In 1959, the Barbie doll hit store shelves, Cadillac rolled out its biggest fins, and Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel, two high school friends from Ada, Mich., began selling soap door to door. Does that last one seem out of place? It’s not. The company the pair founded is Amway, which last year grossed $11.8 billion.
Not unlike Halliburton or TIAA-CREF, Amway is a company many have heard of but few are good at explaining. Amway sells hundreds of consumer products—everything from lipstick to pots and pans. Yet most of us have never used an Amway product. And while the company has taken regular forays into advertising (as evidenced in the 1969 and 2013 ads here), even this expository exercise is bound to lead to a bit of head scratching.
“Both ads are about declaring your independence, the older one with the term ‘free enterprise,’” notes Peter Madden, founder of Philadelphia-based marketing firm AgileCat. “Yet neither ad gets into any specifics about the products and why they’re so highly profitable. It seems like some kind of secret.”
In a sense, it is.
Amway is what’s known as a multilevel marketing company. Its members (Independent Business Owners, in company parlance) sell the brand’s goods to friends and family, encouraging them to become IBOs, too, with cuts of sales from one’s “downline” flowing back up the chain. While the FTC has ruled that Amway is not a pyramid scheme, the company has been dogged by such accusations (just Google it). It settled a $55 million class-action suit in 2010, brought by former IBOs who claimed they’d been misled about the money they’d make.
But back to these ads. Vagueness is a tricky tool in marketing, but in this case it seems to be turning the right screw, lurking just beneath that American dream-come-true messaging—Be your own boss! Quit that Dilbert job!—to create a critical mass of curiosity. As Madden assessed it: “Both ads have this can-do attitude, but I think Amway’s being purposefully vague while still looking legitimate enough to invite interest.”
Once that interest leads to membership, many people invariably discover other interesting things about Amway. The average IBO actually earns only $115 a month, according to a 2011 report in USA Today. Home-based direct sales companies are also tougher to operate than they used to be. Why buy your detergent or vitamins from a friend or neighbor when you can just zip across town to Walmart where you can get them faster and cheaper. And while Amway products generate a modest profit, much of the revenue reportedly comes from the sale to downline members of motivational CDs and admittance to seminars. As one writer put it: “What is primarily sold within Amway is Amway itself and its vision of financial freedom.”
So look again at those Norman Rockwell faces, at the young IBO sipping that latte, blissfully free of her cubicle prison. What’s really being advertised here may not be a brand at all, but the American dream that is attached to it.