona fide subculture to gawk at.

The forecast looked pretty grim, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so. My supervisor, Sherri, also seemed to have succumbed to E2020’s mood of millennial angst. As events coordinator for E2020, responsible for making each client’s time in Chicago—from the catered lunch to the after-hours excursion—exceed their expectations,” Sherri’s job was already very twenty-first century in its focus on pampering those with means. She was perfect for the role, a seamless blend of prim professional and girlish emotion-worker. Tall, blond, and angular, she had deep-set Nordic eyes that gave her an air of maturity—unless she was excited, when they would widen improbably, revealing the spirit of a child lost in wonder. One minute she was commanding a team of caterers, the next she was dissolving into giggles, waving her arms and squealing with excitement. On top of her sixty-plus hours a week at E2020, she was improving herself with MBA classes at night; she, too, was seeking some way off the wobbly treadmill of income-from-wages-salaries-and-tips. When Amway called, touting a future that combined business ownership with 100 Percent Empowered Consumerism, she was ready.

One day, Sherri asked me to attend a meeting at which a “millionaire from the West Coast” was to talk about “business trends of the nineties.” I was not entirely caught by surprise—Sherri had dropped hints about starting her own “distribution business” at about the time that Amway Dish Drops appeared in the E2020 kitchen—and although she didn’t tell me the millionaire was from Amway, it wasn’t difficult to guess which version of the gospel of wealth he’d be preaching. I jumped at the chance to meet this mysterious man of money, although from totally insincere motives—the old anthro major in me was hankering for a bona fide subculture to gawk at.

The meeting was hosted by Sherri’s friend Josh and his wife Jean[3], he a commodities broker, she a high school math teacher. Sherri and Josh had attended the same small Christian college. Before that, he had been an Indiana farm boy, and he still had the look: a beefy, boyish face with a grin that verged on gaping, mussed hair with perpetually sweaty bangs, a brown suit that flared in all the wrong places, and a general air of guilelessness. This cast in high relief his constant, ill-advised attempts to put on city airs: the firm handshake, the breezy small talk, the man-of-the-world asides.

Scott Coon (the millionaire from Seattle), on the other hand, was the genuine article: His breezy small talk projected an illusion of sincere interest, his well-fed face reflected self-assurance. Scott worked the small crowd with consummate slickness. After a mumbled intro from Josh (followed by whoops from the audience), Scott stood beaming at us, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

This was a “First Look”—the initial meeting where Amwayers bring prospects to scare them about the future—and Scott delivered it with gusto and verve. Sherri had told me to expect an hour-long talk, but two and a half hours barely winded this speaker. He delivered 150 minutes of fast patter without notes, and touched upon such diverse topics as the high divorce rate, the quality of McDonald’s hamburgers, IBM’s strategy of diversification, and the number of cupholders in the minivan he had recently bought with cash. I would later realize that this was a typical Amway speech: somewhere between an infomercial and a sermon, a loosely organized string of riffs that bespoke either improvisational genius or, more likely, countless repetitions.

Scott spent the first hour explaining America’s economic crisis, which is rooted in a betrayal stretching back to the late nineteenth century. See, that’s when big corporations, with the help of government-run public education, first convinced Americans to abandon their entrepreneurial instincts and accept jobs. Before that, everyone was either a small-business owner or apprenticing to be one; afterwards, it was all about benefits packages. Emasculated by wage slavery, Americans had muddled along fairly well until, as stagflation rent the land in the 1970s, we realized in horror that mere wages were helpless against “exponentially expanding” costs.

Scott confidently reprised decades’ worth of conservative alarmism, invoking inflation and national debt and other flat-earth bugbears in a doomsday routine as charmingly archaic as it was fatuous. An accurate narrative of the last few decades—growing productivity, GDP, and per-capita income, accompanied by a massive upward redistribution of wealth—would hardly have packed the millennial portent Scott was looking for. The Second Wave, like Communism, like all the works of man, was destined to decay and collapse, making way for the coming entrepreneurial kingdom—which, for those who lacked faith or zeal, would bring a day of reckoning. Were we ready? To prove he “wasn’t making this crazy stuff up,” he littered the floor with copies of Fortune, Money, and Forbes, citing the relevant disaster stories. I felt like I was back at ENTERPRISE 2020.

But unlike E2020, which catered to the executive class, Scott offered salvation to the common worker, the middle-level manager, the petit bourgeois professional. Moreover, he offered them something so entrepreneurial, so Third Wave, so purely capitalist that it transcended Darwinian struggle, allowing people to escape into early retirement. He held up a copy of Success magazine trumpeting the “Young and Rich in America.” “It’s still possible to make it in this country,” he declared. “There’s no hammer and sickle over this deal yet!”

He was about to show us the sure bet in the coming high-stakes society.

The Plan

Before the meeting, I had worried that my hand-held tape recorder would stand out. As it happened, everyone was recording Scott: I kept track of time by the sounds of cassettes being flipped. I was on Side B of a ninety minute tape before Scott dropped the word “Amway,” and I was on another cassette entirely before I captured the heart of the “best business opportunity in the world”: the Amway Sales & Marketing Plan. This was not, however, a topic to be discussed without considerable preparatory spadework.

The Sales & Marketing Plan is based on what Scott called “the revolutionary business strategy of duplication.” To illustrate the idea he pointed to an imperfect example: McDonald’s, which succeeded so phenomenally, Scott explained, thanks to duplication—not because it served particularly good food (people who “hadn’t spent a lot of time around millionaires” always amused Scott with their idea that successful businesses required quality products). Ray Kroc had figured out a better way to flip a burger, but instead of hiring employees to do it, he taught it to franchisees, people fired up with the zeal of business ownership. While they willingly slaved to make what they owned more valuable, Kroc made his money by “taking a penny for teaching others how to make a dollar.” His was truly a magical income, expanding whether he worked for it or not, growing whether he lived or died. Long after Kroc had “taken a dirt bath,” Scott joked, duplication still supported his widow to the tune of $200 million a year!

But the problem with “public franchises” like McDonald’s, Scott noted, is that they only allow one person to enjoy this enchanted income. “Private” or “multilevel” franchises, on the other hand, allow people at all levels to duplicate themselves. Everyone begins as a grit-teeth franchise operator, but by “sharing their business with others” they would come into an exponentially expanding avalanche of wealth large enough to outrun the ballooning costs of twentieth-century life.

Scott’s own income, he assured us, was “out of control”—and, furthermore, it wasn’t built on something as old-fashioned as food. He worked in the cutting-edge field of distribution, where the real money was to be made nowadays. Through his business, he could get thousands of quality goods, many of them brand names, and cut distribution costs by almost a third. The company that organized this system did $6 billion a year in sales (Scott helped us to understand this awesome figure by describing for us the height of a billion-dollar stack of hundred-dollar bills) and was, on top of this, debt free. It might surprise us that this company was Amway![4]

There were some truly spectacular incomes to be made through The Business—which Scott would have told us about but for FTC regulations barring him from doing so.

As its Sales & Marketing Plan demonstrated, there were two ways to make money in Amway. You could buy products cheap (at wholesale costs reportedly 30 percent below retail) and sell them dear; or, more lucratively, you could share The Business with others, and build your own empire of “downlines.” Since Amway awards bonuses to its distributors based on their wholesale volume, and since each distributor’s wholesale figures includes the sales made by his or her “downlines,” each convert to the Amway cause would enlarge his or her own incomes. To see how this worked, we were told to imagine recruiting six distributors, each of whom would bring in four more, who in turn would each net an additional two. Our downlines, according to this “6-4-2” formula, would then have seventy-eight members. If each of our underlings did $100 a month in sales, we’d be making an extra $2,000 a month in bonuses.[5]

And for those of us who had no taste for sales, Scott had fabulous news: A group of Amway millionaires had come up with a sure-fire system for making The Plan work—and had formed World Wide Dreambuilders LLC, a corporation independent of Amway, to teach that system to others. All that was required to ensure an Amwayer’s success, Dreambuilders taught, was that each distributor simply bought $100 of Amway products a month for his own “personal use.” That meant no high-pressure pitches, no Tupperware parties—no sales at all, in fact. You could meet your $100 monthly goal by selling to yourself—at 30 percent off retail to boot! Being an intensive Amway consumer was such a great deal that once we spread the word, our businesses would practically build themselves. We could quickly 6-4-2 to that extra $2,000, and once our six “legs” did likewise, we’d be pulling in $50,000 a month; if we included some other “factors,” more like $100,000! And that was just the beginning: There were some truly spectacular incomes to be made through The Business—which Scott would have told us about but for FTC regulations barring him from doing so.

In Dreambuilders’ version of The Plan one could glimpse an escape from the coming economic dead-end through empowered consumption. We’d have all the twenty-first-century cred of working (and shopping) from home, engaging in cutting-edge marketing, being part of a decentralized network, and nurturing our inner entrepreneur. And all the human capital we needed was the ability to shop and be effusive about it, which were practically American birthrights.

But judging by the Herculean efforts made to seduce me into The Business, the Plan couldn’t be quite as effortless as it sounded. Josh and Jean, who had now thrown themselves into signing me up as one of their “downlines,” had adopted a strategy that consisted mainly of driving me, at untold inconvenience to themselves, to as many meetings as possible (they were all in far-flung suburbs, so I needed the rides). My attempts to find refuge in the back of the car being firmly rebuffed by Jean, I sat captive in the passenger seat while Josh tried out the various small-talk friendship-building techniques he’d learned from World Wide. Our trips always ended with Josh proffering a Sample Kit, a large white box filled with detergents and propaganda, including Promises to Keep, a book by the suggestively named Charles Paul Conn, as well as xeroxed articles explaining why Amway was the most “misunderstood company in the world.” I resisted Josh’s offers; I was reluctant to take the Amway plunge and knew that the real purpose of the kit was to give him an excuse to drop by my house and retrieve it.

I also had doubts about the business of The Business. Amway products didn’t seem to be winging off the shelves. Sherri complained that she couldn’t even get her own family to buy from her business: Her mother preferred to go to the local Costco. (“A communist store! Gee thanks, Mom!”) Relying on intimates wouldn’t be enough, she explained; the real way to build The Business was to “make casual acquaintances out of strangers.” The techniques for doing this, which often resembled pick-up lines, were an important part of Dreambuilders’ curriculum. Josh spoke of his admiration for Diamond Distributor Randy Sears, who had come up with all sorts of “ice-breakers”: He’d pretend to know someone, for instance, and they’d often pretend to know him right back. Or he’d walk right up to somebody and say, “I like your belt!”[6]

In their zeal, Josh and Jean shuttled me to at least one meeting too many. The worst was a Seminar, an afternoon of “professional training” definitely geared to insiders. Here, during a marathon transfusion of spine-stiffening resolve, I got a glimpse of just how demoralizing the travails of Amway could be. The speaker, Conrad Halls, a Hollywood cameraman with over-the-hill golden-boy looks, had been frank and congenial in his First Look the night before. His debunking of negative Amway stereotypes included the almost touching refrain, “I hope you don’t think I flew 3,000 miles to show you that kind of business,” spoken with a candid stare and open, outstretched arms.

One night, after he had taken me out to dinner (we went Dutch), Josh told me that there was a price list in the back of his car—sealed in an Amway Starter Kit. I could have it right away; I just had to give him the $160 fee to officially join Amway. Uncertain about taking the plunge, I claimed my checking account couldn’t cover $160 that week. That was all right, he insisted: I could write a post-dated check that he would hold until I gave the O.K. to deposit it. I still resisted, and he got out of the car with me, opening the hatch to show me the sealed white box within. Eventually, he settled for giving me a book called Being Happy, which he could later retrieve.

The next week, I decided. I would never learn the truth about Amway until I joined. I left a message on Josh’s Amvox voicemail telling him I had the $160 check ready. A week later, I left another message. By my third attempt, I got Josh himself (who had been intending to return my calls) and was finally able to arrange a time to separate me from my money. It wasn’t the last time I felt he and Jean weren’t exactly cut out for the rigors of The Business.

Buying Through The Business

Amwayers are like vampires: To join them, you must invite them into your home. Unpacking the Starter Kit was mainly Jean’s show, she being the most balanced of my upline trio, the calmest and least prone to outbursts of enthusiasm. (Josh limited himself to preparing my contract and casting a longing gaze every time my roommate ventured out of his room.) Jean was also the only one who had actually read the Amway Business Manual (included in the Kit). Nonetheless, she deferred to Josh: He did the “more important” work of “building” The Business, while she performed the womanly tasks of customer service.

She showed me how all the dilution bottles worked (Amway liquid cleaners come in “superconcentrated” form, which makes them superinconvenient to use), and took me on a tour of eight or so catalogues, pointing out all the products I would want to make an effort to learn about. Finally, she did the best she could with the Amway paperwork, but, math teacher though she was, she got lost in its byzantine intricacies. “I’m still learning,” she explained with an embarrassed smile. “But it’s O.K., because once I get it all down, it’s all I’ll ever need to know, whether our business is a hundred dollars a month or a million!” Unfortunately, it was what I needed to know just to buy a roll of toilet paper.

Figuring out the arcana of Amway took months. The price list, for instance, is denominated in two artificial Amway currencies called “Point Value” (PV) and “Bonus Volume” (BV), which are listed alongside the U.S. dollar-denominated wholesale (“Distributor Cost”) and “Suggested Retail” prices. But for all the arcana, the system’s core concept was simple.

Imagine that you’ve struck a deal with a company to give you discounts for buying in bulk: If you buy $100 worth of stuff, they’ll send you a 3 percent rebate. For $300 or more, it goes up to 6 percent, $600 or more, 9 percent, and so on up to $7,500 and 25 percent. Now, let’s say you’re unable to spend more than $100 a month, but manage to get seventy-four other people to go in with you. Together, you spend $7,500 and divide up the 25 percent rebate. Everyone saves money, and the rebate is shared equally. That’s the idea behind a consumer co-op or wholesale buying club.

Now, let’s say you get the 25 percent rebate from the company but tell the other seventy-four participants, “Look, you’ve each spent only $100, so you’ll get only a 3 percent rebate.” Not only would you save 25 percent on your purchases, but you make a 22 percent profit on everyone else’s. That’s the idea behind Amway.

Inefficiencies were everywhere, since the supply chain rigidly followed the line of recruitment.

In the canonical 6-4-2 pyramid, the “Direct Distributor” on top receives a 25 percent “Performance Bonus” on the entire group’s spending.[7] The Performance Bonuses that go to his six “legs” (12 percent of their sub-groups’ spending) are deducted from his own, leaving him with a 13 percent profit. In turn, they payout 6 percent bonuses to their four “legs,” who payout 3 percent bonuses to their two. Those bottom forty-eight distributors, in other words, get back 3 percent of everything they spend while the top distributor gets 13 percent of everything they spend. (The amount of all checks are calculated, incidentally, by Amway’s central computer and distributed by Amway; uplines don’t actually write checks to their downlines.) It would amount to the same thing if the distributors at the bottom were to receive the 25 percent rebate—and then pay fees directly to their uplines equal to 3 percent, 6 percent, and 13 percent of their purchases.

Disguising the upward flow of fees within a downward flow of commissions definitely has its advantages. One of the decisive factors in the 1979 FTC decision exonerating Amway from allegations of pyramiding was that most of its revenues came from product sales, not from enrollment fees. The assumption is that those sales are based on rational consumer choices—made on the basis of price and quality—and that the money paid into the bonus system is not an extraneous surcharge, but merely the portion other corporations would pour into their marketing budgets. Amway claims, in fact, that it’s able to save even its small time distributors money by avoiding things like pricey mass advertising. These savings are the source of the alleged wholesale 30 percent Basic Discount that every distributor is supposed to enjoy even before the bonuses kick in.

To test these claims I took my new Amway wholesale price list down to the local supermarket for a price comparison. As it turned out, Amway wholesale prices were only slightly better than supermarket retail prices, although a few Amway products, like freezer bags, were significantly cheaper. And this was giving The Business the benefit of many doubts: I factored in its claim that its detergents are more “concentrated” than other brands; I compared Amway with high-quality brand-name products, not store brands or generics; and I compared only regular prices, ignoring the fact that the supermarket, unlike Amway, always has items on sale (not to mention coupons).[8] The same results obtained at the local drugstore in comparisons of vitamins and cosmetics. All in all, the 30 percent Basic Discount was nowhere to be found.[9]

To get the full Amway experience, I started buying my groceries through The Business. I found that, despite Amway’s growth, its “cutting-edge” distribution system preserved all the pitfalls of a small buying club run out of somebody’s apartment. My local supermarket, ironically, actually did start as a buying club run out of someone’s apartment in the 1930s; as it grew, however, it accreted all the efficiencies of the retail system. Now it’s open fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, with professional managers, stockers, and checkers; a visit there is quick and hassle-free. To make my “pick-up” at Josh and Jean’s apartment, on the other hand, required an hour-long el ride and arrangements with a friend to haul the stuff back home, all scheduled only during those brief windows of opportunity when Josh and Jean could be there to meet me.

And these inconveniences pale beside the emotional shock of entering Josh and Jean’s apartment. Not big to begin with, its thorough occupation by Amway Corporation made it positively claustrophobic. The living room was dominated by huge metal cabinets displaying Amway cleaning and food products; shelves along the wall were devoted to toiletries; boxes of cereal lined the top of the couch. Next to the window was an eraser board listing upcoming World Wide Dreambuilders meetings; free wall space and the outside of cabinets were decorated with motivational slogans (“I AM A WINNER!”) drawn in crayon.

When I arrived for the first time, Jean had already bagged my order. She apologized for the absence of some items I had ordered, which were on “backorder.” (Among them were the Big Fiber Fudgies, high-fiber brownies that Josh, Jean, and Sherri rated among the tastiest delectations on earth. Jean urged me to be brave about the Fudgie delay.)

Inefficiencies were everywhere, since the supply chain rigidly followed the line of recruitment. Some of the items I ordered had to be sent by mail all the way from Seattle, since that was where Scott and Shelley Coon, our upline Direct Distributors, happened to live. Others could be shipped from a regional warehouse in Michigan—one of Amway’s attempts to make the system more workable—but still had to be ordered through the Coons. Some items—unavailable from the warehouse—could be sent directly to me via UPS, but my building didn’t have a front desk to receive them. Jean suggested I have them sent to her apartment to be picked up with the rest of my order.

While Jean explained all of this, Josh, by way of chatting up the friend who was to drive me home, offered him some Glister Anti-Plaque Gum. This was a companion to Glister AntiPlaque Toothpaste, something so caustic-sounding that I never dared put it in my mouth. “It’s actually illegal in Canada,” Josh improbably declared, adding, “I guess they just don’t worry about plaque up there.” Friend-with-Car excused himself to go to the bathroom, from which he emerged with an odd look on his face. Once safely in the car he described the bathroom as something not to be missed.

I did pick-ups for several depressing weeks. Apart from Sherri, I never saw any sign of another customer. It was like one of those dusty, deathly-still mom-and-pops frequented only by regulars who come mainly to chat—and I was oppressed with a similar sense that the proprietors needed my money more than I needed their merchandise. It was actually a relief when, one week, Josh and Jean left town without warning me.

Despite the mediocrity of Amway products, one can’t help but be impressed by their sheer number and variety.

What with backorders and unexpected disappearances, it took me a few weeks to gather enough items for my next experiment: a blind taste-test pitting Amway food against brands from “communist” supermarkets. Unfortunately, biases crept into the data when my subjects learned to identify what they called the Telltale Amway Aftertaste, a lingering cardboard bouquet with unmistakable PineSol inflections. Aftertaste aside, Amway food still rated low: Only the Critics’ Choice Cherry Flavored Toaster Pastries (a Pop-Tart analog) managed to eke into second-to-last place. The Goglonian Bagels were universally declared the worst ever experienced. And the Big Fiber Fudgies? Let’s just say that they were pretty much all Telltale Aftertaste.

Despite the mediocrity of Amway products, one can’t help but be impressed by their sheer number and variety. Other multilevels offer one or two miracle products, such as nutritional supplements like bluegreen algae or “minerals in colloidal suspension,” etc., about which wild claims can be made with impunity. Such products defy conventional sales methods, usually because they require some sort of conversion experience on the part of the customer or elaborate person-to-person instruction. Amway, with its Liquid Organic Cleaner, began this way. But today Amway insists that all products are better sold through multileveling: couches, VCRs, cookies, socks, toilet paper, you name it. The Amway goal is not to push one wildly fraudulent product, but to offer a just barely convincing imitation of consuming life, allowing Amwayers to exhaustively shift all of their consumption to dues-paying mode.[10]

Dreambuilding

From time to time the absurdities and contradictions of The Business would surface in Josh’s conversation. In one of his many unguarded moments, he voiced a preference for Amway Scrub Rite because it ran out more quickly than the “superconcentrated” Amway cleaners, enabling him to buy it more often. Catching himself, he quickly added, “Of course, it still lasts a long time.” This puzzled me. Why was Josh so eager to shovel money at Amway? The rational thing would be to minimize his own purchases while strong-arming his downlines into buying as much as possible. But, of course, if everyone did that, the whole business would evaporate. This is Amway’s central dilemma.

There were some rational explanations for Josh’s behavior. To recruit others, he needed the propaganda talents of his upline World Widers, who made it clear that their underlings had to be “fanatical about personal use,” and even held this up as an index of a distributor’s positive attitude. Another rationale was provided by the well-worn anecdote, often retold in the first person, about the distributor who missed a new Performance Bracket by a few dollars when a little bit more personal use could have taken them over the edge. The story always ended, “Well, you better believe I never made that mistake again!”

But as I came to know Josh better, I realized he was acting not so much out of a calculated strategy as out of a deep faith in duplication. Josh believed that whatever he did, his downlines would imitate: If he set the example of filling his house with only “positive” (i.e. Amway) products, so would they. Rich DeVos, more philosophically, calls this the Law of Compensation: “In the long haul, every gift of time, money, or energy that you give will return to benefit you.”

In Amway, extravagant desire is the motive force: To desire what your upline has, even those things that nobody could realistically hope for, is what keeps the scheme in motion.

Josh felt that duplication worked in the other direction as well. If he emulated the multi-multi-millionaires (“multi-multi’s” for short) above him—and did exactly what they said they had done—he would succeed as they had. In his mind, his interests were already merged with theirs. He would boast of their accomplishments, tell me how their bonuses just kept “getting better and better all the time!” For him, of course, bigger bonuses for uplines simply meant a more powerful drain on his income. But that kind of self-defeating “stinking thinking” missed the point, as far as Josh was concerned. By “visualizing” great wealth, by worshiping great wealth, and by imitating the consuming habits of the great and wealthy, he would somehow obtain great wealth.

I only learned the extent to which he and Jean had convinced themselves of this when I worked up the courage to visit their bathroom. It was a strange spectacle indeed. The wall opposite the toilet was decorated with Post-Its, each with a biblical proverb or chestnuts like “A drowning man doesn’t complain about the size of the life preserver” and “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything!” I was startled when a reggae song about “winners” suddenly filled the air; I located the speakers in the medicine cabinet. Most impressive, however, was a wish list taped above the toilet. Scrawled in pencil, it was presumably lengthened whenever Josh or Jean had a flash of covetousness in the shower. It included, among other items,

A bathroom as big as our apartment and someone to clean it every other day (but not Sunday);

A whirlpool as big as our bathroom;

Seven pairs of tennis shoes and seven courts;

A black helicopter seating 12;

Horses, 21;

A chateau, with seven gardens and seven fountains and a chauffeur.

Like my friend, I was struck by the fairy tale numerology that invested even tennis shoes with a mythic charge. In Amway, extravagant desire is the motive force: To desire what your upline has, even those things that nobody could realistically hope for, is what keeps the scheme in motion.[11] Josh and Jean’s wish list, as well as the many other “visualization” exercises involved in dreambuilding, was simply part of their training to ever more expansively want. But to what end? What desire had propelled them into Amway in the first place?

Greed and power-lust, to be sure. But also something larger, more desperate. Americans have, after all, worked progressively longer hours since the Vietnam War; and job insecurity is a hallmark of our E2020 future. Amway promises to transcend the excesses of capitalism by wholeheartedly indulging them. At a time when realistic, collective solutions are off the docket, it’s no surprise that people are turning to miracles. In this way, Amway is not so different from other mutations of the American Dream: the notion that grassroots entrepreneurs will save the urban poor, that the stock market will save Social Security, that casinos will fund our schools. All of these schemes offer salvation while preserving a core myth of capitalism: that the instruments for distributing wealth are also responsible for creating it. Or as Double Diamond and Überparasite Greg Duncan put it at Dream Night in a talk about Washington bureaucrats dividing up the social pie, “I make pies!”

It’s a myth that’s hard to resist—insofar as the exchange floor and the casino offer dramatic visible spectacles of people getting rich while real wealth-creation is the arcane stuff of productivity figures and efficiency studies—but it has tragic consequences for people like Josh and Jean. Perfectly capable of leading enjoyable lives, they nonetheless surround themselves with Amway propaganda, subsist on Amway food, immerse themselves in Amway culture, think in Amway jargon, and siphon their income to Greg Duncan in the hopes of learning the “secret” of his wealth.

Saturation

As much as Josh ignored the contradictions of his faith, he could always be counted on to express them. A typical Joshism (uttered while describing the photos of new Directs that appear in the Amagram each month): “People are amazed that there are that many new Directs each month—at first, they think it’s per year, but no!” The point apparently being the great odds of success. Then, in the very next breath: “I look through them every month to make sure there aren’t too many from Illinois. I’m worried that Chicago will get saturated. Last month, though, there were only two.” Now he was selling the poor odds.

Amway is haunted by the specter of saturation, the success that spells disaster. The 6-4-2 scenario tells it all: To keep one promise of $2,000-a-month, seventy-eight more need to be made whose fulfillment is still pending. The problem is that growth doesn’t improve this ratio: Were Amway to conquer the known universe, fewer than 2 percent of its distributors would be (or mathematically could be) Directs or higher. Of the rest, about 90 percent would be actively losing money—and without a pool of prospects to give them hopes for the future, they would surely quit. Amway would collapse from the bottom up.

The prospect is alarming enough that Charles Paul Conn, in Promises to Keep, works hard to prove it’ll never happen. “The reality,” he tells us, “is entirely different from what might be predicted by a statistician with a slide rule.” He points to the millions of likely untapped prospects—youths, retirees, downsized professionals, foreigners—although he fails to acknowledge that recruiting them would only make the Business hungrier. More plausibly, he adds that Amway is a small part of the population and will stay that way. The Business’s high dropout rate, he explains, though “often cited as a negative factor, actually serves to keep the pool of potential distributors large.” In other words, Amway’s salvation is its high rate of failure.

This hard truth belies Amway’s populism, its promise that success depends merely on getting in on the ground floor, and that every floor is the ground floor. Deep down, Josh may have realized that an Amway easy enough for even him to master would soon self-destruct. This buried consciousness surfaced, for example, in the way he consoled himself with weird probability statistics. He knew how many levels deep he had to extend his downline (something like six) before he was certain to recruit someone with a knack for huckstering, providing a rising tide on which Josh could float. It was unlikely, of course, that a guy like Josh could spawn a six-level downline without the help of such a person, but that simply masked a deeper improbability: that there were enough of these theoretical master salesmen to go around to every schlub who couldn’t succeed otherwise.

Ultimately, however, he dealt with his catch-22 through simple fantasies of escape. He was adamant that someday he’d be a millionaire, his current predicament no more than a bad memory. His hand would describe a hyperbola as he explained that The Business was hard at first, but if you’d just stick in there, you’d soon enjoy exponential success. This would happen so soon that he wouldn’t have to prospect long enough even to get particularly good at it. “The point is not to get good,” he insisted, “It’s to get done!”

Sadly, it was unlikely Josh would ever be one of the few to “get done.” Amway doesn’t thrive through exponential growth, but through the fanatical consumption of a relatively small number of people who believe that everyone can be a “winner.”[12] Josh was in denial—and it was in Amway/World Wide’s interest to keep him that way.

The Power of Association

After a year in The Business, Josh and Jean were scarcely able to devote eight hours a week to distributing goods and showing The Plan—activities that required a good supply of prospects, customers, and downlines. They were desperate for new leads, also a scarce resource, and regularly alarmed me with proposals that we all go to some public place and mingle. Of course, that would have required overcoming shyness and other gag responses, impediments that Josh, Jean, and Sherri never really overcame (most of their leads seemed either to be family or, like me, coworkers.) They would, on the other hand, devote entire weekends to “recharging their batteries” at First and Second Looks, Seminars, Rallies, and Major Functions (Dream Night, Leadership Weekend, Family Reunion, Free Enterprise Day); meetings that required only insecurity and neediness, which all three had in spades.

Like alcoholics, wage junkies had to attend frequent meetings, supplemented with books and tapes, to keep on track.

These functions, all of which were sponsored by World Wide Dreambuilders, were rhetoric-fests where Amway’s self-help message was pushed to its logical addiction-recovery extreme—although with the roles curiously reversed. “J-O-B people,” meaning those who were not Amway-style entrepreneurs, were portrayed as the helpless addicts, hooked on the “immediate gratification” of a weekly paycheck. It was they who were in denial, telling themselves that they didn’t have a problem, that they were happy working all day for practically nothing. In contrast, the “delayed life” was a healthy process of withdrawal, of gradually replacing the “negatives” in your life (including non-Amway products) with “positives.” Most importantly, you learned to “dream” again, reconnecting with the inner child who, before the 9-to-5 beat it down, had fantasized about big houses and fast cars.[13]

The 12-step shtick was a ready justification for the cult-like regimen of World Wide followers. Like alcoholics, wage junkies had to attend frequent meetings, supplemented with books and tapes, to keep on track; they had to dissociate themselves from bad influences, i.e. “broke” friends and relatives who would try to keep them down; they had to follow “Eight Core Steps” (four of which involved buying stuff from either Amway or World Wide Dreambuilders); and they had to let go of their ego and overcome their fear of change, to open themselves to the counseling of their upline “sponsors.” Sponsoring, as in Alcoholics Anonymous, was an act of love and healing. Your uplines would never mislead you, even if their wisdom might seem strange to your still job-addled mind.

Whereas The Plan is supposed to provide a simple means to a desirable end, for Josh, Jean, and Sherri the process of recovery had become an end in itself. Josh and Jean would constantly tell me how World Wide’s books and advice had enriched their marriage and helped them to communicate with each other (the bolstering of marriage and family is a major theme in Amway). The Amway lore is also full of distributors, perhaps abused as children, who “couldn’t even look people in the eye” when they joined, but who were now confidently showing The Plan to all and sundry.

Dreambuilders’ impact on Sherri’s life was far less salutary. Its most tangible financial effect was the used car she had bought with Josh’s advice, which came complete with a weird smell and a glove compartment that didn’t close. But Sherri felt that she had undergone a profound psychic transformation. “Before Amway,” she would say, “I just wasn’t thinking!” Her new clarity made her scornful of mass pursuits: When the E2020 staff went to a Cubs game, she could hardly believe that people would waste their time that way. (Josh counseled her to just sit next to strangers and mingle.) Her “j-o-b,” even with a promotion to Internet Expert, certainly didn’t interest her anymore: She wanted to spend the whole day talking about The Business.[14] And she now regarded unambitious co-workers, family, and friends as, in Scott Coon’s words, “slugs.”

Her alienation didn’t stop with non-Amwayers. She was also bitterly resentful of “crosslines,” her Amway cousins who belonged to other downlines. As fellow unrecovered wage junkies, they were a potential reservoir of misinformation, discontent, and backsliding. Josh cautioned her against fraternizing: Polite small talk was O.K., but you shouldn’t, say, go to a movie with them (Amway lore is full of disaster stories about crosslines who carpool). But Sherri’s animus went further. Crosslines were her competition, soaking up prospects and “saturating” Chicago before she had a chance. She was incensed when they hogged seats at meetings, hysterical when they went Direct.

As her world shrunk, she immersed herself in World Wide culture. For entertainment, she listened to the motivational tapes, laughing and crying at the tales of hardship and triumph. She read the WWDB recommended books, memorizing snippets of Norman Vincent Peale and Psychocybernetics. She urged me, likewise, to move to the “next level”: to hook into Amvox voicemail (where I could listen to messages from my distant upline Greg Duncan courtside at Bulls-Magic games[15]); make plane and hotel reservations for the upcoming Family Reunion; and get on “standing order” to automatically receive six World Wide cassettes a month at six bucks a pop—which Josh claimed simply covered costs—presumably of meetings recorded onto very cheap tapes. (“I’d gladly pay more for them,” Josh insisted, “because they’re helping me to become financially liberated!”) Sherri told me, in hushed tones, that “Greg Duncan judges you more on the number of standing orders in your downline than on your PV!” I didn’t doubt it. The upper echelons of World-Wide and other groups rake in enormous profits from their speaking engagements and the sale of motivational materials. Dexter Yager, head of the Yager Group, is reputed to make more from his propaganda syndicate than from his actual Amway business.

While the whirlwind of meetings and events were great for cultivating denial, they seemed to do little to help distributors develop “strong and profitable businesses.” Nor were they much good for attracting new blood into The Business. With the exception of First Looks, their extreme cultishness was distinctly off-putting to newcomers. Still, Josh, Jean, and Sherri continued to make the mistake of indiscriminately taking prospects to whatever meeting was going on. Even a Second Look (described ominously as more “motivational” and less informational than a First Look) was inadvisable for outsiders, as Sherri discovered when she took her friend Elizabeth to one.

The car ride to the meeting went swimmingly. When Sherri mentioned job insecurity and the need to “diversify,” Elizabeth couldn’t have agreed more. When Sherri mentioned the time-money trap, Elizabeth knew just what she was talking about. A First Look might have had a real impact. She was clearly expecting some sort of business seminar. (Sherri hadn’t mentioned Amway and also cautioned me against doing so: “I’ve found that when I say ‘Amway,’ people get all … ” she said, miming “running-away-screaming.”) What Elizabeth got, however, was closer to a Pentecostal revival meeting. The featured speaker, Executive Diamond Brad Duncan (Greg’s younger brother), was more Billy Sunday than financial analyst; he yelled, joked, screamed, and sermonized past the audience at “sinners” who pretended they didn’t want to be rich and who dumped on anyone with ambition. He exhorted us to stop listening to our “broke” friends and relatives and allow ourselves to be influenced by successful millionaires: “I believe in the power of association!”

Brad spoke in parables: There was Brad’s father-in-law, who, upon being given a brand-new souped-up truck, sat down and wept. After a few years, the “newness wore off,” so Brad again bought him the latest model. And again his father-in-law sat down and wept. (Brad’s own fluid dynamics were more spectacular: When he first saw the jazzed-up truck, he admitted, “urine streamed down” his pant legs.)

I was sitting next to Elizabeth and couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. (True to form, Brad didn’t mention Amway for over an hour.) At first, she laughed and clapped with the rest of the audience; as the evening wore on, however, there was a lag. Her responses became more tentative as the crowd of hundreds became more wildly, foot-stompingly enthusiastic. Afterwards, she was dazed and hollow-eyed. In the parking lot, Josh, Jean, and Sherri encircled her, urging her to meet with them the next day to learn more about The Business. Cornered, she agreed. After a few minutes in the car with Sherri, however, she regained enough strength to put the meeting off to the indefinite future. (Months later, she was still on Josh’s “hopeful” list.)

Disappointments like this got Sherri down, and keeping her outlook positive was beginning to strain even World Wide Dreambuilders, LLC. At one First Look, Dave Duncan (Greg and Brad’s father, a straight-talkin’ Montanan who had given up a successful construction business to build dreams with Amway) reassured her with a timeline he drew on the eraser-board showing that you could make millions within ten years. Afterwards, however, during the mingling—while Dave warned a young couple that, sure, some brain surgeons did well, but only the ones at the top—Sherri started eyeing the evening’s hosts with despair. They were crosslines, Direct Distributors who had broken 7,500 PV with an all-out one-summer campaign. Sherri, almost beside herself, insisted that Josh, Jean, and I have a meeting to “figure out what we’re going to do. Because we’ve got to do something!”

Josh also showed signs of breakdown. After the presentation he took his customary position near the speaker, a hand-held recorder jutting provocatively from his hip; but because he wasn’t in Dave’s downline, he wouldn’t be able to accompany him to dinner. Josh claimed that it was at such dinners that speakers, unfettered by FTC restrictions, could reveal “the good stuff.” He proposed tailing Dave to the restaurant: “They couldn’t stop us, could they?” When Jean talked him out of this, he became desperate to simply “go somewhere and meet people.” Jean reminded him it was a school night for her. “Well, maybe we should talk to the hotel staff,” he suggested.

My uplines’ despair made me reluctant to add to their failure. But I had stayed in too long already. Having run out of other things to buy, I had resorted to subjecting my cat to Amway pet food. And I began to sense that when Josh and Sherri looked at me, they—in their last-ditch hopes—saw Diamonds. Before I disappeared from their lives, however, I accompanied them to one last Rally.

Rallies begin with a ritual called “crossing the stage,” in which distributors who have attained a new bonus level go up to receive their commemorative pin and shake hands with a Diamond. From the crowd of about five hundred, two couples “crossed” at the 1,000 PV level (the lowest warranting a pin) and received a standing ovation from the audience. From the stage, the host then called out all the levels from 1,500 PV to 7,500 PV. Nobody emerged from the audience—which, nonetheless, remained on its feet applauding. The host kept cajoling, “C’mon, there’s plenty of room up here,” as if it were shyness that was keeping people away. It was the archetypal Amway moment: a crowd giving a standing ovation to nobody.

The centerpiece of any Rally is the life-story told by the guest of honor, emphasizing the depths of his pre-Amway rut and his resurrection through The Business. That evening’s featured guest, Executive Diamond Bill Hawkins, however, was too arrogant even to feign the requisite humility in his testimonial. He had been great all his life: a talented musician in one of Minneapolis’s best bands, a brilliant school teacher, a voracious reader, a charming companion with hundreds of loyal friends, and an unbelievably prodigious drinker of beer (about which he was now “ashamed”). When he saw The Plan and realized that he was much smarter than the guy showing it, he knew that his ship had finally come in: Here, at last, was something that would adequately reward his greatness[16].

Bill was one of the two types you find in Amway: the talented mountebank who knew a good hunting ground when he saw one. Confident in his superiority, he didn’t need Amway to work for everybody, but didn’t shy away from pretending that it would. Josh, Jean, and Sherri, of course, represented the other type: the dupes.

To Bill, dupes would always be dupes, and he signaled his confidence in this by launching into a monologue that would have caused a scandal before a more critical audience. He told us, matter of factly, that World Wide had $8 million in assets, in which only those at the Diamond level had any equity; that the twenty World Widers who sat on its board frequently had food fights that splattered the HQ’s silk wallpaper; and that World Wide tapes are so bad that Bill himself would regularly throw them out his car window. In short, he was tossing us rope to hang him with, baldly acknowledging that World Wide was nothing but a support system for a bunch of fast-talkers who lived high on the hog by charging their bamboozled underlings outrageous prices for spurious advice. This was the most damning critique of Amway I had ever heard. Yet none of it mattered to the crowd; they seemed only to be dreaming of the fancy wallpaper that they might one day be able to soil.

He ended with a Wizard of Oz motif, reminding us to stay positive and focused: “You have to stick to that yellow brick road. Just like Dorothy. She followed it all the way to the Emerald City—and picked up three legs along the way! You know what? The Wizard of Oz is really an Amway movie!” The crowd erupted in laughter and cheers. In the midst of their long applause, they seemed to have forgotten what the Wizard turned out to be.

[1]The FTC’s ruling that Amway is not a pyramid scheme is based partly on the “70-10 Rule”: To qualify for Performance Bonuses based on downlines’ sales, an Amway distributor is required to sell, according to Amway’s Business Reference Manual, “at wholesale and for retail at least 70 percent of the total amount of products he bought during a given month”—this is supposed to prevent “inventory loading,” the forced purchase of unsalable merchandise. Amwayers are also required, for the Performance Bonus, to sell to at least ten retail customers in a given month, which ensures that real business is being conducted.

Both parts of the 70-10 Rule have major loopholes. According to the Business Reference Manual, “for purposes of [the 70 Percent Rule], products used for personal or family consumption or given out as samples are also considered as part of sales volume.” Thus, overbuying for “personal use” is not ruled out. As for the Ten-Customer Rule, the Manual states that the “distributor should not disclose the prices at which he or she made the ten retail sales.” This makes possible a practice alluded to by a World Wide speaker: giving Amway products away to ten people and calling them “retail sales.” He added that the income from the Performance Bonus made the giveaways well worth it.

The FTC also cites Amway’s “Buyback Rule” as a feature distiguishing the Business from a pyramid scheme. Distributors can return any “products, literature, or sales aids” for “whatever refund is agreed upon between the departing distributor and his or her sponsor.” The Manual adds this note: “To return Amway literature for credit or refund, the literature must be sent back in its original wrapping, unopened and unused.”

[2]Nowadays, nearly all Amwayers identify with a “distributor group.” Dream Night, in fact, was arranged not by Amway, but by World Wide Dreambuilders LLC, which is constituted by the downlines of Crown Ambassador Bill Britt. These groups, which do the heavy lifting of building and inspiring downlines, have no legal connection to Amway (as indicated by the disclaimers on the back of tickets for Dream Night and every other World Wide function I attended: “This event is produced and offered independently of Amway Corporation and has not been reviewed or endorsed by Amway”). The corporation uses the legal independence of distributor groups to its advantage. In a class-action lawsuit brought by former Amwayers charging Amway Corporation, World Wide head Bill Britt, and Dexter Yager with fraud and price-fixing, Amway claimed that it was itself, in effect, a victim of Britt and Yager’s tactics—and thus not liable. (The case has since been settled out of court.)

Having repudiated Britt and Yager, Amway promptly welcomed them back into the fold: Both recently made the cover of Amway’s in-house magazine, Amagram, and Yager received the Founders Distinguished Service Award.

[3]The names Sherri, Josh, and Jean are pseudonyms.

[4]As soon as they mention Amway, First Look speakers always hurry to dispel “myths” about The Business: that it’s a rinky-dink soap company, that it requires door-to-door sales, that it’s a pyramid scheme (if you do an organizational chart of a typical corporation, guess what, that looks like a pyramid too!), that you have to be a Christian to join (there’s nobody The Business wouldn’t accept), that it’s a crazy cult (Amway provides an opportunity to everybody, meaning that it inevitably lets in some bad apples who damage its reputation).

[5]This wasn’t exactly true: The bonus is calculated on the basis of sales of 100 “PV” a month; PV, or Point Value, is a play currency that converts to American legal tender at a rate of about 1 to 3.5. Each distributor in one’s pyramid would have to spend around $350 a month in real money to generate the $2,000 bonus.

[6]Once, when we had arrived at the wrong Holiday Inn for a World Wide meeting—right interstate, wrong unincorporated area—Josh wrung some victory out of defeat by coming up with a “great ice-breaker” to use on the lone airline pilot in the lobby: “You’re with United? You must be friendly!

[7]A “Direct Distributor” is one whose group does 7,500 PV or more in monthly sales (which is almost $25,000 a month in U.S. currency, a far more daunting figure which the artificial PV currency helps to disguise). Direct Distributors are entitled to order directly from Amway without going through their upline sponsor, as the lower ranks must do. Once you are a Direct Distributor, your group is no longer nested in your sponsor’s. From then on your sponsor gets only a straight 4 percent cut (the “Leadership Bonus”) of your group’s sales. You accrue more bonuses by lining up DDs under your direct sponsorship: six DDs make you a Diamond, twelve a Double Diamond, twenty a Crown Ambassador.

[8]To be fair, the Amagram occasionally has a “Catalog Sale” section, where a handful of items are offered at discounts.

[9]The Amway Business Reference Manual itself gives the lie to the 30 percent figure. It calculates the Basic Discount by subtracting a product’s wholesale distributor cost from the suggested retail price (both denominated in dollars) and then dividing them by the BV price, which is set by Amway for each product but which is usually smaller than the U.S. dollar price. If the calculation is done solely in dollars, the Basic Discount shrinks to about 17 percent. And when I did a real price comparison, that 17 percent came down to about 4 percent.

[10]Not that there aren’t limits. The food in Amway leans heavily toward the pricey, overpackaged “meal kit” and portable “nutrition bar.” Woe to those who try to buy a bag of rice through The Business—not to mention fresh produce or meat, though you can have frozen steaks air-mailed to you.

[11]At the top, the multi-multi’s seem to attain a Zen of conspicuous consumption. Brad Duncan, brother of the great Double Diamond Greg Duncan, described seeing a dusty Rolls Royce among the many cars in the garage of his upline mentor, Ron Puryear; when he asked what he paid for it, Ron answered, “I don’t know. Whatever the sticker price was.” Brad took him to task for this, until Ron lectured: “That dealership is somebody’s livelihood—somebody with a family. I’m not so hard up that I need to haggle the food out of a child’s mouth.” Brad was chastened, realizing that only small minds pay attention to sticker prices.

[12]Amway gives some idea of real chances for success in its “Amway Business Review” pamphlet, which the FTC requires it provide to all prospects. The “Business Review” is an ingenious mixture of mandated honesty and obfuscatory spin: The average monthly gross income for “active” distributors, for instance, is revealed to be a meager $65 a month; but the “Review” leaves out the median income and the net profit, both of which would probably be negative. Likewise, it states that “2 percent of all ‘active’ distributors who sponsor others and approximately 1 percent of all ‘active’ distributors met Direct Distributor qualification requirements during the survey period.” From this, it derives the optimistic conclusion that “once again, the survey demonstrates a substantial increase in achievement for those who share the business with others.” Increase implies that there are some non-sharing distributors who succeed; an alternate reading of the statistics would be that all distributors try to share, none succeed without sharing, but only half are able to share. It’s also a measure of Amway’s PR savvy that every article I’ve seen (even the critical ones) that mentions the number of Directs uses the 2 percent, rather than the more accurate 1 percent, figure.

[13]The recovery slant also solves a troubling logical conundrum for Amwayers. On the one hand, Amwayers are utterly dependent on job holders—not only to manufacture and transport their products, but to provide them with clerical assistance when they’re Diamonds (Greg Duncan boasted of the size of his staff, which does his actual distribution work) and, above all, make their millions worth something in the outside economy. But on the other hand, Amway is supposed to offer a sure-fire alternative to wage labor. What will keep all of the essential workers from becoming distributors? The answer lies in weakness of the flesh: Just as there will always be alcoholics, junkies, and overeaters, so there will always be many people without the resolve or courage to join Amway.

[14]I got the impression that she was becoming a laughingstock at work, an experience common enough to have spawned a whole genre of revenge fantasies in the Amway lore. Speakers always describe the retirement party you’ll be able to throw for yourself, complete with fireworks, to really stick it to the naysayers who once laughed at you. They also describe the houses and vacations you’ll give to your parents, who’ll finally realize how wrong they were about The Business. The yearning to save face—especially with people you urged to join Amway—seems to be a major factor keeping people in.

[15]Rich DeVos owns the Orlando Magic basketball team, which allows Amway to use Shaquille O’Neal’s name for their “Shaq Bars,” treats which taste like chaff stuck together with heavy-duty honey-flavored adhesive. When I reluctantly ate one at a meeting, a passing World Wider commented, “I love those. You need to eat them with a lot of water, though.”

[16]His tedious auto-encomium was enlivened only by occasional, chilling anecdotes of violence: His mother hit him as a child until, old and strong enough, he could credibly threaten to hit her back; his frat brothers, drunken and rambunctious, tried to shave his head one night, whereupon he barricaded himself in his room, audibly cocked a semiautomatic shotgun, and threatened to kill them; and his family needled him about Amway until, one Thanksgiving, he jumped up and shouted, “I don’t dump on what you do, and if you keep dumping on what I do, I’ll take you outside and knock your block off; and if you’re a woman, I don’t know what I’ll do!”

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Further Reading

 November 9

There was no quibbling over what item on the menu might be more digestible---Virginia voters just carted off the whole buffet.

 November 10

Yesterday’s twin reports on Roy Moore and Louis CK remind us that sexual assault and women’s inequality are still everyone’s problem.