Pseudo-journalism perpetuates direct selling misperceptions through mass media.
Junk journalism has been in existence ever since German inventor Johannes Gutenberg created a printing process that allowed the mass production of books, pamphlets and magazines. The year was 1440. His invention changed the speed of communication, enabling a transfer of information of all sorts in print format. The printed word—the foundation of journalism—remains a favorite way of accessing information for many throughout the world. Fortunately for the human race, the printed word has enabled a transfer of positive knowledge that has facilitated understanding of some of the most complex subjects as well as the reporting of news and events. Storytelling through the printed word has also entertained us for hundreds of years, leading to the well-accepted categories of fiction and nonfiction. The category of fiction can include just about anything that a person desires to write about and, as we know, some fiction stoops to the lowest level of how the printed word is used.
The Harper’s Magazine August 2012 cover story about Mary Kay Cosmetics is an example of purported journalism at its lowest. “Junk journalism” is actually too kind a phrase, in my opinion, for the story written and published as a report under the title, “Pink Pyramid Scheme—How Mary Kay Cosmetics Preys on Desperate Housewives.” The very first sentence gives the reader a clue as to where the writer will go with the story:
“I met my first Mary Kay ladies at a beauty school wedged between a liquor store and an offtrack betting parlor on the backside of a strip mall near Poughkeepsie, New York.”
The article goes on to further describe the writer’s personal experience with a few Mary Kay consultants. The article is not a report, as it is touted, nor is it objective research by any means. After reading the first sentence I found myself in constant disbelief that this was a cover story in Harper’s, a magazine with a great history that I enjoy reading. This is anecdotal storytelling masquerading as investigative reporting. The story details encounters with a few ladies who have experienced less than what they may have envisioned when they became Mary Kay consultants. Well, what else is new when it comes to the expectations any of us might have regarding the many decisions we make in an effort to live in pursuit of enjoyment for work, happiness and peace of mind?
Mary Kay Among Top 20 Brands that Create Customer “Delight”
Measureable data exists in the cosmetics industry and in brand awareness that should have been referenced and included in a recent Harper’s Magazine cover story on Mary Kay Cosmetics if it were to be a true “report.” Below is one instance of verifiable data available to any journalist.
Brand Keys Inc., a consultancy firm with headquarters in New York, measures customer loyalty and engagement with various brands. The firm publishes an annual Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI), which in 2012 looked at 598 big brands in 83 diverse categories.
Notably, the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) conducted a comprehensive review in 2006 on the methodologies developed by Brand Keys Founder and President Robert Passikoff for measuring a customer’s loyalty to a brand and predicting their future behavior concerning purchases. The report found the Brand Key’s method to provide “reliable metrics for assessing brand engagement and brand loyalty.” (First Opinion, An ARF Research Review of Brand Keys’ Brand Engagement Measurement Methodology, by William A. Cook, Ph.D., published by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), Jan. 30, 2007, p. 7).
Passikoff says, “Brand value has increasingly been defined not through the narrow lens of price, but in terms of the total experience that consumers have when they interact with a given brand.”
Understanding that this survey measures the real experiences and expectations that consumers have with their brands, we find it compelling that Mary Kay Cosmetics repeatedly is ranked among the top brands, not just in the specific arena of cosmetics, but as a brand that delights consumers and meets their expectations of an authentic and engaging experience.
The following is a direct lift from the Brand Keys press release, dated Feb. 6, 2012:
While expectation levels for delight vary by category, the Top 20 Brands, best at creating customer delight, are:
1. Apple (tablets)
12. Mary Kay (cosmetics)
13. McDonald’s (quick-serve food)
There are only a few facts shared in the Harper’s cover story relative to the origins of Mary Kay and the current size of the company. According to the article, the company’s salesforce has doubled since 2003 to more than 2 million consultants (DSN reports 2.4 million) in 34 countries (DSN reports 35 countries) and $3 billion in revenue. The story is primarily an anecdotal telling of the writer’s viewpoint of the negative experiences of a few ex-consultants, providing no information from a different point of view.
In addition to leaving out any data support, the writer also quotes a self-described and titled financial-fraud investigator relative to subjective interpretations of how much money is being earned by Mary Kay’s highest-earning sales consultants. Most revealing is the lack of research and authenticity of the writer’s approach in the statement made by someone who clearly has no data and no respect for the 2.4 million+ Mary Kay consultants who have chosen to build Mary Kay businesses: “Almost everyone loses money,” [the investigator] said. “Most of those who do profit are making about minimum wage.”
The tagline of the article published by Harper’s portrays Mary Kay consultants as desperate housewives. To even use the phrase “desperate housewives” is more than an insult to the millions of Mary Kay consultants who have become role models in their families and communities all across the United States and in 35 countries where free enterprise and a focus on the personal development of women are embraced and applauded. By publishing this article, Harper’s actually participates in insulting every Mary Kay consultant who has learned from their experience and gained in self-esteem, personal development and business knowledge.
The article also ignores the many different reasons why a Mary Kay consultant chooses to build her business. The direct selling model allows each individual consultant to define their own level of success. Some make more money than others, but most are grateful that no one tells them what they cannot do. Harper’s also appears to ignore the consequences associated with perpetuating this particularly negative bias. Direct Selling News, which conducts the most credible ranking of direct selling companies in the world, reported Mary Kay Cosmetics, founded in 1963, as the sixth-largest direct selling company in the world and the No. 1 party plan company in the global direct selling industry, which is estimated by the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA) to generate over $153 billion in retail sales worldwide.
So what are some of the facts and data that Harper’s overlooked in this story? Behind the scenes at Mary Kay the most competent in professional ranks can be found, from marketing and sales to legal, research, manufacturing and distribution and all forms of administration. Over 5,000 employees support the global salesforce. The executives at Mary Kay have designed and implemented multiple programs in support of both its salesforce and end customers. Specifically, Mary Kay pioneered the Preferred Customer Program in direct selling, and in the last quarter alone, added 3.2 million customers to their database.
But even more compelling evidence that Mary Kay enjoys a high level of satisfaction among many consultants and customers are the results of the 2012 Customer Loyalty Engagement Index (CLEI) conducted for its 16th year by Brand Keys Inc. Surveying 49,000 consumers ages 18 to 65, Brand Keys concluded that consumers’ “key brand expectation” is that brands will not only engage them, but “delight” them and provide them with an “authentic experience.” According to this survey, included among the Top 20 Brands that provide this “delight” are Apple, Amazon, Kindle, Google and Mary Kay (see sidebar).
In individual categories, the survey also names Mary Kay as the No. 1 brand in Cosmetics, beating out strong retail names such as Sephora, L’Oreal, Cover Girl, Max Factor, Revlon, Neutrogena, Almay and Coty, and No. 3 in Facial Moisturizers, ahead of Ponds, Oil of Olay, Neutrogena and Nivea. Clearly, the facts are that Mary Kay competes for market share with the best and largest of brands. This is the result of millions of women who are choosing and often loving the opportunity to share special products in more of a social selling manner. The company calls it party plan. Direct selling, as an opportunity available to all people regardless of walk of life, past experience or inexperience, or even age, levels the playing field, especially during this most challenging period when jobs are shrinking and people are needing opportunities!
As we now know, even major publications can miss doing their homework. The result, a pseudo-journalist gains the opportunity to spread a biased opinion through mass media, in this case Harper’s. Harper’s has served a clientele of readers for many years. I personally enjoy much of the content and respect its amazing track record. However, in August 2012, Harper’s got it wrong!
John Fleming is the Publisher and Editor in Chief of Direct Selling News.