Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

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Forever Lying: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is

Have you ever been offered an incredible business proposition where you can make money from home? Where all you must do is sell fantastic items such as dietary supplements or all curing aloe vera products? Chances are, you have at very least seen one person bragging about their new-found lifestyle, and how you’d be crazy not to join them on their business venture (see image 1). It seems a little suspicious at first, perhaps even totally false, but seeing as you know them personally you continue reading. 

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Shouting from the rooftops, they broadcast how grateful they are to be able to work from home or spend more time with their families. It sounds perfect and you naturally wonder if you can get a piece of this pie. You are at least willing to listen to some harmless advice from a friend. After all, what could go wrong? Image 2 shows how the person highlighted in blue is ambushed after the curious remark “you don’t half talk in riddles” identifies them as suitable prey.

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It seems that unless you are one of the first few members (or know a lot of gullible people), not a lot could go right never mind wrong. The companies that these people are selling on behalf of, are a form of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM). MLM has been accused of being far too similar to the illegal product-based pyramid scheme, which relies on each employee recruiting new salespeople (Jackson, 2004). The key difference, is that MLMs offer a product which can be purchased. This however, is a front. The real money comes from recruiting other sellers to work underneath you. A percentage of the sales and future recruitment from each team members goes to the person who recruited them from there on in. This makes it necessary to bring other people on board to make money. You may be thinking that doesn’t sound too bad. What if you knew that it was mathematically impossible for everybody in a pyramid scheme to break even? Consider this, if everybody had to recruit 10 people just to make their money back, then by the 9th level, there would need to be 10 billion people recruited. This statistic doesn’t appear to be stopping the growth of MLMs however. New members more than likely do not fully understand the process or overestimate their ability to recruit. To recruit friends and family is beneficial to the representative, but what happens to the friends and family underneath them? They are now part of the same scheme, and one whole level worse off.

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The techniques used to recruit for MLMs are well established, and training is even provided (Forever Living, 2017). So, what gives MLM representatives even more persuasive power than a traditional salesperson? The difference is that the target audience are people whom already trust them such as friends and family. If you have noticed anybody within your social media circle enthusiastically encouraging others to join them in their fool-proof business model, then you may appreciate some information on how these people are trained to exploit your trust. Although representatives can use any techniques they so wish, here are a few common examples of how they operate, and why they are so successful:

Rhetorical questions:
“Would you like to work from home?”

“Do you want to be able to make easy £££ without missing your child grow up?”.

These are examples of rhetorical questions which are often used to open a business opportunity pitch. This is an effective technique according to the finding that they can increase the processing of a message, making a strong argument even stronger (Ahluwalia & Burnkrant, 2004; Burnkrant & Howard, 1984; Petty, Cacioppo, & Heesacker, 1981). Although not explicitly used in Image 1, the hashtag #makemoneywhilstusleep is capable of making people think in a similar fashion. For instance, seeing this hashtag could cause the reader to consider whether they would like to earn money whilst they slept.

Anticipatory regret: A technique which can be used to persuade people is to emphasise the possibility of future regret. “Act fast! Don’t wait!” is a common example of inducing feelings of anticipatory regret. Image 1 contains an example of this with its #dontcomplicatelife hashtag. Studies have shown that people are motivated to reduce future regret (Crawford, McConnell, Lewis, & Sherman, 2002; Hayashi, 2008; Wong & Kwong, 2007). Therefore, a good way to convince someone that they should comply, is to emphasise the point that they will regret their decision if they do not.

Multiple sources: When a person advertises the MLM ‘opportunity’ on a social network such as Facebook, you will often find comments from other people they have supposedly recruited (Image 2, 3, & 4). An open discussion about how great they are all feeling ensues. When more people are saying it, the argument is considered stronger (Harkins & Petty, 1981; Harkins & Petty, 1987; Moore, Mowen, & Reardon, 1994). Image 5 shows how this works; a person explains that they want to know more as they have seen lots of people posting about the opportunity. It appears then to have been a successful hunt for the pack of MLM hyenas.

Jigsawing: Although designed for use in the classroom to increase dependence on others to succeed (thus eliminating racial cliques) (Aronson, Blaney, Stephan, Sikes & Snapp, 1978), there is a similar force at play in MLMs. The technique aims to establish a common goal between people by promoting a supposed interdependence. Just as it does in the classroom, performance can be increased which is obviously beneficial for both parties (although disproportionately more for the recruiter). The willingness of other representatives to comment on how they love their ‘support’ and ‘family’ with the end goal of luring a new recruit into the scheme is evidence of this camaraderie (Image 2, 3, & 4).

Celebrity endorsement/attraction: It is not uncommon to see celebrity endorsements in the advertising word. Celebrities have a persuasive effect (Silvera & Austad, 2004), which makes it beneficial for companies to invest in popular faces (Image 6). Credible endorsers (based upon attractiveness, expertise or trustworthiness) can also increase the perceived credibility of a brand (Spry, Pappu, & Cornwell, 2011). A similar phenomenon called the halo effect suggests that people consider attractive people to be more moral, smarter and have more expertise in a subject (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). According to the elaboration likelihood model, these techniques are most useful on an audience which is not motivated, meaning people are happy to trust information without requiring too much convincing (Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983).

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After reading this, it is hoped that you shall be more informed of the MLM business model and more cautious when reading of friends and families ‘success’ stories. MLM have the potential to spread like a virus, leaving people in financially worse states (Hoyle, 2016). This is made worse by the fact that they were likely put into that position by people close to them seeking to claw back their own losses.

The overarching message of this post, is to be wary of ‘friends’ proposing these ‘fantastic business opportunities’ to their nearest and dearest. They need you to join up to make money for themselves, and by doing so, they have knowingly lured you into the same cycle as them. Who needs enemies when you have friends like these eh?


Ahluwalia, R., & Burnkrant, R. E. (2004). Answering questions about questions: A persuasion knowledge perspective for understanding the effects of rhetorical questions. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 26-42.

Aronson, E., Blaney, N., Stephan, C., Sikes, J., & Snapp, M. (1978). The jigsaw classroom. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.

Burnkrant, R. E., & Howard, D. J. (1984). Effects of the use of introductory rhetorical questions versus statements on information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 1218-1230.

Crawford, M. T., McConnell, A. R., Lewis, A. C., & Sherman, S. J. (2002). Reactance, compliance, and anticipated regret. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 56-63.

Forever Living. (2017). TRAINING. Retrieved from

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1981). The multiple source effect in persuasion: The effects of distraction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7, 627-635.

Harkins, S. G., & Petty, R. E. (1987). Information utility and the multiple source effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 260-268.

Hayashi, T. (2008). Regret aversion and opportunity dependence. Journal of Economic Theory, 139, 242-268.

Hoyle, A. (2016). Can you really earn £350,000 a year selling aloe vera? As thousands of women join a controversial home-selling empire, read Candice's very cautionary tale. Retrieved from

Jackson, J. (2004). Is MLM pyramid selling? A comparison between a pyramid scheme and an MLM scheme. Retrieved from

Moore, D. J., Mowen, J. C., & Reardon, R. (1994). Multiple sources in advertising appeals: When product endorsers are paid by the advertising sponsor. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 22, 234-243.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 250-256.

Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Heesacker, M. (1981). Effects of rhetorical questions on persuasion: A cognitive response analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 432-440.

Petty, R.E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Schumann, D. (1983). Central and peripheral routes to advertising effectiveness: The moderating role of involvement. Journal of Consumer Research, 10, 135-146.

Silvera, D. H., & Austad, B. (2004). Factors predicting the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement advertisements. European Journal of Marketing, 38, 1509-1526.

Spry, A., Pappu, R., & Cornwell, T. B. (2011). Celebrity endorsement, brand credibility and brand equity. European Journal of Marketing, 45, 882-909.

Wong, K. F. E., & Kwong, J. Y. Y. (2007). The role of anticipated regret in escalation of commitment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 545-554.

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