Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Great Pyramid

Only once in my longish life have I ever been an unwitting, unwilling guest at a "party" which turned out to be an evening of what is euphemistically called "relationship marketing." I was in graduate school at the time, and in the housing block where I lived was a neighbor clearly in need of funds to float himself and his family through his own graduate student career. He had been persuaded by some demimondiale shill to market cookware, and duly invited all the neighbors over for a "presentation" which would launch his marketing career and his inevitable arc to prosperity. The only thing that saw me civilly through the evening was a serial martini - "just the one," you understand. I recall that I bought something as a courtesy, to assist the poor sod's domestic economy. I still have it.
This was in the late 1960s, at a time when Tupperware was an ascendant brand in distributed marketing and a nearly ubiquitous domestic necessity. The Tupperware "party" was a notorious mid-century bore which promoted hygienic kitchen storage, allowed housebound wives to even social scores, and compelled grudging displays of jollity and whatever is the feminine version of bonhomie. It was the social equivalent of the one-dish Campbell soup casserole - bland, anodyne, omnipresent, utterly American, with Jell-o for dessert. Back then no one except Mrs. Madoff had ever heard of Bernie.

"No, the %&#@%$ Jell-o mold is mine!"

Even now, the possibility of being invited to a putatively social evening in which friendships and casual acquaintances show up as unwitting "marketing opportunities" is still a real danger. Multi-level sales careers are available in every imagineable commodity, from annuities to nutritional supplements, household cleaners, goji berry juice, Siberian ginseng, vitamins, health and beauty products, energy drinks, greeting cards, kitchenware, Japanese cutlery - you name it, there's a pyramid you can crawl to the bottom of.

Plenty of room under there

But the old pyramid selling scheme has undergone layers of sophistication since those days - it's now called "multi-level marketing," its proponents and practitioners the same graduate students of bygone days who were once looking only to pay the bills. Except now they've grown into aging, gray-headed, pudgy retirees who want to change their lives. It's no longer so much about the money as it is about the illusion of self-employment and self-determination. After nearly a half-century as a building contractor or an insurance agent or a stockbroker or real estate developer, the chance to do something besides porn surfing from your dining room table on your own computer, and make loads of money in the bargain, is irresistible.

"Mommy, are we genetically modified?"

More than that, the income the hopeful will realize from their new way of life is referred to in the biz as "passive income," itself a kind of meta-marketing phrase which conjures in the jaded mind (mine, at any rate) images of anyone willing to assume a reclining position in order to make a few bucks. The internet is awash in sites that promise this sort of easy money. Nowadays, though, pyramid selling is no longer only about the money you'll make so much as the personal transformation you'll experience - a new direction, a new career, new Facebook friends, new goals to meet, a brand new life to live. It may even breathe new life into a languishing marriage. . .

"No, seriously - you're gonna love this idea."

The success of multi-level marketing still lies in building the levels - the more layers of sellers, the more money gets to the top of the heap, the more success stories to swap at training seminars, the greater the pressure to add more levels and go to more seminars. But the pitch is no longer about the money, it's about the personal transformation on offer to anyone who gets into the game. It's the Arcadian dream, deciding abruptly to quit everything, live off the grid and do subsistence farming - only easier. And the marketing possibilities are limitless.

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