Jenni Shaw is the independent filmmaker responsible for the Ellie Undercover: Secrets of the Multi-Level Millionaires documentary film for the BBC, which aired in the UK in April 2019.
Jenni has been a filmmaker for a decade. After gaining qualifications in journalism, she started working in news production. However, she quickly discovered that she couldn’t give justice to the complexities of important issues in the news format. So she shifted from news to observational long-form film making. She thinks filmmaking is a vital tool for raising awareness of under-reported issues, educating people, and giving a voice to people who don’t really get to have a voice.
Jenni has worked in collaboration with many institutions, especially with the UK police. She worked on the BAFTA-nominated Channel 4 documentary Catching a Killer, spending nearly two-and-a-half years working alongside Thames Valley Police in their offices, following their major crime team.
More than 90% of documentary directors in the UK are independent, collaborating with different broadcasters and independent production companies to make films. Jenni pitched her idea for this documentary to BBC Three in the middle of 2018.
For Ellie Undercover: Secrets of the Multi-Level Millionaires, Jenni was the producer-director, filming almost every shot you see in the film. The core team was only four people — Jenni, reporter Ellie Flynn, an Executive Producer, and an Associate Producer who provided research support. Jenni also sat in the edit with an editor, turning 100 hours of footage into the final one-hour film. It took nine months to produce.
We are very happy to have been able to catch up with Jenni recently to talk about the making of her film, and its reception since it was broadcast. We know this is a long read, but hope you agree it’s worth it!
Coalition: What made you first think that multi-level marketing would be a good subject for a documentary?
Jenni: I was in the pub with a young friend last summer. I was talking with her about what she’d been up to recently, and she said this strange thing to me: “Are all your friends trying to recruit you for schemes on social media as well?” And I had no idea what she was talking about.
So we got talking more and more about multi-level marketing. We met up again a few days later, and she showed me her Facebook and Instagram feeds and her inbox.
As a young, very fashionable, well-connected London girl, she fell into the target market for a number of different multi-level marketing companies, and she was being plagued by dozens and dozens of different recruiters.
I couldn’t believe what she was showing me. After that, I started to see multi-level marketing everywhere. It’s like somebody opens your eyes, and it puts things into context. Things that people have said to you, things you’ve seen in the past that didn’t make sense previously.
So suddenly I realised that I had friends and contacts who’d also become involved in this industry in the past. At the time I hadn’t really picked up on what it was. And then it’s like all these things start to fall into place. I started to research it, and discovered what an enormous industry it is, not only in the UK, but internationally.
It’s kind of paradoxical that here’s something that both seems to be everywhere but also shrouded in secrecy, and seems to be skimming under the surface of regulators. For me, it felt like something that really needed to be brought more into the light, and have more open conversations about.
Coalition: After they commissioned your film, was the BBC concerned about legal aspects?
Jenni: We were all concerned, but very rigorous about looking at the legalities. That was something we all took very seriously.
The BBC has a legal department and an editorial policy department, which ensures that any programs going out under the BBC brand are upholding the BBC’s ethos and values. We worked very very thoroughly with the whole team, literally interrogating every single line in the film, asking ourselves why we were including each line, whether it was editorially justified, whether it was fair, and whether it was factually accurate.
After all, it’s about the welfare not only of the people that we’d interviewed for the case studies, but also the people that had been the subject of our investigation, and filming people undercover is not a decision that we take lightly. I don’t underestimate how difficult that must be for those people, to come to terms having been the subjects of an investigation.
Coalition: Were there any difficulties that you didn’t foresee?
Jenni: Certainly, yes. I hadn’t anticipated the scale and complexity of the industry. The more we researched, the more we uncovered, the bigger and bigger this issue became, to the point where we thought how on earth are we going to fit this into an hour of television? Because this is the kind of thing we could make a whole series on, and still not even scratch the surface.
The second challenge was I had not anticipated the level of fear associated with this industry. I’ve made a number of projects in the past in extremely difficult, desperate and sensitive environments, and so has Ellie — and neither of us has come across the level of fear and the level of anxiety about speaking out that we did with this industry. And that was really striking for all of us.
Coalition: What are your thoughts on why people are so scared of speaking out?
Jenni: This is clearly a very divisive industry. It creates a lot of personal attacks on social media. People are trolled, people are bullied, and that can impact on people’s mental health.
I am very concerned that within the wider field on social media I’ve also seen people tear apart MLM distributors in a very personal way. I think that sort of social media attacking from both quarters is not going to help the conversation. It only dampens it.
We need to be supporting each other towards a better future for this industry, and better regulation, rather than creating division and impacting people. There is a viciousness that comes from those who are real advocates of the industry — and also on the other side as well. It’s a topic that generates a lot of very fervent debate online that can be extremely cruel and personal.
I think it’s also a shame that people who were involved in MLMs posted about it all over social media — they made their lives look like they’re amazing. This is not something they then want to come out, after they’ve left. They don’t want to talk about how they kind of misled people within their social network.
Sadly, I think the industry recruits a lot of people who are living with the challenges of anxiety and depression. I can’t explain the correlation. But I think that also makes it difficult for those people to want to speak out.
And lastly, I think people are extremely afraid of the often multi-billion dollar corporations behind these multi-level marketing companies. They are afraid of the legal implications.
Coalition: How do you think we can get change in this industry?
Jenni: While people are trying to campaign to change this issue, which I completely support and understand, we’ve got to think about the methods we’re doing that, and the most appropriate ways to do that. Being abusive of each other online is not the way.
If you have a concern, in the UK, and in other countries, I suggest you write to your Member of Parliament, or local representative. Tell all your friends to write letters too. In the UK, contact the National Trading Standards, and the Citizen’s Advice consumer helpline. Attacking people on social media is not the way we’re going to move this conversation forward.
A National Trading Standards spokesperson told the BBC:
“We would advise consumers to exercise extreme caution when thinking about participating in multi-level marketing schemes. People may think these are a way to get rich quick but the reality is that these types of schemes often leave people out of pocket, sometimes to the tune of thousands of pounds.
“If you or someone you know has fallen victim to these schemes then you should report it to the Citizens’ Advice consumer helpline on 03454 04 05 06.”
Coalition: What sort of reactions have you received since the film went to air?
Jenni: From our understanding, the documentary rated very well given its category and subject matter. It sat within the top ten of BBC documentaries for a number of days, if not a couple of weeks, and I think it was second “most watched” in the UK by the end of the weekend in which it launched.
I gather that BBC themselves were struck by not only how many people it reached, but also of quite a particular age group — we reached young people, between the ages of 18 to early 30s. And people are continuing to watch it online on the BBC iPlayer. [Region controlled].
Ellie herself received a great deal of personal messages from people who’d watched the film. Many of these messages were really validating to us, validating our reasons for making the film.
Obviously we understand the subject is controversial, and the film received criticism from people in the industry, including heavy criticism. We anticipated that would happen, though, as it is an extremely divisive subject.
Coalition: When you were making the film, what shocked you the most?
Jenni: Firstly, how prolific this industry is across the UK, and around the world, and how hidden it is. I hadn’t realized, for instance, how many recruitment and training meetings are happening all over the UK each week, in quite unexpected places. For one of the events that Ellie filmed undercover, it was being held in a kind of village or town hall, on a midweek night in the middle of winter on a rainy day, in a quiet town. You suddenly realise just how far-reaching this industry is across the UK, and how embedded it is within communities. It certainly shocked me.
I was really struck by the depth to which it had impacted on the personal lives of those who had not had good experiences in an MLM. It had deeply affected romantic relationships, marriages, friendships, and relationships between family members. We had some very sad and moving conversations with people, some of which aren’t included in the film. They are the sorts of conversations that will stay with me, because they were so deeply upsetting. I was also struck by the level of fear about speaking out.
Coalition: Had you worked with Ellie before?
Jenni: I hadn’t. Ellie and I were introduced by a fellow filmmaker who had worked with Ellie before and rated her very highly. We worked together for nine months on the project, and built a great working relationship. We’ve gone on to make a film together which has just been released, about police sexual misconduct in America.
There’s always the challenges of making a film under very pressured circumstances, and I’ve learned I need to feed Ellie on a regular basis! And she probably needs to feed me caffeine on a regular basis. Just to get the most out of each other.
Coalition: Were there any especially memorable moments during filming?
Jenni: One moment that really sticks with me was when Ellie and I had got all the way to Utah, at the end of production — we went in February, literally the month before the whole film was finished.
It is quite a scary thing to do, walking into the head offices of Younique and Nu Skin — obviously we had very rigorous and established reasons for why we going to do that, and why we were going to approach the offices directly for comment — but it was daunting. They are huge multi-million dollar corporations, and we were a small television crew from the UK, coming in to challenge them in person — and Ellie walked in on her own.
Before she went in, we sat in the car and talked through all the people we’d spoken with in our research, and we talked through all their stories.
We were walking into these offices for the Lindsays, and the Jessicas, and the Vickies, and all the other people we’d spoken to who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their names. We were doing it for them. We didn’t have a right to be there for our own personal reasons. So that was an emotional moment — we really felt like we were putting ourselves in the line of fire for them. That gave us the courage and strength to go into those offices.
Coalition: What artistic decisions did you make along the way? The film has quite a dark feel.
Jenni: The clear creative vision I had from the beginning was that I wanted to create a contrast between the sales material and pitch of the influencers who are promoting these multi-level marketing companies — a contrast between their material, which is very bright and sort of American, with lots of saturated colours, people with beautiful coloured hair, tanned skin and white teeth. It’s very colourful, very enticing, and I totally understand — I would love to have the life that they portray. But in a country like the UK, we don’t get as much sunshine as many other parts of the world, and have a lot of people living in very low income areas, with high levels of unemployment, in post-industrialised towns and cities. So I’ve tried to create a visual contrast between the promise and the reality.
There were also two decisions that quite happily shaped the film.
The first was the video diaries. I wanted Ellie to experience the training from these two companies for herself. I was quite strict with her, actually. I deliberately didn’t tell her too much at the beginning about what we’d researched and found out. I deliberately wanted her to follow the training and really experience it for herself, and then document that in the video diary. And what was included in the film is really just a drop in the ocean. She made dozens and dozens of videos.
We had about 100 hours of footage — with any documentary you always have more footage than you put in the film, of course, some films do have those kinds of ratios, some have even more. But it is an enormous challenge deciding what goes in. The challenge with this film is that — although many people do know what multi-level marketing is, not all do — we had felt that we needed to explain the industry. So we had to dedicate more minutes to background information than usual. This limited us in terms of the depth of what we could cover in our one hour.
The other decision came when we realised the level of fear among the people who’d been in the industry and had had bad experiences. We decided to use those anonymous voices, using the phone recordings of people we’d spoken with on research calls. They were a tiny percentage of all the calls that we conducted, but we felt that was a way for the people to have a voice when they were too afraid to speak.
Coalition: What are you hoping viewers will get from seeing the documentary?
Jenni: There are two things in particular.
I really want people to have an awareness of this industry, and to arm them with some of the key tools they need to decide about whether they want to join a multi-level marketing scheme or not.
Hopefully we can leave them better informed, and more able to know the kinds of questions to ask, and where to look for further information.
Secondly, I want people to carry on the conversation. We could easily have carried on and made ten episodes on this subject, but we’re not in the position to do that. I would love to see more projects coming out about multi-level marketing, and more people questioning and interrogating this industry. But also for those who genuinely believe in it — show us the facts, show us the proof, advocate for it. Let’s carry on the conversation in a transparent way, rather than shrouded in secrecy.
Coalition: It seems to us to be an industry that is growing in response to increasing social division, inequality and unemployment.
Jenni: Massively so, I agree. Some of the pockets of the UK that we visited are certainly places with high unemployment and where people are living on very low incomes. And from what I saw, it would appear that some of these companies are clustering in those areas,. Some of the people we met or spoke to could list off dozens of people they knew who were involved in this industry within a small town.
Coalition: Is there anything further that you’d like to do in this arena?
Jenni: I do wish I could find another avenue or outlet for the people we spoke with whose stories we weren’t able to include, and I really hope to stay in touch with them, and find other ways in which they can have their stories and voices heard.
There was, for instance, a woman we interviewed who had become quite senior in one of the companies that we investigated. She had left and had a number of concerns about the industry, but at the same time she felt conflicted because she could see the hugely beneficial effect it had had on her life, both financially and from a personality and confidence point of view.
I think it is worth noting that as much as we spoke to dozens and dozens of people who had had negative experiences, or had not made the money they were expecting to make, or indeed had lost money ranging from a few pounds to thousands of pounds, it was a theme that came up over and over again. Many people felt that being in an MLM helped their confidence and personal development.
I hope that people are able to work on some of that self development separately, and realise that they can still have access to all that kind of personal development if they wished. There are other ways to build your confidence about going back to work, or who you are as a person, and the things you want to achieve in life without it having to be inherently linked to a business model which you’ll ultimately have to pay to be a part of.
That’s something that I felt really conflicted about this the whole way through, because I’m a feminist. I don’t want to be seen to be making a film that tears apart the business enterprises of other women.
But my major concern was that these multi-national companies are using the zeitgeist of feminism, words associated with female empowerment, and presenting these opportunities as something which inherently you have to question whether they are exploiting that popularity of feminism, this kind of brilliant wave of focus on female empowerment that we’re seeing and is continuing to grow at the moment. Are these companies actually exploiting that for commercial gain?
If you go back to the roots of this industry, in the early 19th century and the foundation of Avon and Tupperware parties in the 50s — it was a kind of feminist concept for women to be able to have their own work outlets alongside raising a family, and I don’t want to be seen that we’re attacking that.
It’s really important to question where this industry is now and what’s the motivation, and why they’re using that language. Ellie and I felt really conflicted, and we wouldn’t feel comfortable if we’d left many women feeling that they’d been torn apart, and their efforts to build a business had been criticised and pulled apart. That is not our intention.
We did raise major concerns, and we want people to be protected and to have the tools to arms themselves to not be financially exploited by companies that may not have their best interests at heart.
Coalition: Did the film catch the attention of anyone you didn’t expect?
Jenni: We were struck by the media coverage it received. There were also a number of high profile celebrities in the UK who shared it on social media, so I think that increased the attention that it received. Certainly it’s on the radar of certain people who are interested in having further discussions about this within the British government. So watch this space!
Coalition: Did you come to any conclusions about what changes to legislation would be helpful?
Jenni: After my personal experience spending nine months eating, breathing and sleeping this subject, I think there absolutely needs to be more transparency about the industry, certainly within the UK regulatory field.
There particularly needs to be more transparency about earning potential. I would like to see information in those very first meetings, or very first posts online, or videos, about the earning percentages and earning chances, simply because we found that information hard to come by, and we’re a team of journalists from the BBC, working solidly on this for nine months.
I think people signing up to a company like Nu Skin need to be told things like that within Europe, according to what we found, only 0.04% of Nu Skin distributors in the European market earn the top commission, and 89.2% of distributors earned no commission at all. I’d like to see those statistics in the opening recruitment processes, and early training of these schemes.
I’d like to see more engagement from regulatory bodies about this issue. We approached a number of regulators in the UK, and found that for various reasons this kind of falls between camps. I would like to see more clarification in UK law about the definitions of multi-level marketing and pyramid schemes, and what is and isn’t in law. Current UK law leaves room for a number of different interpretations.
In terms of carrying on the conversation, I’d like to see journalists look more at the associations between multi-level marketing companies and charities. We wished we could have explored this in the documentary. Recruiters on social media appear to be raising money for a charity by inviting people to purchase say, particular boxes of their products, and say that this is raising money for Cancer Research UK or some other worthwhile charity, and may be misleading people about where that money is going. I think there needs to be more awareness and exploration of what’s going on at the moment.
Lastly, sadly, because it would appear that the MLM industry is disproportionally female, I think that there needs to me more general awareness and more support from the government for women working part-time, working mums, and people trying to get back into the workplace, so that people who might be tempted to join multi-level marketing schemes, thinking that this is going to be a regular financial contribution to their living costs, feel like they have other options.
Coalition: We absolutely agree! Thank you so much for making such an insightful film, and for speaking with us today.
Jenni: My pleasure!