Top U.S. Direct-Sales Companies Are ‘Quasi-Religion,’ Study Finds

Times Religion Writer

Amway, Herbalife and Mary Kay Cosmetics are among U.S. direct-sales companies that capitalize on the fundamentalist idiom of “gospel prosperity” and are in fact a “quasi-religion,” two sociologists concluded here at a meeting of social scientists.

Drawing on deep religious metaphors and explicit spiritual references, these firms “sell hope as much as soap, motivating their grass-roots sales forces to labor not merely for remuneration of commissions but also out of a conviction that theirs is a sanctifying, empowering activity,” said Anson Shupe of the University of Texas and David G. Bromley of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Their paper was one of more than 250 presentations last weekend at the joint meeting of the 1,400-member Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the 500-member Religious Research Assn. The annual convention is the nation’s largest gathering of social scientists of religion and denominational researchers.


What is sociologically important about these company’s ideologies, Shupe and Bromley pointed out, is not their ability to reconcile profit-making, wealth and materialism with spirituality--indeed, they said, American Protestants have long done just that.

Significant Factor

Rather, the significant factor, the sociologists said, “is the power of these ideologies to motivate individual sales persons far beyond the scope of their actual remuneration or realistic prospects thereof.”

“Root metaphors”--the most important of which are family, pioneering, service to others and world transformation--underlie the ideologies of Amway, Herbalife, Mary Kay Cosmetics and Fuller Brush, the direct-sales companies analyzed by Shupe and Bromley. They said the metaphors have the “motivating, commitment-building power into which social movements--religious or commercial--try to tap.”

Lectures and panel discussions at the conference broadly covered the program themes of “The Sacred and the Public Realm,” “The Church as a Social Institution” and “Spirituality and Religious Education.” Some examples:

- A paper on civil religion in America by Fuller Theological Seminary student Ivan E. Brink Jr. of Pasadena analyzed six annual presidential prayer breakfasts over a 30-year period. The paper concluded that the events express “legitimizing, integrating and pastoral functions which neither pluralistic churches nor a neutral government can provide.”

- To study prayer as a measure of religiosity and its effect on well-being, sociologist Margaret M. Poloma of the University of Akron interviewed 560 Ohio residents and found that 92% said they pray. Prayer items were a more reliable index than either church attendance or membership or religious beliefs in accounting for people’s perceived sense of general well-being and religious satisfaction, the sociologist concluded.


But those who use passive, meditative techniques of prayer rather than limiting themselves to “active prayer” are more likely to have a sense of well-being, Poloma found. “It is prayer experience--and not frequency of prayer--that is believed to be related to well-being measures,” she said in her paper.

- In a session on American Catholics and politics, David C. Leege of the University of Notre Dame said that religious imagery may be the most important predictor of political views. Leege and Notre Dame sociologist Michael R. Welch analyzed data on 2,667 active Catholics surveyed in the recent Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life.

In particular, Leege said, those who depict God as “judge and rule giver” tend to take a conservative political stance, while those who picture God as “indifferent” are more apt to be liberal in their political views.

- Another researcher, James M. Penning of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., presented data to show that in the 1976 and 1984 national elections, Catholics who attend church frequently were much more apt to vote than Catholics who were uninvolved in church life. But, Penning noted, church attendance had little correlation with which presidential candidate Catholics voted for in those years.

In their paper on the “gospel of prosperity,” Shupe and Bromley said that Amway, the nation’s second-largest direct-sales company, is the “quintessential quasi-religious” corporation.

“Its many rallies and seminars are heavily laced with flag-waving, unabashed patriotism, prayers and references to the Almighty. But . . . the real object of celebration is the corporate entity itself. America and God are simply associated symbols,” the researchers said.


‘Sacred Status’

“Amway is the ‘moral community’ in the classic mode, and its sales ideology elevates the entire corporate structure to a sacred status, lending it all the dread, awe and reverence typically reserved for totem objects in less technologically developed tribes.”

Shupe and Bromley have previously co-authored sociological studies on the Unification Church of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and on how the so-called new religions are financed.

In discussing Fuller Brush in their latest paper, the sociologists observed that founder Alfred C. Fuller, an adult convert to Christian Science, considered his salesmen “not merely door-to-door entrepreneurs but ‘missionaries of new ideas.’ ” And Mary Kay Ash’s line of skin-care products provides its saleswomen with an opportunity to follow the Golden Rule and thus add spirituality to their sales by serving others, they said.

“Therefore, she can say confidently, ‘God has been instrumental in the growth of our business,’ ” Shupe and Bromley quoted Ash as writing in her autobiography.

Motivational Rallies

The researchers said that Los Angeles-based Herbalife International, a direct-sales weight-loss and nutritional supplement company, uses the same high-intensity motivational rallies as Amway. “Testimonies” from Herbalife weight-losers and commission earners “frequently feature born-again-like tearful gratefuls who lend such occasions a truly religious mien,” they said.

Herbalife was founded in 1980 by Mark Hughes, who reportedly said that his interest in nutrition was motivated by the death of his overweight mother from an amphetamine overdose related to her compulsive dieting.


With 800,000 independent salespeople, Herbalife sales climbed from $2 million the first year to a current figure of more than $500 million annually, according to the company.

Diet Pills

The target of an 18-month series of government-agency investigations, Herbalife last month agreed to pay the state of California $850,000 to settle allegations that the company had made false medical claims in marketing its diet pills and powders and had used an illegal pyramid-type sales scheme. The company also agreed to restrict advertising alleging certain therapeutic claims for its products.

Suggesting that the sociology of religion and the economic community could benefit from taking quasi-religious businesses “more seriously,” Shupe and Bromley said such corporations “have often been dismissed by the so-called ‘real’ business community in much the same way that mainline churches once laughed off ‘cultic’ groups. . . .”