What is multi-level marketing?
In general. also called network marketing, multi-level marketing is a form of knocking on doors and making calls to directly pitch a product to a customer.
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From the website of the Direct Selling Association, the industry trade group:
Multilevel marketing, which is commonly referred to as MLM, is a type of compensation plan found in direct selling. A direct selling company that offers a multilevel compensation plan pays its representatives based on the individual's product sales as well as that of their "downline," which refers to a group of people that consultants bring into a company to generate sales, their recruits, and so on.
"Virtually every member of direct selling uses compensation not only for its own sales, but for the sales of people they bring into organization," says Joe Mariano, the group's president. "It's all based on sales to consumers and ultimate consumers—in-person, face-to-face, outside of the traditional retail environment." (Read More: Multi-Level Marketing Critic: Beware 'Main Street Bubble'.)
But not every company admits to being even a direct seller.
Tupperware, for example, no longer calls itself a direct sales company, instead using the term direct-to-consumer. The company didn't return calls from CNBC. But speaking to the Wall Street Journal, CEO Rick Goings said, "Direct selling left us, because the industry became dominate by buying clubs and what looked like pyramid schemes." (Read More: Why Spotting a Pyramid Scheme Isn't So Easy.)
And privately held Melaleuca, which is a member of the Direct Selling Association, goes out of its way to say it is not a multi-level marketer because its business model doesn't meet any state or federal criteria.
In his own blog early last year, CEO Frank Vandersloot wrote:
"Contrary to those who do not know us, our business model is nothing like Amway or Herbalife. I challenge anyone to find any similarity whatsoever." (Read More: Activist Investor Dan Loeb Takes 8% Stake in Herbalife.)