Framing Multilevel Marketing on Corporate Websites and Consultants' Instagram Posts
Brooks, Mary E.
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The rise of smartphone applications and related internet-based technologies has been accompanied by an increased interest in the so-called “gig economy” in which workers labor in one-off arrangements with no guarantee of continued employment. Some workers seek these arrangements for their flexibility or as a “side hustle,” while others may struggle to find other types of work (Abraham, Haltiwanger, Sandusky & Spletzer, 2018). At the same time, these and similar forms of creative labor via social media are valorized as being entrepreneurial (Duffy & Wissinger, 2017). Such digital entrepreneurship is often positioned as a way for women to “have it all” and balance work with traditional family life (Duffy & Hund, 2015). In recent years the networked aspects of social media have intersected with societal trends toward a gig economy to produce a rise in multilevel marketing companies (MLMs) that rely heavily on the internet to recruit and sell. Multilevel marketing is a subset of direct selling or network marketing approaches to doing business that relies on recruiting new participants in a complex system of uplines and downlines to move product. MLMs have existed for decades, and like current discourse around creative work on social media, have often used a rhetoric of entrepreneurship to attract participants and project legitimacy (Carl, 2004). Many of the most well-known MLMs, such as Avon and Mary Kay cosmetics, are targeted toward women and are sometimes framed as home-based businesses (Amundson, 2008). MLMs and related direct selling schemes are big business, generating over $35 billion in retail sales in 2018, with 6.2 million people acting as direct sellers, 75% of whom were women (Direct Selling Association, 2019). To date, there is limited research on the intersection of multilevel marketing, social media, and digital entrepreneurship. Given existing research that demonstrates the centrality of entrepreneurialism to MLMs’ framing of their legitimacy in order to attract potential independent consultants or sellers (Carl, 2004), the present study examines the websites of 10 active MLM companies to qualitatively identify and assess themes that emerge regarding how participation in the MLM is framed for potential sellers. Additionally, the study examines 200 public Instagram posts made by MLM consultants (sellers) in order to assess how these sellers frame their participation in the MLM for others, including whether and how these posts reflect similar or different themes, or frames, from those presented by the MLMs themselves. Doing so will help us to better understand the role of MLMs within the current media and economic environment. This study may also provide insight into gendered aspects of such digital entrepreneurialism. The following research questions are posed: RQ1: What themes emerge in how MLM companies use their websites to frame participation in the MLM for potential sellers as entrepreneurialism? RQ2: What themes emerge in how MLM consultants use their Instagram posts to frame their participation in the MLM as a form of entrepreneurialism?