Magazines 2018 Mar - Apr A Christian tackles direct marketing house parties

A Christian tackles direct marketing house parties

18 April 2018 , 2018 Mar - Apr By Julia Cheung

Party invitations are straightforward. Social convention tells me how to respond, I check my calendar, instinctually weigh how much I care about this occasion and—bam—a decision has been reached. Not in this case. In this case, I had been invited by a good Christian friend to come to her house for a makeup party. I hemmed and hawed, stalling my RSVP for a few days, finding little solace in the refuge of social protocol.

By Julia Cheung

Party invitations are straightforward. Social convention tells me how to respond, I check my calendar, instinctually weigh how much I care about this occasion and—bam—a decision has been reached.

Not in this case.

Julia Cheung is a writer and Christian who has sorted out an approach to the sticky problem of those parties we all get invited to from time to time.

In this case, I had been invited by a good Christian friend to come to her house for a makeup party. I hemmed and hawed, stalling my RSVP for a few days, finding little solace in the refuge of social protocol.

I finally replied in a weirdly unconventional way, through extensive dialogue with my very patient friend and would-be hostess. It turned out that…well… I had some ideas to get off my chest. This would be my first  party with this particular make up brand, but not my first exposure to what I’ll call “sales party” marketing.

Some people call this form of buying and selling “direct marketing” and some call it “multi-level marketing.”  I’ll leave it to the economists to duke that one out, but the gist of the concept is this: a hostess will invite a sales consultant into her home to socialize with a small group of friends. Amidst chit chat and snacks, the consultant will introduce products from brands like Norwex, Epicurious, Partylite, Usborne Books and Tupperware (just to name a few targeted at my own demographic).

As I considered this most recent invitation, I realized that I was waffling because I had yet to deal with a memory from a few years back. The last time I had hosted one of these sales parties, the consultant came away from the transaction fuming. I had (innocently, I thought) told my guests, “You don’t have to bring a wallet!” I wanted my guests to be able to just come and enjoy themselves without buying anything. But my sales consultant was livid. She felt that I had disrespected her livelihood.

Thus started the queasy feeling that came whenever I was next invited to one of these “sales parties.”

That queasy feeling only amplified when I watched a recent Netflix documentary called Betting on Zero, about a multinational corporation. The documentary isn’t strictly about multi-level marketing, but it did highlight how latino immigrants in America have been victimized by the hotly debated so-called multi-level structure of this company. In a true multi-level structure, sales consultants don’t really make money from selling products, but rather from signing new consultants under them, often leaving behind a wake of social destruction.

So back to my current predicament—should I attend this make up party? Would it be any different from getting together with a bunch of girlfriends and implicitly agreeing to spend 30 dollars each on dinner?

There is always a transactional element to parties—and all social situations combine the power of friendship and of networking. I don’t have a qualm about the standard conventions for dinner parties, for instance.  I provide food. You provide a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers. We all  enjoy a great evening together.

In the end, I did attend my friend’s gathering —because I wanted to spend time with the hostess and I was interested in some of the products. As the event closed, the sales consultant sat each guest down to tally up her purchases and tease out a possible networking relationship. My consultant asked, “Can you think of the names of a few friends who would be interested in getting together for a makeup class like we did today?”

I gulped. “No,” I answered.

She looked me straight in the eye, “Are you sure?”

Then the awkwardness stretched into what felt like an eternity (though it was really only a millisecond of silence). Saying no is not my strong suit. I explained my position in the church as a pastor’s wife. I had decided not to compromise my spiritual influence by mixing it up with money.

She was gracious about my awkward decline, but clearly disappointed. Nestled in compliments about how nice it was to get to know me, she obliquely delivered the same line that the other sales consultant had dropped several years ago, “I do this for a living, you know.”

She may not have intended to guilt or shame me, but there was certainly an emotional toll to that conversation—one that I’m not sure is good for relationships within the church.

It’s a grey area, but one that can bring friends out of the woodwork and phone calls from long-ago connections, veiled sales calls, disguised as social ones.

So I’ve finally decided that if someone invites me to a “sales party”, I will go under three conditions: if my schedule allows, if I might need some of those products,  and if I go with a predetermined budgeted amount for spending. I do want to honor the friendship. But I will definitely draw the line at hosting a “sales party,” no matter how much I like the products. Because in the end, even when the products are great, most consultants don’t really make money until you refer friends to them—and that’s when social capital becomes financial capital.

It’s a delicate balance juggling that kind of complexity when I’m worshipping next to someone and consider them part of my spiritual family. Does your reading of scripture tell you that Christians simply should not try to sell things to one another? Or do you view this line of work, getting involved in direct sales, as no different than offering your services within the church as a dentist, realtor, or shopkeeper?

These are good questions. I never would have thought that hemming and hawing over a party invitation could lead to a such a deep parsing of theology and life. These questions pose so many crossroads—may we approach them with grace and humility.

Julia Cheung is a communications consultant and freelance journalist based in Vancouver (The Curious Anti-Narcissist). She has written for Faith Today about Vancouver’s East Side.

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