In 2009, Donald Trump offered America “an exciting plan to opt out of the recession.” All you had to do was sell your friends a urine test and an accordingly customized vitamin subscription. The problem? In order to really make a profit, you had to recruit other people to sell the product, too: You’d make a commission off of their sales, and they’d eventually make their own recruits. The commissions would then trickle upward, joining together in a great river of residual income.
Trump was hawking the Trump Network, a multilevel marketing (MLM) company. You’ve heard of those: Avon, Amway, Herbalife. Perhaps a friend has tried to recruit you, or you’ve read about the government’s efforts to have some of them classified as pyramid schemes. On Wednesday, a woman named Michelle van Etten, who works for an MLM company called Youngevity, will speak in a primetime slot at the Republican National Convention.
Trump himself has never owned an MLM company, but he has entered into licensing and promotional agreements with them. Over the last decade, he’s made millions plugging ACN Inc., a telecommunications MLM company, and giving motivational speeches to its members. In 2009, he licensed his name to Ideal Health—the urine test/vitamin company—so it could be rechristened the Trump Network. It was a perfect fit. Like the Trump brand itself, MLMs stir up fantasies of wealth and power—that they rarely deliver on. Within a year of Trump’s endorsement, membership had quadrupled to 20,000. The boost didn’t last: Participation in the company eventually declined, and its owners filed for bankruptcy. Trump’s licensing contract ended in 2011. The business was sold to another MLM company called Bioceutica.
MLM schemes can be difficult to understand—it’s one reason that people, hoping to get rich quick, sign up for them. So Slate invented a fake one for you to experience it firsthand without putting any money on the line. It’s called VitaShape, and it sells a tool for making your normal, boring vitamins much more exciting. You can join the VitaShape team in our interactive simulation below, which challenges you to sell 200 VitaShape kits before you burn out and give up.
Keep in mind: The game is a loose approximation of what it’s like to work for a multilevel marketing company. Since accurate financial data on these companies is scant, we filled in some of the details using our imaginations. The truth of the simulation lies not in the exact quantities we chose—the prices, fees, and commissions—but in the relationships between them. The commission structure of the company, for example, is heavily weighted in favor of its top executives. Recruiting new participants is more lucrative than selling the product but also more difficult. And, depending on how the game unfolds, your bosses may make more money from initiation fees and business enrichment tools than from sales to outside consumers.
In a departure from reality, our MLM’s business enrichment tools are (somewhat) effective. In the real world, opportunities for selling and recruiting dry up very quickly, no matter how many inspirational seminars you attend and business cards you emboss. Recruits can end up with heaps of unsold inventory the company will not buy back. Finally, the greatest distortion in our simulation is the ease of selling and recruiting. For too many MLM participants, the experience is one of disillusionment and loss.
But you’re not here for caveats—you’re here to realize your dreams! Watch the promotional video for the life-changing VitaShape company, then dive into our interactive game. This is the closest you may ever get to opting out of the recession!