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I infiltrated a legalized pyramid scheme: part two

Is Amway a cult?

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Last fall, I took a dive into the recruitment process of World Wide Group, an offshoot of the multi-level marketing giant, Amway. Among the myriad insults and insinuations I leveled toward the group (and some unprovoked, albeit deserved, digs at LinkedIn), the one which has haunted my intellectual curiosities is calling step three of the process: “[...] a meeting for a Republican cult.

I am by no means the first person to make a comparison like that. Over the course of its 59-year history, numerousbooks and articles have been published accusing Amway of cult-like practices. Even the accounts given to me by local Seattleites and UW alums for my previous piece compared Amway’s atmosphere to a cult. But what is a cult?

“In terms of academic research, people tend to look at cults as being primarily organized around some sort of religious belief, or some belief in something that is eschatological or supernatural,” James Long, an assistant professor of political science at the UW who teaches a class that covers the topic of cults, said.

Cults are also generally built on ideas that generally don’t agree with, if not outright contradict, societal norms and expectations. For example, the United States accepts the Abrahamic traditions (in varying degrees) as normal and mainstream, but Scientology rides a thin, fine line.

Ideologically speaking, it’s difficult to classify Amway as a cult within this framework. Although Amway’s promises of enormous financial success are certainly distorted, they’re not supernatural as much as they are unrealistic. And the rhetoric used by their representatives fits right at home with the GOP’s bootstrap doctrine.

Even still, it’s a very tenuous and arbitrary distinction in light of Amway’s actual business practices. In order to rise through their ranks and turn a greater profit, Amway recruits who have formed their own businesses are expected to bring in six “legs” under them who form their own Independent Business Organizations (IBOs), who will in turn bring in six more recruits and so on.

Mathematically, by the 13th cycle of this process, you’ll have exceeded the world population. Logistically, this means that every person you see — be it at home, school, work, or on the street — is a potential recruit. Given Amway’s penchant for saying that everyone who rejects them is, to some degree, a failure of a person, this can therefore wind up being a very alienating road to go down.

It’s telling that Amway actively dictates to its recruiters not to name the company until they can get their candidates to stage three in the process. These gatherings are raucous, high-energy events centering around charismatic speakers who spend the majority of their allotted time taking jabs at corporate life and bragging about their miraculous wealth.

It’s only at the end of the night that the speaker reveals they owe everything about the person they are today and the success they enjoy to Amway or its offshoots — a name almost synonymous with shady business practices and multi-million dollar lawsuits.

Once you’re actually brought into Amway as an IBO, the odds of getting enough people to buy enough Amway products and recruit enough new members to actually turn a profit are astronomical. Yet the company still pushes them to keep buying product, to keep maintaining their business, all in a vain pursuit of fantastical wealth that only the top few will share.

Much like any organization, cults appeal to people because they fill a need that isn’t being met. But where something like religion is highly personal (if externally influenced), a cult relies on dominating the minds of its members through whatever deceptive means necessary, often in order to accrue power.

Amway may not be a cult in the fundamentalist-religious sense, but it’s eerie how much it acts like one — and we are nothing if not our actions.


Reach writer Shahbaz Khan at Twitter: @JadeMoonSpeaks

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