I’m used to pretty Instagram people hawking all sorts of things that will never, ever make my face more symmetrical—but what’s the deal with the recent trend of influencers selling shady financial products?
This week’s question comes from Patreon Donor Mara. Their question prompted a lot of deep thought about the aspirational nature of wealth and our complicity in that paradigm. It’s self-recriminatory af. You’re gonna love it.
I’m writing to ask if you guys had any thoughts on all these Personal Finance Flavored MLMs that are popping up like crazy on social media.
I work in the entertainment industry. Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of young actors are selling “classes” and the like on their Instagram pages. It seems like they really target young artists/musicians/models and tell them that selling Forex or Bitcoin is the key to intergenerational wealth and stability.
It seems super sketchy and predatory to me, but I would love y’alls thoughts.– Patron Mara
Wait. Have we truly never talked about this?! How is this possible?
Okay, clearly we need to make that right—please expect a deeper dive on MLM in the future. For now, let’s keep it quick and dirty.
All you really need to know is that MLMs are life-ruining scams run by soulless, scum-sucking bottom feeders, kept alive on a steady diet of misplaced hopes and dreams from sad dupes you went to high school with who suddenly wanna “reconnect” and get you involved in their exciting new “business opportunity.” FML.
Sounds like a pyramid scheme…
But here’s a moar properer definition: multi-level marketing (also “network marketing,” “direct sales,” or “network sales”) is an unstable, predatory business model where a few people at the top of the company take money from a lot of people at the bottom of the company. They support themselves by pressuring their members to vampiristically infect new rubes for unsustainable, empty growth.
Like one of those good Christian gals who clings to the technicality of her virginity by limiting herself to premarital *anal* intercourse, these companies narrowly avoid the definition of an illegal pyramid scheme by throwing in some kind of merchandise. Shitty makeup (Avon), worthless nutritional supplements (Herbalife), and random overpriced knickknacks (Amway) are popular choices. It’s crap, but it’s real crap!
They sucker desperate people into buying the crap, but the real financial titty-twister is the host of expensive courses and classes and conferences and guides on how to resell the crap. It’s all centered on recruiting more and more people into the
John Oliver has an excellent longer overview, for any interested parties.
So what are these MLMs peddling shady financial products?
There are some big financial services companies that fit the textbook definition of an MLM. Primerica, Transamerica, World Financial Group, and Xifra are among them.
But overall, the more popular breed is exactly what Mara describes: budding “investment gurus” selling financial education of dubious origin and quality. They’re pretty easy to spot.
Tell-tale signs of a financial MLM
- Influencers are fresh-faced smoke shows.
- Always seem to be lounging beside a pool, leaning against a nice car, or tapping thoughtfully at a laptop in the lobby of a very swanky hotel. (It is unclear how they got to those places, or if they actually own any of those things.)
- They’re selling courses on vague topics involving personal finance, investing, and entrepreneurship.
- They use a lot of the same aspirational, goal-oriented language employed by MLMs about “becoming your own boss” or “finally taking control of your life.”
- They make it sound like whatever they’re doing is a wonderful, accessible secret shortcut to wealth.
- Top comments are from clumsy, obviously inauthentic bot accounts citing insane ROIs and praising their amazing investment know-how.
- The hashtags probably include some combination #bitcoin, #cryptocurrency, #forex, #daytrading, #digitalcurrency, #investor, and DEFINITELY #girlboss. (Also big fans of adding -life and -lifestyle to the end of all their hashtags.)
What are these?
I’m actually pretty interested to know. Thanks to our Patreon donors, we have a small budget set aside for research. I considered using it to explore the upper warren of the rabbit hole. But I ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it to perpetuate the practice, and potentially invite a dogpile on just one influencer when it’s truly an endemic problem.
… Plus we recently used our research budget to buy the most expensive AND disgusting Oreo knock-offs known to mankind. Can’t do our patrons dirty too often.
What I think is going on…
One of two things is likely happening.
- They’re selling someone else’s shady financial products, which makes them an affiliate. For every X people who sign up using their link, they get Y dollars (or Bitcoins) back.
- They’re selling their own shady financial products, which are likely to be some kind of program or course.
A lot of influencers make their bread by selling courses. And that’s fine! Low-cost, non-collegiate education rocks, and good teachers are worth their weight in precious gemstones.
But there’s definitely a dark side to the whole enterprise.
Piggy and I went to the same arts and communications-focused college. So we have an unusual number of close friends who are (or were) professional actors, musicians, and models. Every single one of them—even the super successful ones—has to support themselves with a side hustle. Or three.
Being beautiful people who know exactly how to ride the aspirationally-confident-yet-relatably-vulnerable line, they’re naturals at selling yoga instruction, skincare products, and the like. Blessings upon them for figuring out how to make a living in an industry that’s so unforgiving.
… But my respect for that hustle evaporates the second those people use their talents to knowingly peddle snake oil, or pretend at having expertise when their ignorance puts others at risk.
I’m fine with people selling courses that pertain to their areas of skill. Beyond fine, actually—I think it’s fantastic. But only the morally bankrupt would accept money to misrepresent themselves or mislead others. Which is exactly what I think is happening here.
The seedy underbelly of shady financial products
Now, here’s where it gets tricky…
In some areas—including personal finance—you see people make and sell courses on how to make and sell courses. There’s a lot of popular bloggers who will charge you thousands of dollars to learn the secrets of blogging. Same goes for podcasters and social media influencers.
And that don’t sit right with me.
Something about it has a distinct skunky funk of MLMness without actually being an MLM.
We have subtweeted this practice extensively, but we haven’t spoken about it directly, because in this particular area, we’re kinda being big fucking cowards! A lot of people we really respect and like personally sell courses, and we don’t want them to think we’re dropping trou’ to take a big wet dump on them. We’re really not!
There’s a responsible way to frame, package, and price truly valuable, wanted entrepreneurial advice. Several of our best Judys in the industry do it! They have the original voices, unique perspectives, and deep expertise to actually connect learners with financial topics so dry they’re mummified. They work really hard to make their courses targeted and helpful, with a price tag that doesn’t ask too much of their audience.
But there’s an irresponsible way to do it, with advice that’s unoriginal, un-insightful, overpriced, and more aspirational than anything else. Our industry is full of ’em. That’s why we’ve avoided it. But Mara’s question inspired us to state our perspective more clearly.
Are there any good personal finance courses?
Yes. Absolutely. And we plug the good ones fairly frequently on the sosh meeds. (Hint hint, give us a follow!)
It’s pretty easy to tell if a course is gonna be good.
- Does your educator have a large body of work you can read through to get a feel for their general philosophy and knowledge base?
- Have they offered previews of the course, or a free introductory module?
- Do they recommend practical, conservative approaches firmly grounded in the realities of this ugly world we live in?
- Have they built your personal confidence in making independent choices, rather than blindly following one rigid system?
- Do they encourage diversification at every opportunity?
- Are there comments from satisfied customers? (And are those customers actual non-bot humans?)
- Can you afford it? And is the price fair for the knowledge you expect to receive?
- Do they offer low-cost or no-cost scholarships to deserving folks?
There are a lot of people who tick most or all of those boxes.
Are y’all ever going to offer courses?
Sure. We’ve considered it.
It’s likely something we will do, if Piggy remains self-employed and our Patreon donor base doesn’t grow as quickly as we need. Although so far y’all are COMING THROUUUUUGH! We can’t thank you enough for the support!
Regardless, we’ve done a ton of thinking about how we would do it in a fair way. After all: if our motive is to help poor people, doesn’t charging money work against that? Sure, our advice is good, our time is valuable… but our passion burns brightest when we’re arming vulnerable people against financial ignorance and exploitation. And we’re wise enough to understand that unless you’re starving, true passion’s rarer and more valuable than money.
If we were to ever offer courses, we’ve decided it would be on topics that only interest people who already have pretty good financial stability, like buying your first home, or making strategic late-career moves. With topics like that, the right piece of advice can save you tens of thousands of dollars and years of heartache, so we wouldn’t feel ashamed to attach an affordable price tag. And it would appeal to our more established fans, so there wouldn’t be any pressure on The Young And The Broke to cough up money they don’t have.
We will never, ever put up a paywall between our most vulnerable readers and our best possible advice to them.
So as someone who’s thought A LOT about the ethics of a product we haven’t made and don’t even sell yet, I guess I have high expectations from others! I don’t understand how someone could not know they’re taking advantage of people by selling shady financial products… or know it, and be okay with it. Which is all I see with these cryptocurrency jabronis.
The secret is there is no secret
If someone you follow on social media is trying to sell you “one cool trick” to wealth, I urge you to smash that unsubscribe button. Especially if they’re weirdly focused on just one vehicle—like cryptocurrency, forex, or life insurance.
Because I haven’t taken any such “courses” myself, I cannot say with 100% certainty that these courses are worthless self-serving garbage only a morally bankrupt degenerate would leverage their beauty and popularity to sell. But feel free to read intent into my strategic use of bolded fonts!
Here’s what I do know: ain’t no Konami Code for making money. The whole point of wealth is that it’s hard to accumulate. There’s no easy mode, no exploitable glitch, no secret path hidden behind the waterfall.
You’re born with a set of randomly generated privileges that can make acquiring wealth easier: wealthy parents, access to a great education, an entrepreneurial spirit, white skin, being a very tall cisdude, and so on. But even so, it’s not easy for anyone! Our Dear Leader Donald Trump (long may he reign… in Hell) had all of those advantages, and still managed to dig himself so deeply into debt that a baker’s gross of investigative journalists haven’t yet found the bottom.
The whole point of acquiring wealth is that it’s hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be such a singular obsession in our culture. We wouldn’t dedicate half our waking hours to it. There’s a reason there are thousands of personal finance blogs, and not many breathing, blinking, or chewing blogs. This shit is rough!
The easiest way to tell
Don’t trust anyone who says they have special secrets, foolproof systems, or proven processes to building wealth—especially when those people are also achingly beautiful, tastefully slutty 23-year-old artists.
Nothing against that demographic! After all, Piggy and I were once achingly beautiful, tastefully slutty 23-year-old artists—and we were pretty great with money then too! But it was all relevant to our experiences. Less “here’s a blueprint to decentralize currency,” more “here’s a cheap brand of toilet paper that won’t tear up your bunghole.”
If someone is selling ideas they didn’t create, you have to ask yourself why. There’s almost certainly someone standing outside the frame, using someone else’s good looks and compelling personality to sock-puppet shady financial products that wouldn’t stand on their own merits.
Thanks again to Mara for asking this great question!
We’d love to write more about MLM in the future. We’re curious to hear about what you would find helpful.
- Do you wanna know how they work? “Work” being a loose term, of course.
- How do you avoid them, or deflect uncomfortable invitations?
- What can you say to a friend or family member who’s been sucked in?
- Something else?
Tell us what you’d like to know in the comments below!