Social media is hating on the MLM ‘huns’ who shill for multi-level marketing schemes — but the outrage is missing the real scammers

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The outrage misses the real scammers

After leaving the workforce to raise her five children, Emily Paulson found herself feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and lonely. So when a high-school friend reached out to invite her to a beauty event at a nearby bar, the promise of a night out was enough to convince her to go. “I was like, sign me up, whatever. I don’t care what you’re selling or what we’re doing,” she said.

At the end of that night in 2014, Paulson, now a 44-year-old sobriety coach and author who lives in Oregon, walked away with an armload of beauty products for herself and an “initial business kit,” which contained skincare products to sell to others. The $1,000 kit, the most expensive one offered that evening, was Paulson’s entryway into a new community that would come to dominate her life. She had been sucked into a multilevel-marketing scheme.

“From the outside, it seemed to check all the boxes,” she told me. “There was a community connected with it, there was a potential to earn income from it, and it seemed very possible and lucrative.”

Paulson was involved with the MLM company for six years. Her earnings peaked in late 2017, when she was making about $40,000 a month. But the money she made wasn’t from selling skincare products. Most of her income came from recruiting other people to join the group — who then recruited even more people. “The products are just really kind of the way to get people in,” she said.

Over the past few years, MLM companies have been under increased scrutiny. Critical documentaries have highlighted the industry’s most predatory practices. Social media is flooded with MLM “horror stories,” while others have flocked to the antiMLM subreddit, a group with over 800,000 members that markets itself as a community designed to “stop MLM schemes from draining your friends dry.”

Anti-MLM groups often focus on the people selling the products — 76% of whom are women — calling them “huns” in reference to the way sellers often start their reach out messages with “Hey, hun.” But while lambasting the people shilling products with formulaic and intrusive messages can feel cathartic, the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the salespeople: MLMs thrive by targeting people who are seeking a community and economic stability. Instead of blaming or ridiculing the women who are lured in by a chance to gain a stronger financial footing, the ire should be directed at the companies built around exploiting an economic system that undervalues women’s work.

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