Direct Sales and Direct Faith: Book Review

Cahn, Peter S. 2011. Direct Sales and Direct Faith in Latin America. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

By: Rebecca Bartel (University of Toronto)

 

In the first pages of this ethnography of direct faith and direct sales, the reader becomes intimately acquainted with Luisa and her family, perhaps one of the most remarkable elements of Cahn’s study. Cahn’s focus on one character gives an in-depth account of deeply imbedded positive thought practices, and the reader is quickly drawn into the life of Luisa and her unfaltering adherence to Omnilife, a direct sales company and, more important, a vehicle for transforming her life. Luisa, a Mexican Roman Catholic and Omnilife sales representative, embodies what Cahn defines as “direct faith”: a “kind of intimate relationship with the divine, unmediated by clergy, saints, or sin” (2). Direct faith is rooted in positive thought, the “innate ability to affect the material world through one’s mind” (3), and for Cahn this direct faith is most eloquently animated through Luisa and her family’s commitment to Omnilife. Direct sales, according to Cahn, provide a worldview that looks backwards to a time when prosperity came naturally (15).

To explain, neoliberalism moved the Mexican population towards wage labour and the formation of an inherently precarious and anxious middle class. Entrepreneurship became the “favoured path to an improved life” (12) as millions of Mexicans found themselves on the losing end of austerity measures enacted by the Mexican government throughout the 1980s and 1990s. With few options for steady work, a systematic program of privatization and government rollbacks in social security, “becoming one’s own boss” proved to be an attractive option for many. Direct selling, through companies like Avon, Mary Kay, and Amway, accelerated throughout the country with promises of restoring balance between family and work, the potential for limitless wealth accumulation, and notably, personal transformation through positive thinking. “In becoming a direct seller, distributors unlearn the cynicism of adulthood and replace it with an expansive vision of unlimited success” (15). Direct sales promises a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to humanize neoliberal reforms. Cahn emphasizes this drive through pointing out the dual meaning of the “commission” – a monetary reward for sales, as well as a higher calling to proselytize family members and new recruits to the power of the mind in creating prosperity. Simply put, “alongside the cosmopolitan, entrepreneurial qualities encouraged by neoliberalism, direct sellers seek to return to a primordial past when humans understood how to control their own destinies without relying on anyone else” (15). Direct sellers like Luisa, Cahn insists, engage in direct sales seeking not only greater wealth and free time, but also personal and internal transformation.

While Luisa exemplifies, for Cahn, a late-capitalist manifestation of Weber’s “Protestant Ethic,” she never abandons her Catholic roots. Maintaining her worship practices as private and minimalist, while criticizing the Catholic Church’s position on women and families, Luisa goes “on a spiritual diet” (17) instead of switching denominations. Omnilife offers a blurring of the lines between the sacred and the profane, the directness of relationship with a benevolent and generous God, a God that desires prosperity for all, and a God Luisa can conjure up through unfaltering optimism.

In chapter 2, “Helping Others Help Themselves,” Cahn provides a genealogy of Luisa’s family, her religious upbringing, and her life-long venture to become independent and prosperous. Beginning with selling Avon products while still in school, Luisa was influenced by her own parent’s direct sales experiences with facial cream, later Amway, then what began as Omnitrition, and later known as Omnilife. After a thorough history of the establishment of Omnilife in Mexico, largely championed by one man, Jorge Vergara, Cahn introduces the central element of “cultivating directness,” and the Omnilife company slogan and commitment of “people helping people” (35). Luisa fully embraces the non-denominationalism of Omnilife, seeking her own direct connection to God through retreats to monasteries and one-on-one connection (35), and a newfound belief in herself and the products she sells. While Luisa has achieved the silver-level ranking in the company, the third highest, her goal of qualifying for diamond-level, the highest, is hindered by seemingly impossible odds. Nevertheless, Luisa is convinced that “the only real obstacle between her and her dream is her mind” (36). Despite Jorge Vergara’s recurring failures at building Omnilife to be the multi-billion dollar business he dreams it will be, and the company’s suspicious history of court-cases and accusations of pyramid scheming, Luisa remains convinced of the company and its shady leader, Vergara. She maintains the ultimate neoliberal conviction: “the best way to guarantee success is not to rely on others” (38)

Chapter 3, the most pertinent for this reader, lays out the history of direct-selling companies and the related legacy of New Thought, a nineteenth-century metaphysical movement that began in New England. Championed by popular religious figures, like Mary Baker Eddy and Phineas Quimby, New Thought drives the narrative that thoughts have the power to shape material reality (39). First advanced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalist philosophers, the New Thought movement claimed “God not only created humans in His image but also endowed them with divine power” (41). In the beginning of the twentieth century, metaphysical writers expanded ideas of New Thought to the pursuit of wealth and the American Dream. As the United States moved towards greater industrialization and capitalist development, New Thought lost its legitimacy as a freestanding movement, and found refuge in institutions like Alcoholics Anonymous and direct sales. The direct sales start-ups relied on the central pillar of direct faith: “the only barriers to a successful career were internal, so they exhorted their representatives to think positively” (43). Cahn takes the reader through a history of direct sales ventures, from door-to-door sales to the advent of home parties and the feminization of direct sales with companies such as Amway, Tupperware, and Mary Kay. New Thought sermons, buttressed by revival-style meetings complete with worship songs, prayers, and the ever-present mantra of “belief in the self” coloured the rise of Tupperware and Mary Kay, companies that came to rely on the house-wife demographic for their growing fleet of sales representatives. Emphasizing traditional gender roles, as Mary Kay unapologetically did, the major shift in sales strategy was self-esteem and belief in the self (49). Foreshadowing the Prosperity Theologies of the 1980s and 1990s, “the overtly spiritual tone of companies like Mary Kay and Home Interiors and Gifts endow the work of selling with the sanctity of helping others” (50) and faith in an abundant God whose designs for humanity are prosperity, wealth, and health.

Chapter 4, “Healing the Body through the Mind,” relates the faith that Luisa holds in the healing powers of the products she sells. A committed user of all the Omnilife-brand products, from Omnilife water, to vitamin supplements, to weight-loss remedies, Luisa evangelizes the powers of self-healing thoughts as much as the medicinal properties of the products she sells. Believing in the product proves as important as believing in the self and the power of the mind to overcome any ailment. Cahn experiments with the different products, but finds no correlation between any product and its intended function. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, Luisa takes “control of her own health by managing the variety and dosage of vitamin drinks to meet each need,” from chronic pain to forgetfulness. Her faith in her product is as much faith in the power of her thoughts, as faith in her ability to heal herself.

Chapter 5, “Selling without Selling,” unveils the secret to wealth of the direct sales company: recruitment. The irresistible attraction of earning money while others work for you is a driving momentum in the direct sales world. As the logic goes: commissions on sales from distributors that make up the base of a higher-ranking sales representative contribute to the overall income of the higher ups. Through “simply showing others how to improve their health, Omnilife distributors come to believe they will enrich themselves” (91). For every new recruit to Luisa’s down-line, Luisa’s commissions theoretically increase as she receives a percentage of her down-line sales. Nevertheless, the phantom income is not the ultimate goal for Luisa. “Don’t worry about money or those above you. Just thank them for inviting you to join Omnilife,” Luisa chides Cahn. Her attention is on helping others, and motivating her distributors to keep the faith despite the promises of unimaginable wealth that seem to hover just above reach.

In Chapter 6, “Motivating Rituals,” Cahn details the revival-like sense of the Omnilife rallies. Reminiscent of mega-church conventions, the Omnilife rallies serve to inspire as well as recruit new members. “With each successive rally, Vergara returns to the importance of overcoming negative thoughts that might prevent distributors from working effectively” (107). The rallies bring together hundreds of distributors of all levels, and hone in on themes of self-esteem and the power of optimism. Cahn pushes Luisa to consider the importance of external influences and contextual limitations in the work of success. Luisa predictably responds, “anyone could achieve a rewarding and enriching life through careful cultivation of the right frame of mind” (122). It is in this chapter that Luisa reveals her plans to take her daughter, and her sales skills and positive attitude, to the next level; opening an Omnilife chapter in Chile.

The following two chapters reveal the insurmountable precarity that the direct sales career fights against through the conviction of positive thinking and hard work. Luisa and a number of family members decide that opportunities for upward social mobility and greater sales revenues will increase if they leave the saturated market of Mexico. While Luisa begins planning her departure, family members are slowly drawn to the idea of leaving Morelia and accompanying her on what originally was intended as an independent journey with her daughter. Eventually, Luisa is accompanied to South America by her boyfriend, brother, and young office assistant. Together they attempt, and fail, to build a lasting network of Omnilife distributors in Santiago. Luisa and most of her family return to Mexico after the failed trial in Chile, yet maintain their commitment to the company, recruiting, selling, but most important, believing their ways to the proverbial “better life.”

The book concludes with Cahn asserting that the proliferation of direct sales in Latin America cannot be solely attributed to the economic neoliberal turn in the region. Luisa and the distributors in Morelia “are responding to a different kind of commission” (162), one that understands their work in direct sales as fulfilling a charge to transform their lives. Cahn reminds us, “believers in direct faith are heirs to a 150-year-old legacy of mind cure ideas that have diffused from New England Transcendentalists to positive-thinking advocates world-wide” (162). Invoking a Weberian frame for understanding the relationship between direct sales and neoliberalism, Cahn suggests that the New Thought ideas spread over a century potentially established the framework of “self-reliance that gave legitimacy to neoliberal reform”(163). Yet Cahn insists that the cultivation of direct faith allows for looking backwards, towards a nostalgic and idealized time when access to God was unfettered and uninterrupted.

Direct Sales and Direct Faith is a masterful ethnography, delightful to read, and sheds light on important anthropological questions of how neoliberal reform and new faith movements are entangled in Latin America. While this reader would have appreciated a greater interrogation into the relationship between the New Thought movement, positive mind power, and prosperity theology in the Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal movements sweeping the region, this book lays important groundwork for continued research into this relationship. Methodologically, the book inspires through its committed focus on Luisa and her family, bringing the reader into intimate relationship with the complex humanness of faith and upward social mobility. A recommended read for students and practitioners in Anthropology of Religion, Anthropology in Latin America, and the study of religion in the Americas in general.

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