A predatory MLM scheme is thriving on TikTok
TikTok banned multilevel marketing schemes on the platform in 2020
In December 2020, TikTok banned multilevel marketing schemes (MLMs), drawing praise from some major media outlets, but well over a year into the ban, there is at least one predatory weight loss MLM operating on the platform. It Works sells potentially harmful products and discreetly recruits new members, exposing the app's users, particularly the young, low-income women the company targets, to possible physical and financial harm.
It Works is a self-described “beauty and nutrition company” that sells weight loss products not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and promises quick financial gain. It Works has now expanded its reach to TikTok, where the company is using the social media platform to mass-market its products and recruit new members — all while simultaneously violating TikTok’s own community guidelines.
It Works distributors are selling and recruiting on TikTok
It Works and its distributors (members who sell products) have figured out how to covertly sell their products and recruit on TikTok, in violation of the platform’s rules against MLMs. Media Matters found at least 17 accounts promoting It Works products or recruiting members following the same pattern in videos that have received millions of views. One of these recruitment videos was viewed 3.5 million times.
The unofficial It Works TikTok recruitment formula appears to go as follows:
- Creators make vague claims about substantial weight loss or money-making opportunities and direct users to their TikTok bios.
- The creators’ TikTok bios contain a URL to their link landing pages (a page where users can post multiple links to their other webpages).
- From there, users are sent to It Works products or recruitment pages.
All 17 accounts we identified followed this formula. Here’s an example of one creator who was both selling It Works products and recruiting new distributors. First, this person made vague claims of financial freedom and miracle weight loss:
Then they directed viewers to their TikTok bio, which contained a URL to their link landing page. The landing page included a variety of It Works links, such as “skinny coffee” — which the company claims can “burn fat and fire up your brain function” — and a “work with me” form. The only language showing an affiliation with It Works is the small print at the bottom of the “work with me” form that says: “By submitting this form, you consent to It Works!® sharing your information as provided above with an Independent Distributor who may contact you regarding your submission.”
The other 16 creators in our review followed the same pattern to sell and recruit for It Works.
It Works itself has recently become active on TikTok, despite the platform’s MLM ban. In the caption of one video, the company writes, “Ready to get back into your #goaljeans? Head to our website to find out how with #14Easy.”
It Works — or does it?
It Works peddles weight loss products that promise dramatic results but have not been approved by the FDA. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published an article warning consumers about the dangers of miracle weight loss products, writing, “Products promising lightning-fast weight loss are always a scam. Worse, they can ruin your health.” All of It Works’ "best seller" products promise speedy weight loss, with names such as “Bye Bye Love Handles,” “14 Easy – Hello Goal Jeans,” and “Slimming System.”
Just one packet of It Works’ “skinny brew” coffee contains 225 milligrams of caffeine, which is more than double the amount of caffeine in a normal 8 ounce cup of coffee, which has 80-100 milligrams. The FDA warns that highly concentrated caffeine products have the potential to cause “rapid or dangerously erratic heartbeat, seizures and death.”
It Works is an MLM, and TikTok needs to pay attention
Although It Works may consider itself a nutrition company, both its structure and products are more in line with that of an MLM — thus necessitating greater attention from TikTok. It Works relies on recruiting distributors — and those distributors recruiting others — to make money. The company preys on women by promising miracle weight loss solutions and specifically targeting low-income women by advertising quick financial gain, a common strategy among MLMs.
Just to become a distributor, an individual must buy a Business Builder Kit, with the recommended kit costing $149 and including a $99 monthly auto-shipment of merchandise. The FTC’s guidance on multilevel marketing states that in an MLM with an unlawful compensation structure, which It Works appears to be, an MLM participant is “unlikely to be able to earn money or recover his or her costs through selling product to the public.”
It Works is not accredited by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and has multiple alerts on its BBB page, including a “pattern of complaints” from consumers alleging additional surprise charges, a hefty cancellation fee, and continued billing after cancelation. One complaint refers to It Works as a “pyramid” company.
One former distributor has spoken out about losing money at It Works, telling a reporter in 2017, “When I invested my $99 in the company they said I would make a thousand dollars and that was not true. I was not making a thousand dollars, I was losing money.”
In April 2020, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to It Works Marketing, Inc. at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis for false money-making claims because the company “unlawfully misrepresent[ed] that consumers who become It Works! business opportunity participants are likely to earn substantial income.”
A test that TikTok is failing
TikTok’s inability to detect such a large-scale MLM sets a bleak precedent for meaningful moderation of these exploitative schemes. The platform benefited from a significant amount of positive media attention after announcing its MLM ban, but its actual enforcement seems to be failing.
As these predatory companies and their distributors grow more sophisticated, it’s imperative that TikTok begin aggressively enforcing its own community standards to protect young and low-income users from dangerous weight loss products and financial scams.