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While LuLaRoe — the direct-sales company known for its aggressively upright leggings that your cousin has probably tried to sell you on Facebook — has been in the news recently for its shady quality and for encouraging distributors to go into debt to afford to sell their product, other MLMs are making (not-so-positive) waves as well. LipSense, a direct sales brand hawking allegedly “BJ proof” liquid lipstick, has been getting attention with both theatre and makeup enthusiasts following widespread claims by its sellers that the brand has been designated “the official lipstick of Broadway.”
But LipSense distributors, Broadway makeup artists, and a representative from SeneGence, LipSense’s parent company, all tell Racked the claim is false. And anyone with a basic understanding of how commercial theatre works knows the claim couldn’t be true; in short, despite LipSense distributors’ claims, there is no “head of Broadway” who has the authority to designate an official lipstick or mandate what makeup brands are to be used by any and all Broadway shows.
So why are so many LipSense distributors making this claim?
According to several LipSense distributors I spoke with, the vast majority of selling and advertising LipSense and other SeneGence products takes place on social media, making it easy for memes and posts without any factual basis to completely take over sellers’ marketing materials. All it takes is a simple copy-paste or Facebook’s share button.
“In most MLMs, someone will make and share a graphic and people grab it save it and blindly share it,” says Natalie, a current LipSense distributor whose name (along with those of two other distributors whose comments appear below) has been changed for this article because of privacy concerns. “That's why so many posts are saying it's the ‘OFFICIAL’ lipstick of Broadway. Someone or a few someones incorrectly said that and then it spread like wildfire.”
While Natalie does not have any “downlines,” or sellers below her that she has recruited to distribute LipSense products, it became clear in our conversation how the structure of a multilevel-marketing scheme could easily encourage the spread of false claims in this way. If one seller’s “upline” — the seller above her, and the seller above her, and so on — all make Instagram posts about their product’s awesome reputation on Broadway, how likely would she really be to completely fact-check their posts before sharing them?
A multilevel-marketing structure (MLM) typically only results in profit for a seller who not only moves a huge amount of actual product but also recruits sellers to work below her, generally targeting women — often stay-at-home moms — looking for jobs they can perform without losing out on time with their children. This pressure to build a team has led to a huge volume of sellers without the appropriate level of knowledge to match their enthusiasm for LipSense products. “SeneGence itself is actually a pretty great company with some really great products. It’s overzealous distributors with no real knowledge of the product (strictly because of their own laziness) making it look bad,” Natalie says.
Another distributor, Mia, agrees: “I think that the product itself is amazing, but there are so many misinformed distributors that are not properly trained, or they have no interest in finding out information for themselves, so they just copy other people. SeneGence does offer training, and your sponsor is supposed to train you and guide you in the right direction, but there are so many people who don't want to invest into learning the right way to do things.”
But while the distributors I spoke to recognize the need for advertising that is as truthful as it is appealing, many others selling LipSense either don’t have as clear a standard for what they post or lack the information necessary to verify the claims made by fellow distributors. “I believe that distributors are not reading their emails, because SeneGence sends updates and asked that we not claim we are the ‘official’ lip color,” says Mia. “They are probably making the claims because they think it will boost sales. I have not personally announced anything about Broadway to my clients.”
While it was clear to many from the beginning that these claims by sellers couldn’t be true, SeneGence, the parent company of LipSense, has not denounced its sellers’ claims publicly. When I reached out to the PR team for the company, the response was clear (“We are not the official lipstick” of Broadway), but much less forward and firm than the emailed reprimand current and former distributors received from SeneGence shortly after the claims exploded.
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Former distributor Chloe graciously provided me with a screencap of the email, confirming the company’s stance on the false claims by distributors:
We are very excited about all the buzz around the NY Times Square billboard and our premiere product, LipSense, being used on the sets of several Broadway shows. […] As a reminder, Distributors are bound by the professional ethics provisions i noted Distributor Policies and Procedures Guide. […] Accordingly, if SeneGence has not made an official announcement, Distributors may not made premature or unverified announcements. SeneGence recently made public that its products are being used on Broadway in various shows, but did not publicly announce in official company literature that its products were the ‘official’ smudge-proof makeup for Broadway. Therefore, we ask that Distributors refrain from making any statements or claims not contained in any official or published company literature. Please only use statements that have been made public by SeneGence.
However, it seems possible that even the claims made by SeneGence directly may not be completely true. I spoke with several theatrical artists who have done extensive work on Broadway, and while not all of them wanted to speak on the record with me, none of them had heard of LipSense or SeneGence nor used the company’s products in their personal or professional lives.
One of the artists I spoke with, La Sonya Gunter, is the current makeup supervisor for Kinky Boots and has in the past worked on the makeup and hair teams for Wicked, Hairspray, and The Color Purple. She has worked on shows with a makeup brand sponsor, but has never used LipSense products in a Broadway show.
So how true are SeneGence’s own claims that their products are used in Broadway shows including Kinky Boots, Wicked, Hamilton, and CATS? “Kinky Boots on Broadway is sponsored by MAC cosmetics. To the best of my knowledge, they have been our sponsor been since the show opened on Broadway,” Gunter told me. “The makeup designer will design the makeup looks for the show for each character and then either purchase the necessary products for the show’s production or get sponsorship from a makeup company to provide makeup for the show.”
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s definitely not used by anyone on Broadway. It’s virtually impossible to verify each makeup product used by each performer in each show on Broadway, but it is possible that LipSense’s only affiliation with the Great White Way is geographical — Times Square, where the company’s new billboard, which kicked off this whole storm of weirdly false claims, is located is in the heart of New York’s theatre district.
The connection to the bigger problem with MLMs is clear. It is almost impossible to succeed without pestering friends and family to not only buy but sell as well, and the immense pressure that MLM companies and distributors often place on their sellers can easily tip the scales of sellers’ attitudes from enthusiasm to desperation.