A Facebook chat pops up.
Friend I vaguely remember high school: “Hey girl, long time no talk!”
Me (Suspiciously side-eyes computer screen while thinking to myself: How long are we going to exchange pleasantries before you deliver the sales pitch for lipstick that doesn’t smudge or body wraps that will magically take an inch off my midsection?): “Oh, hi! Long time!”
Welcome to the digital era of direct sales—a murky landscape that has many of us second-guessing whether the greetings in our inboxes are in fact sales pitches. Are we friends, customers or some new hybrid species of friendtomers? Do you want to capitalize on our friendship or do you genuinely want to reconnect?
For those who have something to sell, Facebook friend lists are teeming with potential customers, or better yet, new recruits who can make them money, too. And the parties? Sellers no longer have to shell out for the obligatory bottles of wine and artichoke dip that are customary at in-house parties. Instead they can just add you to a Facebook group so you’ll get bombarded with push-button notifications and event reminders.
I’ve been duped before—opening up party invites to realize said party consists of me buying things I don’t really need but feel obligated to purchase because we’re friends or maybe one time played in the same recreational basketball league.
The first time I fell for the bait-and-switch, though, was pre-social media. I was in high school when a boyfriend’s mother invited me over for a “girl’s night” where we were going to do our makeup and get manicures. The only makeup I actually wore at the time was lipgloss, but I was excited to be invited into the “inner circle.” I left the “party” caked in foundation three shades off from my actual skin tone and having spent a week’s worth of my waitressing tips on Mary Kay makeup because, at 15, I had no idea how to dodge a high-pressure sale and, well, I wanted her to like me.
To be honest, at 34, I still don’t know how to graciously turn down the sales pitches or how to draw the line in the sand between friend and customer. (I’m so awkwardly passive-aggressive, I once pretended I didn’t speak English and started babbling in French when a mall kiosk salesman came in hot with a green tea sales pitch.)
While the je parle français avoidance strategy doesn’t work so great on Facebook, perhaps there could be some kind of digital “no soliciting” signs we could hang on our pages. (Wait, maybe that’s what the cover photo space is for?)
To my Facebook friends, I want to see all of the cute videos of your kids and funny pictures of your dogs. I actually really enjoy witnessing what you ate for breakfast, especially if the caption comes with a new green smoothie recipe. I think it’s silly when you send me Candy Crush invitations. But things start to get weird when you start pressuring me to buy nail stickers (I’m an adult) or leggings with hot dog prints (again, that whole adult thing) or weight-loss supplements (I’m a health writer, nice try). It gets really uncomfortable when you start following up and asking for explanations as to why I’m not interested.
The way I see it, direct sales is like one big pressure cooker. The companies hype up their “consultants” or sellers, who have to “buy in” by investing in inventory, sometimes to the tune of thousands of dollars. So it’s no wonder those sales pitches get so persistent. The inventory needs to get unloaded somewhere.
To be fair, I know direct sales is a convenient way for moms to make extra money for their families. And, sure, the anecdotes of those who “make it” and are able to quit their day jobs is alluring. A dose of reality, though: according to the Direct Selling Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, the median earnings of those in the industry is $200 a month, or $2,400 a year.
Maybe my annoyance with the whole direct sales Facebook takeover stems from my own discomfort with high-pressure sales. Just the idea of going door-to-door selling wrapping paper and cookie dough in middle school stressed me out more than any math test. I was literally the worst, with pitches like “Don’t feel like you have to buy this because you’re my grandma. They’re making us sell this, but pro tip, you could get it at Target for way cheaper.”
When I was a newspaper reporter, I bartended at night and on the weekends to make extra cash, and I cringed every time a manager coached me on how to upsell the guests at the bar rail, convincing them they needed to take home a glass pilsner.
But my “ah-ha” moment came a couple weeks ago, as I settled into the chair at my hairstylist-friend’s salon.
“Thank you so much for the invite to your birthday party,” I said. “It’s the first real invite I got on Facebook in like forever.”
That was the snowball that set off an avalanche, as we started discussing our shared disdain for direct marketing.
“I think what’s so annoying about it is they just don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said. “They’re trained to always have responses.”
And there’s the rub.
While we can walk away from the salesman at the mall kiosk, the same strategy doesn’t exist when it’s a super-persistent friend trying to hawk you something on Facebook because, well, you’re friends, too.
Maybe the exit strategy is to just hide out Instagram. It’s safe—for now.