In April 2012, a friend and I were sitting in an expatriate café in Kazakhstan’s capital city of Astana when a woman she knew approached us to chat. My friend introduced me to the woman, Azel,* who then pulled out the latest Mary Kay catalog and began telling us about a promotion. Her dyed, honey-blonde hair framed her exquisite face. She grew excited as she spoke of the makeup featured in the glossy catalog in front of her. I was interested in learning more about multilevel marketing from an ethnographic perspective, so I asked Azel if I could interview her, and she agreed.
She had first heard about Mary Kay, she said, when a colleague invited her to a cosmetics party in the city of Karaganda. When she tried the makeup for the first time, she felt like a princess. In that moment, she told me, she “fell in love with sharing information about beauty.”
While we were talking, Azel opened a packet of oil-absorbing face wipes, and she instructed me to take one and wipe my face with it. I carefully grasped the parchment-thin slip of paper, and, in the middle of the bustling café, I put down my latte and dabbed my forehead.
“They work, don’t they!” Azel exclaimed, pointing to the smudged wipe. “Look at the dirt!”
I examined the splotch on the paper as Azel told me that her dream is to enlist an army of workers and make enough money to live comfortably. So far she’d signed up seven people to be Mary Kay distributors. She gave me her business card and invited me to join her next party.
Azel is just one of many women in Kazakhstan who are selling overpriced, imported cleaners, makeup, and vitamin supplements out of their homes. While trained as an anthropologist, I’d been working as a librarian in Astana for just a few months when I discovered that many of the people I met in this city of over 800,000 people already knew each other. They were part of a loose network that connected cities throughout the country—a social web that grew out of people’s involvement with multilevel marketing companies.
As a child in the 1990s, I watched friends and family members hawk Avon and Tupperware products. Indeed, home-based, multilevel marketing companies have a long history in the U.S. Many Americans are familiar with such products as the province of the 1950s American housewife.
But people who grew up in the Soviet Union had no such familiarity with multilevel marketing. Many citizens first heard of these brands in 1991 after the Soviets had withdrawn from Eastern Europe and their control over Central Asia had dissolved. It was a challenging time for many newly independent countries as industries failed, citizens lost their jobs, pensions plummeted, and household survival became a major issue for most middle-class families. In response, according to anthropologist Cynthia Werner, some Kazakh women turned to small-scale trading, sometimes called shuttle trading (moving goods between markets in different cities), while others traded gifts and did favors for each other (as they had during other hard times in the Soviet period) to keep their families afloat.
Yet the 1990s and 2000s were also a time when affluent post-Soviet citizens consumed imported products in order to display their wealth. As sociologist Daina Eglitis observed, people in Latvia bought stylish clothing and luxury cars to display their relative success. In Kazakhstan’s capital city, anthropologist Mateusz Laszczkowski found people using upscale shopping malls as neutral, internationalized places in which to see and be seen.
The struggling post-Soviet economies, combined with the widespread desire for imported goods, created an opportunity for business. International multilevel marketing firms like Herbalife, Oriflame, Avon, and Mary Kay rushed in, seizing the opportunity to sell their wares in new markets. These companies hyped their products as “American” and deserving of high markups. It worked. In Kazakhstan today, such companies are household names.
Yet now that the markets have settled down and the novelty has worn off, why do some Kazakhstani citizens continue to spring for pricey, imported products? What is it about these companies that catches people’s attention and fosters such an ardent following?
In North America, multilevel marketing entrepreneurs have sold products to others in their homes and workplaces for more than 60 years. (One of the first companies of this type, Avon, has been in business for over a century.) Multilevel marketing is an approach in which people sell to friends and acquaintances without the need for an intermediary or a brick-and-mortar store. Each salesperson is encouraged to create a “downline” of distributors by bringing in new recruits beneath them. And with each downline representative a salesperson signs on, the more money he or she can earn through commissions.
Multilevel marketing companies dangle the prospects of additional income, independence, and a flourishing business—but it doesn’t always turn out as a seller might imagine. Even if they don’t lose money, sellers frequently suffer from lackluster sales and end up no better off than when they started. And occasionally they’re even worse off. Yet in Kazakhstan, as in North America, the possibility of a better life is enough to create a regular turnover of new recruits.
I told a colleague that I was going to visit the city of Shymkent, in southern Kazakhstan, and she offered that I could stay with her mother. When I arrived, her mother, Rahima, waved from the second-floor window of her apartment building. I hobbled up to her doorstep, my heel aching thanks to new ballet flats. When she opened the door and saw my limp, she brought me over to her piano bench, sat me down, and rubbed a deodorant called Subdue on my heels. Rahima, a retired pharmacist with short red hair and persistent confidence, handed me a list of off-label uses and promised the product would heal my pain.
Over tea and pomegranates, Rahima told me how she connected with the company that made the deodorant. Neways International (now called Modere), an American multilevel marketing company based in Springville, Utah, sells personal care, nutritional, and household products such as toothpaste, protein powders, vitamins, and shampoos. Rahima had been researching potential treatments for her aching knee when she found Neways online. After reading up on the company, she contacted a representative.
That was a decade ago. Rahima has been faithful to Neways ever since. Over the years, she has signed on more than 600 people—although most didn’t stay with the company for long. Some dropped out because they weren’t making money, she said, while others left to join newer companies with more potential for growth.
Yet Rahima retained 16 “serious workers” in her downline network, each of whom regularly drew in new recruits. By encouraging these hardworking men and women, she maintained her own high-level status in the company. And Rahima also continued drawing in new recruits herself. She abruptly paused our conversations multiple times to phone clients or, as we walked through the neighborhood, to engage passersby on the sidewalk to talk about her products.
Such loyalty is not accidental. Peter Cahn, an anthropologist who studied multilevel marketing companies in Mexico, found that people working for Omnilife de México developed an almost religious devotion to the brand and its products. The workers kept each other motivated by thinking positively, sharing stories of self-transformation, and focusing on staying confident rather than dwelling on discouraging economic or societal barriers to success. The sellers Cahn studied believed that changing their own lives could help them change the world—a belief I heard reflected in Rahima’s words as well.
Because Rahima had trained as a pharmacist, I thought at first that her passion for these imported products was due to the fact that they offered physical cures. (Indeed, the promise of solutions to all kinds of bodily problems motivates many people to invest in these products.) But in time, I started to believe she was also motivated by being in charge of her own destiny. Inspirational books and motivational seminars that extol the connection between sales and positive thinking convince Rahima and other Kazakhstani citizens that persistent optimism can revitalize their inner lives. Neways gave Rahima not only a healthy self-image but also a way to stay active into retirement, and it helped her retain control over her life and find meaning in it.
Rahima identified as a committed Muslim. But it seemed that, rather than focusing her faith on mosque visits and recitation of blessings from the Quran, Rahima’s spiritual nourishment came from the American self-help and business books she read every evening before bed: University of Success, Rich Dad Poor Dad, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Of course, many people are skeptical of multilevel marketing companies and their products. One of my housemates in Astana signed up with a company at the urging of an aunt who was already selling the company’s products. After she came on board, each product she sold returned a small commission to relatives higher up the chain. But the products were costly, she told me, with American-branded dish soap and toothpaste selling for three times local market rates.
My housemate quickly grew discouraged. “Of course you want people to sign on under you as business,” she said. But most of her friends resisted her sales pitch. “They’ve heard of Neways, or Oriflame, or other American products. They’re burned out,” she explained. After trying the products, her friends hadn’t seen results worth the expense.
Yet as some sellers grow disillusioned, others take their place—sometimes recruited by complete strangers. When I was visiting the southern city of Almaty, two women approached me on the street, handing me flyers for mangosteen juice and inviting me to a presentation to learn more. Curious, I decided to check it out, and in the following weeks I attended several more meetings.
These meetings typically drew around 15 to 25 active sellers and potential recruits, both men and women, who sat near huge windows that looked out across the city to the hazy Tien Shan Mountains.
At the first meeting, Tanya—one of the women I had met on the street—introduced herself to the audience and explained that, although she already had a job as an English teacher, she had developed a side business in multilevel marketing.
She held up a bottle of dark red mangosteen juice and said, “Hamburgers are tasty but harmful. And colas are the same. But mangosteen is the king of the tropical fruits. It’s tasty and good for you.” Tanya was selling a product called Xango Juice, which she described as a cure for cancer. A single bottle of juice typically lasts for a week (when used daily) and costs 13,400 tenge (US$40)—a high price in a country where salaries average just 124,200 tenge (US$370) per month.
As I sat in these meetings taking in the presentations, I sometimes turned to watch the assembled sellers and prospects: teachers on summer break, retired grandfathers, young men without steady work, women still dressed in their office clothes. Rahima and Azel would have fit right in.
I remained unconvinced by Tanya’s promotional pitches, as I did by Rahima’s. I don’t believe that juice can cure cancer or that deodorant can heal an aching foot. Yet some educated Kazakhstani citizens—English teachers, librarians, retirees, and even community doctors—have grown attached to these products. They market to family, friends, and strangers, and aggressively pursue potential recruits. Perhaps they’re seeking something more than their other professional and personal roles provide—connection, spare cash, a sense of identity or purpose. Each of them builds an identity and an income in a fluctuating post-Soviet democracy.
Thinking about the confidence shown by Tanya, Rahima, and Azel, I began to understand that people use multilevel marketing as a way to cultivate new aspects of themselves. Azel came to see herself as a businesswoman, while Rahima found a meaningful life beyond retirement. Such roles provide them the opportunity to gain greater respect and relevance in their communities and help them build new social networks in rapidly changing cities.
Other anthropologists have found similar phenomena in other parts of the world. In Costa Rica, older women who sell multilevel marketing products frame themselves as “professionals” who can still have a meaningful impact in society. Japanese housewives use their involvement to boost their visibility and self-esteem, in contrast to their unrecognized and undervalued work as housewives and part-time workers in the formal labor market. And post-socialist Albanians join pyramid schemes in an attempt to gain access to wealth and opportunity that seem to be monopolized by elites.
Multilevel marketing can give its converts a feeling of control in any society ruled by the powerful. When democratic governments and global markets prove unreliable, these companies tell people to make their own success. As Rahima’s daughter told me: “You can’t change everyone. First we need to change ourselves. Then our behavior and habits will change, and the world around us will change.”
For many people in Kazakhstan, multilevel marketing holds the tantalizing hope of striking it rich, or at least attaining the dream of the good life that the Soviet empire once promised all its citizens. “People without higher education want to be equal to you,” Rahima told me, reminding me that my education and privilege allow me the freedom to explore the world.
“They want what you have,” Rahima said. “And we can help them get it.”
*All names in this piece are pseudonyms.