It seems that I’m late to the shit-on-Mary Kay party. The Mary Kay problem goes all the way back to 1963. For anyone not currently up to speed, I’ll give you the short version: There’s a makeup and skin care company that found its way around some legal loopholes (it’s structured like a pyramid scheme, but calls itself something different) by recruiting individuals to buy their products out of pocket, sell those products to their friends and then recruit those friends.In the August 2012 issue of Harper’s magazine, journalist Virginia Sole-Smith published an article on Mary Kay Cosmetics that brought to light the many problems central to the company’s bone structure, and others like it. It’s titled, “The Pink Pyramid Scheme: How Mary Kay Cosmetics preys on Desperate housewives.” The pitch goes something like this: Come work for us and you will earn a ton of money making a real difference in women’s lives.
They leave out the part where you make most of your money by recruiting other women to sell for Mary Kay, and if you don’t sell the stock you purchased from them, that sucks to be you.
Did you know that there’s an entire website dedicated to the dismantling of the company? Pinktruth.com was started in July of 2006, and was originally called “Mary Kay Sucks.” The website is a treasure trove of pyramid scheme horror stories. Multilevel marketing experts Robert FitzPatrick and Jon Taylor found in two separate studies that 99% of distributors in most multilevel marketing companies lose money, and earn on average less than $13 a week in commission income.
One day, I received a voicemail from a very energetic woman who told me she got my phone number from a very good friend of mine who recently spent some money on her products, and so she was given two free facials to give out, and she gave one to me.
I knew this girl would never have given my number out to anyone that was trying to scam me, so I trusted this caller (this caller also happened to be a teacher at my old grade school). She offered me and a friend a free facial and then asked me to model for her so she could practice one of her makeup looks. She pitched it like a buy two get one free deal (I was the “get one free” part). She was incredibly nice, and it seemed legit. What did I know?
So, I went and I took my sister with me.
The facial she promised was a product sampling tested on a plastic plate in her kitchen. She haggled her product for nearly two hours while my sister and I hurried along the experience, eager to get out and go home. I was furious that she stole an afternoon I had designated to spend with my family, for the sole purpose of selling product she had us put on ourselves. I can go to Sephora and have product applied for free and not feel pressured to buy anything. To top it all off, she tried to recruit me with constant follow-up calls and texts. It was after this experience that I began digging.
The products aren’t bad–in fact I really liked a few. It’s a shame Mary Kay has reduced themselves to this manner of selling. Their business model, in which a few people at the top earn real money while everyone else pays to pander the products, is so problematic. I don’t know how in today’s America, where the government is so overstretched, the Federal Trade Commission hasn’t stepped in. Still, the company isn’t violating the law by using their consultants to lure in customers with watered down lies that are just true enough to not break false advertising laws.
Smith puts it like this:
“The Federal Trade Commission distinguishes between recruiting salespeople to sell a product, which is perfectly legal, and making money through ‘fees for participation,’ which isn’t. What constitutes a fee is, of course, vague, but the FTC has charged some multilevel-marketing companies with employing pyramid schemes. In those cases, the majority of sales occurred between company and salespeople; the retail products were essentially decoys. The FTC has never taken action against Mary Kay, and an agency spokesperson told me that he was ‘unable to confirm or deny’ whether the company had ever been investigated.”
It really shouldn’t be up to the law. It never was, not in this country anyway. It is up to the consumer. Any business with a customer base will find a way to thrive, new ways if necessary.
I won’t tell you not to buy from or sell for Mary Kay. I also won’t tell you not to try crystal meth or gamble your life savings away, but you probably shouldn’t do those things either. Kidding. (Stay in school, kids.) Just make sure you understand the business before you buy in, and keep it in mind the next time you open a voicemail from a Mary Kay beauty consultant.
Feature image courtesy of Dmitri Popov via stocksnap.io