'The religion of hope'

May 10, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro

Robert L. FitzPatrick's loathing for network marketing is deep and visceral.

He resents what he considers the system's deceptive practices. But what the author of "False Profits: Seeking Financial and Spiritual Deliverance in Multi-Level Marketing and Pyramid Schemes" truly loathes is the way the system distorts the American Dream.

"The culture of MLM looks to me like Willy Loman's world multiplied by the millions," FitzPatrick says, referring to Arthur Miller's tragic protagonist in "Death of a Salesman." "His was a personal emptiness and delusion. MLM has packaged Willy's sad dreams and false hopes into an incredibly slick package for mass consumption and then provided a Willy Loman franchise for everyone to buy."

FitzPatrick, a North Carolina-based consultant who specializes in "manufacturer/distributor relations," is a one-time seminarian and community activist who has always been fascinated by the subject of ethical sales practices. His earliest selling job was for an encyclopedia company that was eventually prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive selling practices. "I got a close-up look of a sales program based on deception," he says.

But even that questionable line of work didn't match network marketing's low-road approach, FitzPatrick says.

"We lied our way through the door, into the house. Some people would feel they were violated, but it was by a stranger, it didn't affect the rest of your life. You didn't encounter them when you came to church. The usher wasn't trying to get you aside, to show you what's in the trunk of his car. Now, [with network marketing] this is more the norm."

Network marketing appeals not because it offers a good product, but because it offers the elusive notion of "income potential," FitzPatrick says. When a network marketer tells you, "We're not really selling a product, we're selling an investment opportunity, the job is based entirely upon the recruitment process." The product, FitzPatrick says, is a "pretext to run a pyramid organization."

Pushing income opportunities is central to the "religion of hope" prevalent when people have a sense that in other realms, be it government or the economy, they have no control.

And there are those who simply like basking in the industry's feel-good environment: They "hold on to network marketing as a possibility ... but in their heart or hearts, are not doing anything to get rich."

The notion that if you aren't in a network marketing plan, you're nowhere, "is the most depressing message," FitzPatrick says. "And to see that message being spread by millions, what a negative influence in our society."

Pub Date: 5/10/98

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