Scams in Zion, Part II: MLMs and Utah Socio-Religious Elites

It’s sort of an open secret that Utah has a pyramid scheme multilevel marketing problem. MLMs prey on financially vulnerable people and get them to weaken their personal connections–the most important thing in life and during a time when such precious connections are in increasingly short supply–for very little money, and some MLMs layer dubious, snake-oil type medical claims on top of their immoral distribution approach. It’s nauseating on so many levels. 

While I have no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom of Utah having a lot of MLMs, I decided to back-of-the-envelope quantify it. We don’t have access to the internal “independent distributor” numbers, but we can look at how many of the large MLMs are based out of Utah. I looked at the 75 MLMs listed in Wikipedia (I know, I know, but for stuff like this Wikipedia is usually pretty good, and I figured that being listed in Wikipedia was a basic threshold for size and importance). Of the 75 listed, 12 of them are from Utah or are clearly LDS connected (e.g. LuLaRoe), or 16%.

Given that Utah and Latter-day Saints are both about 1% of the US population each (with a lot of overlap, obviously), we are very overrepresented.  

So yes, we have a problem. Also, I’m aware, as I’ve said many times, that Utah does not equal the Church, but it’s harder to argue against some underlying connection with Utah-Church culture when a lot of these MLM executives hold leadership positions in the Church (and many of them donate generously to signature Utah institutions, which is probably one major reason why it’s gentile late night talk show hosts that have to call us out on this and say what a lot of Utah’s social elites know but won’t say). 

. From some cursory Googling around:

  • Of the seven listed founders of DoTerra, an essential oil company whose representatives have claimed that its products can cure Ebola, two of them have served as mission presidents. 
  • The founder of Morinda (AKA Tahitian Noni), a company that sells what’s basically a normal fruit juice as some kind of super curative (and for which they have been sued by multiple Attorneys General), served as a mission president (personal aside, I served under him for one transfer while waiting for my visa to Spain. He seemed like a sincerely spiritual man, and I don’t know whether he actually believed in the snake oil product his company was selling or whether he, like many good people, had figured out a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance). 
  • Of the founders of NuSkin, another company that is no stranger to unsavory business practices, lawsuits, and investigations, one is now an auxiliary general authority and one served as a mission president. 

Yes, I get it that rich people know how to run a meeting, and to some extent I get putting them in managerial positions, but can we draw the line at the pyramid schemes? This is a very uncomfortable point for me to make, as readers of the blog know that I am not a bomb thrower, and am extremely reticent to appear to be telling the Church what to do, but the intertwining of social and financial status with church status is battery acid on any religious institution (just ask the Catholic Church), and especially so when that financial status was gained from an industry that is so patently immoral. I don’t want to overdo this: one general authority and several mission presidents is a drop in the leadership bucket, but Utah’s (and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’) MLM problem in general is symptomatic of a toxic layer of manipulative prosperity gospel built around parasitic, ill-gotten gains. 

36 comments for “Scams in Zion, Part II: MLMs and Utah Socio-Religious Elites

  1. Thank you for this great post! MLM’s are fundamentally against God’s eternal will in that they trade relationships for profits. That said, they still are “good” and within God’s temporal will in that they teach the world this. Using independent distributors is a very viable business model, but it does not have to be an MLM. I have started a new independent distributor enterprise with no levels at all, the profits, if any, are shared with all according to their contributions and the product line is a single product, a shirt with a gospel message, And the first shirt is free to each household.

  2. I have a theory about why MLM’s thrive in Latter-day Saint social networks. I believe the strong social pressure for women to be stay at home mothers and the explicit teaching that women should aspire to this creates an army of young mothers who are very vulnerable to MLM’s. They can work flexible hours! They can be with their children! They can make passive income which will allow them financial freedom and the ability to focus more attention on decorating their McMansion! I believe many women have underinvested in their own educational and professional development because of the messages they receive that doing so is selfish and worldly and they need to exercise faith and focus on nurturing others instead.

  3. @ E: And in turn stay-at-home mothers feel societal pressure to enter the labor market because late-stage capitalism has hoodwinked men and women into thinking that working in a cubicle is more meaningful than spending time with your kids. I suspect stay-at-home parenting is less a lifestyle choice imposed by the patriarchy and more an economically reasonable decision given child number and what stage they are in.

    But yes, without going too far down the mommy-wars rabbit hole, I agree that all parents should develop a marketable skill either in high school or thereafter (which excludes about half of college majors) so that they have more autonomy and are less vulnerable to abusive spouses, MLM scams, severe poverty, etc. Many of those marketable skills have some of the same benefits that MLMs supposedly give, so I agree, more female education does seem like a solution to this problem.

  4. I think the market would have adjusted had the world followed President Benson’s counsel. A simplistic idea, I know. But here we are.

  5. Then there are missionaries (like one of my companions) who are already involved with MLMs before their missions, and help the local members with their forays in them. (How my mission president approved that, I don’t know.)

  6. John, I think that any involvement in a MLM may permanently warp a person, so maybe the mission president is one of those people?

  7. @ John: I did look at Isagenix. As you note, they were in in a Mormony area of Arizona, so I had an inkling, but I couldn’t find any explicit Latter-day Saint connection in my 30 seconds of Googling around, so I put them in the “other” category.

  8. I really hate to say this (because I hate MLMs about as much as Stephen C does) but some of the skills you learn as a missionary carry over to multi-level marketing. That probably explains a good bit of MLM’s popularity among members.

    And I think E has identified another big factor. I’d put more of the blame than Stephen C does on late stage capitalism requiring a good bit of luck to be able to support a family on a single income, but I think we’re all in agreement on the solutions.

  9. @ RLD: Yeah, I remember thinking on the mission that the scripture studying, teaching in a foreign language, developing the toughness to be able to walk long distances, etc., would mean that we as RMs would have an advantage in the high-level job market afterwards, and there might be some of that, but I remember being quite disappointed when I realized that the main carryover seemed to be from mission to MLMs or pest control sales.

  10. I find It interesting that they no longer mention occupations when they announce new MPs. They still do for SP. maybe they don’t like the unsavory connections?

  11. @SCW: I don’t think it’s that. Of the perhaps thousand or so mission presidents who served during the past decade, I could only find a few with MLM connections. Rather, as I’ve discussed before (, I think the difference is due to the awkwardness of juxtaposing the husband with the mission matron’s professional accolades, since that opens up a whole can of “mommy wars” worms that I think the Church would rather not get into.

  12. It’s embarrassing that our culture has produced so many MLMs. Why couldn’t we be more like the Lutherans in Minnesota! It’s crazy the number of respectable fortune 500 companies and other great organizations that originated from that area: Target, Best Buy, General Mills, Hormel, Polaris, 3M, Cargill, US Bank, Eco Labs, Mayo Clinic, (Won’t mention the Vikings in this list though). Certainly there are other factors involved, but it’s interesting to think about the role that religion played in shaping that states economy.

  13. My parent-in-laws lost a bundle in the Grant Affleck scam back in the 1980’s. One of the things they were told was that Paul H. Dunn was supporting it. So, what could go wrong…

  14. I think that with some MLM distributors being their own business, with limited regulation then often the Corporate heirarchy struggle to control what they say and how they present products, which inevitably leads to all kinds of wonderful claims!

  15. @ Rick: I had never heard of Grant Affleck, so I looked it up, and it does look like Paul Dunn was indeed an executive at the company:

    @Errol: Yeah, but I think some of that is plausible deniability–the corporate hierarchy is the one providing the pressure and lack of oversight and rules about those claims–they know what they’re doing.

  16. I have often challenged Stephen C’s articles from the cheap seats based on my lived experience. While I haven’t always agreed with what he writes, Stephen has been kind in his responses. Thanks.

    Here we find common ground. I’m looking forward to Part III.

  17. When I attended BYU in the 80s I remember Paul Dunn attending the grand opening of a car repair business to meet, greet and sign autographs. A different time!

  18. @RLD, while I agree that there are superficial similarities between summer sales and missionary work (e.g. grinding out door-to-door tracting in the face of constant rejection), ultimately I maintain they are still polar opposites: missionary work can be accomplished “only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned”, while summer sales is exclusively reliant of fear-based hard-sell techniques, two-faced, smooth-talk, and flagrant dishonesty.

    I sadly have some experience in this; at the risk of self-promotion, I once wrote an article documenting my own soul-crushing experience with summer sales (which in their recruiting practices are very similar to MLMs):

    For what it’s worth, I argue that it’s Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic run amok, paired with gross misreadings of scriptures like Abraham 3, 2 Nephi 25, Jacob 2, Alma 1, and D&C 131, that allow far too many Latter-day Saints to rationalize their involvement in such self-evidently shady enterprises.

  19. @J “When I attended BYU in the 80s I remember Paul Dunn attending the grand opening of a car repair business to meet, greet and sign autographs. A different time!”

    When I was younger, I remember President Monson cutting the ribbon to a high-end shopping mall and saying “Let’s go shopping!”

    I don’t think times have really changed that much. iFit and Gary Stevenson.

  20. JLB, exactly summer sales are just as slimey.

    “iFit and Gary Stevenson.”

    Was there anything slimey about selling treadmills?

  21. JLB, nothing simly about selling tread mills. I’m referencing the unusual treatment of his being allowed continued engagement with the company after still being set apart as a Q12.

  22. @ JLB: That’s an excellent essay; you said a lot of what I was thinking but couldn’t quite articulate.

    @Brian: I haven’t ever seen a solid source for the “let’s go shopping” story; the best I can see is an article suggesting that it was the CEO that started the chant, and maybe Pres. Monson joined? ( Whatever the case, if he said it I get the sense it was kind of what people were doing so he joined in (even if it was ill-advised to do so) more than a conscious attempt to lend his spiritual authority to getting people to shop.

    A lot of people’s involvement with a corporation or NGO consists of being on their board and attending 1 or 2 meetings a year. If that’s what Elder Stevenson is doing I’m fine with that level of engagement personally. If he’s still hands-on, actively involved in the operations of the company, or he’s leveraging his spiritual position to help his corporation, then I agree that would be a problem, but I suspect it’s the former.

    Jonathon: Yes, much of this is at Senator Hatch’s door; he was the one who opened up the way for “supplements” to not have to pass the same scrutiny that drugs do, so they can make all sorts of unsupported claims.

  23. @Stephen, I understand that President Monson and at least several other Q12 on the stage, holding the ribbon, while someone else actually cuts the ribbon and leads the chant may not literally be him cutting the ribbon and leading the chant, but to suggest that it was “kind of what people were doing so he joined in . . . [and less] a conscious attempt to lend his spiritual authority to getting people to shop,” seems to me to be a bit of a stretch. I mean, if you’re there and have funded it then, whether or not your intending to “lend your spiritual authority’ to the ceremony is not really in question. You want it to survive, and to survive you want people to shop there. So, yeah, the prophet wants people to shop there.

    The Stevenson remark is in relation to the socio-religious elite and how their position can often mix with their business dealings. My comment was in response to the comment earlier in the thread mentioning Paul H Dunn, a not irrelevant, supplemental point of information.

    I’m not looking to split hairs here. I was just adding more data points. The Church and church culture has a problem (at least a PR problem, but I’d argue a bit more than that) with its connection to money, which we could talk about that all day. I, like Chadwick, I’m impressed that you are addressing some of those concerns even though it’s not your usual temperament to do so.

  24. I guess the tpe of position in the company may matter…beaides leader. If they were the CEO or sales leaders that is one thing but if they were an in-house attorney or CFO…I see it as something else.

  25. There are other dilemmas, relatively unknown to younger members. I’ve read several account of how the church got involved in saving elder Ballard from a failed real estate deal in the Salt Lake area decades ago. Perhaps saving the reputation of one of the 12 was the primary motive. Would that we all had such safety nets.

  26. I always thought the MLM prevalence in Mormon communities was the stake directory. You had contact info for these people in your community that you wouldn’t have had if your community wasn’t a ward or a stake with a directory. Wards are wonderful for providing the network of support that parents need when raising kids, that neighbors need when someone needs help, that make it easy to invite people to a bbq or organize a play group or invite kids to a party. My Facebook is filled with mostly extended family and current or former members of my ward, so again that Mormon community means that shady (or naive) people can easily reach out.

    I still laugh remembering that while in a married BYU student ward in the 90s, Bro So and So called me up and asked to come see my husband and me on Thursday night. After I hung up I told my husband that we were either getting a calling or getting recruited by Amway people. I really had no idea which it was!!! Amway was big enough at that time that I had had to get out of Amway pushing conversations at work or by casual friends more than once.

    BTW, it was a calling to nursery for both of us. I laughed really hard. I told the guy that maybe next time he could add “Bro So and So from the bishopric” because I really hadn’t known who he was and what he might be coming over to discuss with us, but I was very glad he wasn’t with Amway.

  27. I’m surprised no one has mentioned that Elder Anderson was a higher-up with Amway before being called as a mission president and then GA. My son’s current mission president was a NuSkin exec.

    Me? I’m a lawyer, and grateful for all the MLM execs in the church because I won’t be the very last one called at the Saviors return.

  28. As soon as we returned from honeymoon our stake high counselman arranged a meeting to recruit us to Amway. we just about owned the clothes we stood in. Fortunately we could see how little we would get from it within our cultural setup but it was hard to say no to such an authority figure for us at the time.

  29. The area where I live has a different kind of grifter that is prominent among local church leadership – executives and “founders” (i.e. owners) of charter schools. The grift is that the school itself has fully disclosed financials, so things like custodial services, cafeteria workers, and even the construction companies that build and upgrade campuses are outsourced to wholly owned (usually by the school founder) “management service providers”. Basically a way to funnel a significant amount of state revenue into an entity that has no public disclosure.

    In other words, how to run a state-funded service and yet pay yourself exorbitantly. Hard to sustain people as church leaders when this is their weekday grind.

  30. It was Amway when we were newly married. Someone dropped off some promotional materials (video tape, pamphlets, etc.) with a note saying we might be interested. I had my suspicions about who dropped them off, but decided to just throw them away. Sure enough, a week later our hometeachers came by to see what we thought of their “gift”. They were disappointed that we hadn’t watched the video, and borderline angry that I had thrown them away (they wanted it back). We started realizing just how corrupted our Ward had become when, the next month, at least half of the Ward was missing on Sunday (all of the Bishopric and their families, as well as most of the other prominent families). The new EQ President conducted that week. We were dumbfounded that people kept referencing how so many people had gone on vacation to St. George (in August!). I later heard about the huge Amway convention in St. George that weekend. I also learned that our hometeachers, who were quickly reassigned after our first hometeaching visit, were consistently assigned to new move-ins. They were the recruiting arm of the enterprise. The past Bishop was the tip of the local pyramid, with the current Bishop right under him, and down the line through his counselors, etc. Very disturbing, but it did explain why we were never fully accepted into the Ward.

  31. Unfortunately, all I have is personal knowledge and hearsay. My parents grew up with his wife, Kathy, near Tampa. The Anderson’s lived in the Tampa area in the early 80s and were in the same ward as my family part of that time. I was very young but my parents knew them well and said he was known to be doing very well financially with Amway when the call to serve in France came. It was never a dig on Amway; just an example of an opportunity given up to answer a call.

  32. A daughter of one of the doTERRA founders was in our ward. She was wacky divorced her husband because she didn’t want kids. They had three. He had custody and one day she changed her mind. Took off with the kids went to Europe and her parents gave her money through friends. FBI, state department and others were involved. This went on for years. Just about crushed the poor father.

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