What Multi-Level Marketing Scheme Would Jesus Use? The Religion of AdvoCare

Paul Putz

The following testimony probably strikes a familiar chord to those who are conversant with American evangelicalism:

"About 15 months ago, I was drug to this guys house...My friend, made me go. Ugh! I *thought* I had better things to do. I was busy trying to make ends meet and tired from the week of work that I had just put in. Exhausted and broke I agreed to go along just to appease this guy."

You know what happens next: the reluctant attendee is born again, turns his life around, and begins to spread the good news to others. And that's basically what happens here. Kind of.

"Thank God for [my friend's] influence and and belief in me! Since then, we have built an Advocare businesses/ministry that provides our family and friends with energy, hope, nutrition, and a very substantial monthly income! Maybe you are like I was 15 months ago. And maybe I can be your [friend]! I'm going to [my friend's house] today and would love to take you along. Maybe Advocare is for you... and maybe not. Either way, it's worth an hour of your life to check it out."

The excerpts above were posted by an acquaintance on Facebook (thus, the name-redaction). For those who are not familiar, AdvoCare is a twenty-year-old company that sells health and nutrition products. They claim that their scientists have formulated the life-changing energy drink, weight-loss shake, multivitamin, etc. They're kind of like GNC, except AdvoCare only hawks their own brand and they utilize a pryamid scheme multi-level marketing (MLM) strategy to get their products into consumers' hands. Basically, this entails recruiting individual distributors to buy AdvoCare products in bulk (at tiered discount levels), sell it to others, and create networks of subordinate distributors. For a select few who are especially effective at selling the product and getting their friends, family, and acquaintances to become distributors, a healthy windfall of cash is possible. For the vast majority, however, riches are not in the cards.

In terms of quality, AdvoCare products seem to be on par with the standard nutrition/energy fare. I've tried their energy drink because I'm a caffeine addict, and I can testify to the fact that it did keep me awake. But then, so does every other energy drink that I've tried. What makes AdvoCare stand out, though, is not the quality of their products. It's the fact that their brand relies on fervent testimonies of life transformations. Granted, the evangelical-like elements of the company are probably not all that different from other MLM businesses like Mary Kay, Amway, Herbalife, and so on. They all tend to attract their direct sales force with the allure of the typical American idols: money (if you become a distributor and work your way up the pyramid), freedom (which they seem to define as freedom from working a 9-5 job), and, in the case of AdvoCare and Mary Kay, looking sexy (if you use their products).

Along with the supposed monetary incentives, the effectiveness of all MLM companies stems in part from their utilization of a proven religious growth strategy. They convert consumers to their brand by diffusing the message/product through already existing relational networks, and they encourage consumers to become marketers who are personally invested in the promotion of the brand. If you've ever had an awkward conversation with a friend, probably in college, in which he or she tried to get you to buy your toiletries online -- and then get ten more of your friends to do the same! -- you understand the proselytizing involved.

Of course, the majority of people who use AdvoCare products are not like Ray Comfort. Many are probably content to use the product for their own benefit, get a small discount, and mostly forget about converting the world. Just as it is with religious groups, the outspoken advocates get most of the attention while the majority of the adherents go quietly about their business.

While AdvoCare fits in with the religious-like growth strategy and personal fulfillment ethos of other MLM brands, they are unique in the way they link their identity with evangelical Protestantism of the "mostly white" variety. God is never very far from the AdvoCare message. Founder Charlie Ragus's first guiding principle is "to honor God through our faith, family and friends." When AdvoCare hosts their bi-annual Success School summit, they usually devote one session to a praise and worship performance. All three of their entertainment endorsers, including Michael W. Smith and Creed-lite Kutless, are evangelical Christian music artists. At their February 2013 success school evangelical darling George W. Bush made an appearance. AdvoCare also partners with Women of Faith, an evangelical organization with whom they "have a common cause."

As for proof that the AdvoCare brand caters to a specifically white Christian audience, check out the endorsers AdvoCare has chosen to feature on their website. Along with national spokesman Drew Brees, you get a whole lot of this:

You can browse the entire list of AdvoCare celebrity endorsers here. Of their 107 endorsers, 88% are white. Examining the racial makeup of specific sports leagues (which you can do thanks to tidesport) makes the preponderance of white endorsers become even more pronounced. For example, only 61% of MLB players are white/non-Hispanic. Yet 88% of AdvoCare MLB endorsers are white. In the NFL, only 30% of of the players are white/non-Hispanic. Meanwhile, 85% of NFL Advocare endorsers are white. As for the NBA, which has the highest rate of non-white players, AdvoCare does not have a single endorser. It seems that the racial faith divide extends beyond just churches and neighborhoods and into corporations like AdvoCare that try to construct a faith-based identity.

Scholars have long known about the ways that wealthy business leaders like the Tappan brothers, John D. Rockefeller, and the Stewarts poured capital into all number of religious causes. But it seems that recently scholars have begun to explore in more robust ways the connections between corporate identities and specific religious groups and ideas. To name a few studies, there's Bethany Moreton (To Serve God and Wal-Mart) and Brett Robinson (Appletopia), as well as upcoming work from Darren Grem (Corporate Revivals) and Darren Dochuk (EvangOILicalism. Or something.) Perhaps MLM companies such as AdvoCare or Mary Kay would be ripe for similar treatment in the future.

The MLM strategy as we know it today is mostly a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, but in my main chronological area of research (the Gilded Age and Progressive Era), the corporate use of religious ideology to market a product was already well underway. I'll leave you with one of my favorite examples, from an Equitable Life Insurance advertisement in The Literary Digest (1910).