A Ponzi scheme in paradise?
It’s not an original insight to say people are itching to travel right now. Of the many things the pandemic has robbed us of, travel, while hardly a pressing concern, warrants an honorable mention. At its best, travel is a soul-nourishing and character-defining experience; a source of anecdotes to bolster your otherwise unremarkable personality. But at its worst, travel can be summed up neatly (courtesy of my friend Caroline) as the act of “participating in capitalism somewhere else.” While we’re all reminiscing fondly on travel, it’s important to remember these underwhelming travel experiences, too—like the time I attended a destination wedding at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana while it was hosting a tropical getaway for hucksters of the multi-level marketing and dietary supplement corporation I won’t name here due to legal concerns, but will subsequently refer to as “PonziPillz.”
For the uninitiated, PonziPillz’s business model involves the sale of a vague “wellness” product—or, as I’m sure its proponents would prefer you refer to it, “lifestyle solution”—that (allegedly) fits the mold of a Ponzi scheme so shamelessly, it would make Bernie Madoff blush. Even if you haven’t heard of it, you’ve heard of one of its spiritual cousins. It’s the type of (alleged) scam that hoodwinks a handful of people from your high school class, causing them to post Facebook and Instagram updates for the purposes of recruitment, filled with meaningless rhetoric like “don’t you want to board the invisible train to success?” I can’t say for sure, but I imagine there’s considerable overlap between PonziPillz ambassadors and QAnon alarmists.
The first signs of PonziPillz’s presence at the resort were subtle. Early on in my stay, I began to notice a disproportionate number of fitness enthusiasts littered across the campus. These weren’t your standard resort guests; people, like myself, who’d begun following an exercise regimen a month earlier in an ultimately futile attempt to get in shape. They were the types I’d seen in the marketing brochures; those whose pictures had caused me to feel like this last-ditch attempt was necessary in the first place. I later learned that these specimens were PonziPillz representatives, and that, evidently, it behooves the salespeople of dubious dietary supplements to look like the beneficiaries of the products they sell. If I’d known the resort would be overrun by them, I would have skipped the month of half-hearted crunches.
It was impossible not to interact with these people in the course of activities at the resort. They were everywhere: extolling the benefits of PonziPillz in the buffet line, in the elevator, at the fitness center, etc. Over 70% of the resort’s guests, it seemed, were attendees of this conference, and they had a way of making their presence known.
Their conversational style, for instance, wasn’t burdened by an excess of subtlety. Every topic, regardless of how mundane, was an opening to shoehorn the conversation back to PonziPillz. “Where are you from?” you might ask one of them, merely reciprocating a question they’d asked you to be polite. “I live in Boulder, Colorado. I moved out there last year to sell PonziPillz. Have you heard of PonziPillz?”
“I live in Boulder, Colorado. I moved out there last year to sell PonziPillz. Have you heard of PonziPillz?”
Without leaving you any time to admire the artfulness of their segue, they’d launch into a rehearsed sales pitch, the particulars of which elude me now. Perhaps the right word for their approach would be “unabashed.”
Two years later, I still think about one brief interaction I had with a high school-aged PonziPillz ambassador on the basketball court. I was playing pickup with a small group of strangers, and making small talk with him out of a neurotic need to fill the silence between games. Here’s our conversation, as I remember it:
“So, are you here with your family?”
“No, I’m—uh—I’m here with the PonziPillz conference.”
“Gotcha. Your parents work with PonziPillz?”
“No, I work with PonziPillz.”
“Oh, you just seem a little young is all. What do you plan to do after you finish high school?”
“What do you mean? I just told you I work with PonziPillz.”
“Hey! What do you say we get another game going, shall we?”
They’re more sure of this than I’ve ever been of anything. I’m pretty confident they’re wrong. But I don’t believe I’m right nearly as strongly as they do.
To this day, there was something about how baffled he was by my line of questioning that haunts me. This impressionable child had bought so fully into the PonziPillz life plan that the mere suggestion he might consider an alternate future didn’t compute. His unwavering certainty shook me to my core. “Should—should I be joining PonziPillz…?” I asked myself for a brief second. I was struck by the same feeling I get after speaking to ardent conspiracy theorists: “They’re more sure of this than I’ve ever been of anything. I’m pretty confident they’re wrong. But I don’t believe I’m right nearly as strongly as they do.”
As my week at the resort wore on, the wedding I’d traveled to attend went off without a hitch, and PonziPillz, while mostly a non-issue, became a fixture of conversation with the other wedding guests. We’d compare notes about our surreal daily interactions with the company’s ambassadors. Someone in our group chat cracked a joke about how none of these people were necessarily more brainwashed than your average improv enthusiast. It was half-jokingly suggested that we crash their giant finale party at the end of the week.
As it turns out, the party in question was a gigantic outdoor pool party, so we wouldn’t have needed to “crash” it if we’d wanted to attend. I know this because I walked by it while it was in full swing, on my way to the nearest beach. As I approached from a distance, I heard the faint rumblings of Bruno Mars’ hit song That’s What I Like playing in the background. There was a sense of jubilee in the air. It almost looked fun. The closer I got, however, the clearer it became that something was off. “Why is this song being performed live? The DJ’s right there,” I thought. “Is he—there’s no way—is he saying the word ‘PonziPillz’?”
And then, all of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks: PonziPillzhad hired someone to perform a live remix of Bruno Mars’ song, filled entirely with PonziPillz specific lyrics just for this party. No more “lucky for you / that’s what I like.” Nay, the lyrics that mattered on this day were: “That’s why I like / my PonziPillz.”
If you subscribe to the PonziPillz philosophy, you get to live in a magical universe where you believe the American dream is real and achievable…
Watching these partygoers drowning in a sea of joy, shouting these lyrics ecstatically, it dawned on me, once again, that perhaps I was the one who needed to reevaluate my attitude. Here they were, having the time of their lives, while I, conversely, was in the middle of a tropical paradise, judging them for liking a tacky remix, and worrying about how many of them would later be victims of the company’s (alleged) warped financial incentive structure.
And, for a brief moment during this introspection, I saw the appeal of the PonziPillz pitch. If you subscribe to the PonziPillz philosophy, you get to live in a magical universe where you believe the American dream is real and achievable; you don’t think too hard about whether the content you consume is inane or heavy-handed; you’re unburdened by anything other than your own desire to ascend the (alleged) pyramid. But then I thought about it for a few seconds more, concluded “Nah, that’s stupid,” and enjoyed the rest of my vacation.