Skepticism

Jesus wants you to be rich.

I’ve finally settled back into a normal routine after finishing a month of overtime work at the nuke plant. Now that I’m back to a regular work week on a more conventional job site, I’m getting caught up with all of my podcasts. Forgive me for being a month late to the game, but I just got to the Skeptic’s Guide interview with Robert Fitzpatrick about pyramid schemes, and I thought you all might be interested to read about some of my experiences and knowledge on this topic.
How do I know about this? Well, I grew up in Amway.

My parents discovered Amway in the late seventies, between getting married and having me. I’m not entirely clear on how they became involved, but my parents don’t do anything half-assed. They went for it big time. They recruited a few couples with whom they have remained very close over the years, and have maintained a small base of customers who do actually buy products from them.

Driven by the desire to “be his own boss”, my dad would go through phases of motivation, in which he would be out almost every night to “show the plan” to prospective new recruits, trading his grungy construction day wear for a clean suit and tie. Despite his natural charisma and friendly demeanor, he was never very successful at this endeavor. I think in the 15 or so years of his heavy involvement, he may have recruited 3 or 4 couples who stuck with it for any amount of time.

A constant memory of my childhood is of my parents getting all dressed up to go to local Amway meetings. These were the only times (apart from special church holidays) that I ever saw my mother in a dress or high heels or a purse (she’s a bit of a tom-boy). I remember knowing they’d come home when I heard the comforting clomp of her heels late at night. We would also travel to different locations throughout the country so they could go to Amway conventions. Sometimes these would be incorporated into a larger family vacation, which was cool in that we got to visit some places that we otherwise wouldn’t have gone to.

Then there was the constant harping about “brand x” products (anything that wasn’t made or sold by Amway). Like I said before, my parents don’t do anything half-assed. If Amway made it, we used it. In their more fervent phases, my siblings and I were not allowed to bring “brand x” items into the house.

My childhood was steeped in the language of the “can do” attitude. My dad would continually use cliches like “Are you a weiner or a winner?” (No, I am not making this up.) We were given Amway t-shirts with positive phrases on them, and subjected to the music of the Goads, an Amway musical group (again, I am not making this up). And then there were the motivational cassette tapes. Though, I must say, my brother and I had entirely too much fun creating our own tapes using the portable tape recorder my parents purchased so they could listen to their Amway tapes. I wish I knew where those ended up.

Despite our parents clear attempts at indoctrinating us, my brother and I adopted a fairly skeptical attitude toward all this. From our perspective, our choices were being limited, we could see that our dad’s attempts at recruitment were largely failures, and other people didn’t seem to take any of it seriously. Also, the higher up Amway people we had met were really fake and cheesy, and nobody like us seemed to be getting rich off of it. So we sort of made fun of it all behind our parents’ backs, and hoped for the day when they would realize it wasn’t getting them anywhere.

When I was 16 years old, my dad had some sort of transformative religious experience (or manic episode) which radicalized my family from a somewhat involved, church-going Catholicism to a cultish charismatic “evan-tholicism” (my husband’s word). So basically, they switched obsessions from Amway to Jesus.

My mom still sells Amway to a handful of people. I have to admit, I buy laundry detergent from her. What can I say? It’s highly concentrated and comes in a big jug, so I only have to buy it once a year. She doesn’t really make any money off of it. I think they still have 2 or 3 “downline” recruits, but are no longer actively pursuing expansion.

Do I think Amway is a cult? Definitely. The meetings were scary for me as a kid, and are even scarier in retrospect. Is it fraud? I’m not sure. Probably. From what I’ve seen, no one but the top tier are making any kind of substantial money off of it. I don’t know that I agree that the products are a token to disguise the true pyramid nature of the scheme. It definitely started that way, but I think as Amway has had to contend with legal challenges, they’ve put more energy into developing a legitimate product line. In all fairness, the stuff is generally pretty good. It is relatively expensive, but in my opinion is comparable to similarly priced “brand x” items. I think a big problem with this is the fact that most of the (working class) people like my parents who join Amway to achieve the “American dream” end up spending a lot more on their monthly expenses, because instead of buying generic shampoo at the supermarket, they are buying the equivalent of a salon brand from Amway–it’s good stuff, but they don’t really need to be spending $15 for high grade shampoo when they could get a perfectly serviceable brand for $1.

Amway definitely sells false hope and preys on people’s desire to find a quick way to get rich and be financially independent. It also churns out rhetoric about “winners” and “losers” that makes it difficult for people to place blame with the corporate structure when they do not succeed. It presents a bizarre fusion of capitalism and Christianity that first bolsters self esteem with feel good messages and ultimately tears it down when the system doesn’t work.

After all, Jesus wants you to be rich, and if you can’t do it selling expensive products to people who can’t afford them, well, you must just be a loser.

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38 Comments

  1. I agree that the “core” Amway products (ie, Soap) is good stuff, nothing earth-shattering but still quality stuff. But let’s be honest, no one gets into Amway to sell soap. Let’s just say when I was 19ish I… um… was looking to “be my own boss”, as well.

    When I told my wife I was a “skeptic” (well I actually discovered there was a label for me at least), the first thing she said was, “Is that like Amway?”. True story.

    Which actually now that I think about it, skeptics have at least one major convention (TAM), and I’m pretty sure you are required to own at least one snarky T-Shirt (Viva la evolucion, Don’t high-hat the monkey) and listen to “skeptical” podcasts.

    Dammit! I’ve been hoodwinked again…

    Skepti-Double-Diamond-gator

  2. I recall having more than one person coming to our house when I was a kid to try to bring us into the Amway fold. I didn’t really know about it or care at the time. But I think they pissed me off because my parents forced me to come in from playing to liten to it all. Cruel thing to do to a kid.

  3. Something else just occurred to me . . .

    Am I mis-remembering or are Amway people not supposed to come right out say it’s Amway they’re pushing.

    See, my mom was unable to say no to people who told her they had a fabulous opportunity to tell her about, so she would allow random people from her church to come over for the spiel. And I think I recall my father once asking right up front “Is this Amway?”

    And the presenter seemed to hedge and sort of refused to answer. My father got more agitated and kept asking until the woman finally said something like, “Well, yeah, Amway makes the products,” or something like that.

  4. sam, i’m not sure if that’s true or not. it seems to me that, regardless of the official policy, people would try to hide the amway name in order to prevent the immediate skeptical reaction that the name would evoke in most people.
    from what i can remember, my dad referred to it as simply “the business”.
    in north america, amway is now operating under the name quixtar. i assume this is because most people won’t take amway seriously due to decades of bad press.

  5. I am embarrassed to admit that my sister actually tried to sell me Amway once. I honestly thought Amway had morphed into a bunch of other sales organizations.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t the ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ phenomenon a loose mix of capitalism and Christianity as well?

    So what about “[i]t is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24)?

  6. sam, i’m not sure if that’s true or not. it seems to me that, regardless of the official policy, people would try to hide the amway name in order to prevent the immediate skeptical reaction that the name would evoke in most people.

    Sounds reasonable, I suppose. That’s exactly the reaction my father had. I don’t think he stayed for the rest of the presentation. The lucky bastard.

  7. i don’t know too much about rich dad, poor dad, but it seems to fall in that general category.

    as for the bible verse you quoted, trust me, the contradiction is not lost on me. it seems that especially since the reagan years, this sort of evangelical capitalism has become dominant in mainstream american christianity. i wonder if it has anything to do with the mass exodus of christians from the democratic party after the roe v wade decision? maybe they needed to adapt their faith to the rest of the republican ideology?

  8. That’s an interesting comment – I agree with you, but I have a different personal experience with the religio-capitalist evolution (a friend of mine on this board has taught me the fine art of neologisms) … My mother was raised a hardcore Catholic (immigrants from Germany and Poland) and is the epitome of the “Reagan Democrat” (voted for Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980, and Republican thereafter) … It had more to do with economics – between 1976 and 1980, my parents went from being blue-collar to being small business owners, so it had more to do with perceived fiscal conservatism … I say “perceived” because Republicans spend as much as Democrats (if not more), but they spend on different things and instead of raising taxes, they just borrow …

    To be completely honest, I never heard anything about abortion in our house growing up … But I don’t dispute that you may be right – I was only two years old when Roe v. Wade was decided, but I got to know Sarah Weddington (lawyer who won the case) in her gender-based discrimination class years ago, and she pointed out that abortion was legal in a number of states before that case and there was not an outpouring of protest as there was after that case …

  9. I had totally forgotten about it until I listened to the Amway episode, but my mum was into it years ago also. Obviously I knew nothing about Amway at the time, I thought they were just a company that made powdered milk or something. But we did have the cassettes and videos lying around everywhere. I taped over just about all of them to make mix-tapes and record episodes of Red Dwarf… which, I think, may have saved my mum from the clutches of Amway. In fact the more I think about it the more it makes sense… I am a hero.

    I should ask her about it now. See how much money we lost.

  10. I’ve known a couple of people who got sucked into “multi-level marketing” schemes… it was pretty sad. One of those took me to a meeting, and it was pretty blatantly cultish. I actually asked the leader, “So, what percentage of the [people] in your group actually reach that high-income level?”

    The guy guffawed and said “why would you want to know that?” [Umm, because you want me to pay you money and are promising implausible riches?] In this case, I could easily tell it was a canned response, and that’s saying something, what with my social disabilities and all. (Or possibly because of them?) As I learned later, that derisive laugh and dismissal is a standard cult tactic for squelching inconvenient questions.

    The leader also told my then-friend that I would not be welcome to return to their meetings. (Yeah, I lost the friendship….)

  11. mass exodus of christians from the democratic party after the roe v wade decision?

    The beginnings of the religious right had nothing to do with abortion. It was in 1975 when the IRS was threatening to revoke tax exempt status from discriminatory Christian schools such as Bob Jones University that the shit hit the fan.

    The Southern Baptists and other evangelical groups actually supported Roe v. Wade, both before and after 1973.

    It wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that they adopted the anti-abortion stance as a way to carry the momentum forward into a long-term political movement. This was not a grass-roots effort, but something that was started intentionally to create a political movement.

    I think one of the first anti-abortion tracts was written by Melody Green and published by Last Days Ministries in 1979.

    You can read an account of this here and I’m working on a post about this topic, too.

  12. Also, the “Word of Faith” or “Name It, Claim It” movement was really at its peak in the 1980s. This is the group was led by Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and several others who said that God wanted his followers to be rich. This teaching, while outwardly rejected by most other Christian sects, has actually been absorbed into their doctrine unconsciously, especially in the mega churches. This is just a personal observation. I haven’t seen this written about anywhere, but I’m sure I’m not the only person who has noticed this phenomena.

  13. thanks for the info, donna…i guess most of my knowledge about this stuff in the late 70s and early 80s comes from catholic sources when i was still involved in all that, and assumptions i’ve made since based on that (probably very biased) information.
    i look forward to reading what you have to say about it.

  14. I did Amway, and I think I’m still a Quixtar (the current incarnation) distributor (I’ll have to check and see if my account is still active). Amway never asked anyone to pretend they weren’t pushing Amway in the presentations, but there are two power structures in the Amway business… Amway and the Diamonds. The Diamonds are the ones who make all the motivational tapes and materials and put on all the seminars & stuff. The Diamonds make more money on that stuff than they do on Amway products… the Diamonds are the ones who tell you to obfuscate what you’re really selling until you’ve got the prospect “hooked” on the “dream”.

    Frankly, I haven’t been able to afford the Amway stuff in a year or so because we’re getting rid of our debt and my hubby went back to school. But I like a lot of the products, so I never dropped my distributorship. But I am doing just fine with “Brand X”, the only thing I’d probably still keep buying even if I dropped my distributorship is the vitamins, because I physically feel better when I take them, but they’re BLOODY EXPENSIVE, so I haven’t had them in over a year. ::shrug::

    Even when I was trying to make the business go, though, I quit the tapes and seminars, because I hated them, and I refused to do the pressure sales pitch. I will never have a significant downline or make money with Amway, I know. Anyone thinking it’s a way to make it rich is nuts.

  15. When my step-mother got into her born-again phase while I was in Junior High, she got all caught up in the Amway cult. Yes, it certainly looked like a cult to me and when the people would come over my father hid in the bedroom. They were like Stepford Wives/Husbands who smiled way too much and sounded way too chirpy. Not only that, the products such as cleaners, were no better than Fantastik, imo, and too expensive. I think my father finally told her to stop it.

    At the same time she started watching the 700 Club. Ugh. Then Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Oh, the early 80s…then I got “attacked” by Mary Kay people she got involved with. It was one thing after another (and still happens).

    Some people have an addiction to “clubs” of these sorts and live in a sort of fantasy world where they believe all the infomercials about get-rich schemes and success. And it’s sad because through my job I saw many many people, especially the elderly, get ripped off. And as with my step-mother, she spent more money being involved in the thing than what she ever got in return.

    Glad to hear your experience.

  16. thanks for the info, donna…i guess most of my knowledge about this stuff in the late 70s and early 80s comes from catholic sources

    I was in the middle of it, but I couldn’t see what was happening. I knew that certain Christian groups wanted to take over the US government and there was a lot of fear of the World and the Devil to make people buy into that dream, but I never thought they had a chance at success. Sigh. The things you can’t see except in retrospect… the same fear mongering is still going on today, but it seems like the younger generation of Christians are smarter than I was and are not buying it. At least I hope that’s the case.

  17. When I first moved to Texas I answered an ad in the paper for salespeople. Turns out what I would be selling was off-brand perfume an cologne out of the trunk of my car. It had all the trademarks of a “cult of capitalism.” They wanted to send me out of town for weeks at a time (why I couldn’t stay local I never could get a straight answer to even though others came from out of town to sell where I lived), there was the warning that some of my friends/family wouldn’t understand and would try to stand in my way, there was the promise of owning my own franchise within a year if I just worked hard enough. And to top it all off, they didn’t want us selling door-to-door at people’s homes so they wanted us to go door-to-door at buisnesses.

    At the time I was to naieve and/or desperate to see it for what it was worth but thankfully my unwillingness to peddle crappy cologne to people while they work saved me.

    In regards to the rise of the cult of capitalism in general I’ve heard it said that one of the reasons why Scientology has become so popluar among celebrities is that it teaches that their wealth is deserved.

  18. Thanks for the engaging post.

    I had a friend try to sell me on Amway in the early nineties. Even though I was not nearly as skeptical as I am today, I managed to say that it just seemed a little too cult-like for me to be interested. He has since left Amway, and has been apologetic over having pitched it to me and we’re still friends.

    I now have a friend whose wife sells 4Life (an equally cult-like MLM) and I am really concerned about her and my friend. Aside from infiltrating the organization to find out enough to debunk it, I’m running short of ideas.

    Anyone have experiences with 4Life?

  19. i’ve never heard of 4Life before. i’d say if your friend won’t listen to reason, you just have to stick to your guns. don’t be obnoxious, but don’t let false or misguided statements go by unchecked. from what i’ve seen, most people get disheartened very quickly and start to see through it, but then there are those who keep at it…imagine what they could bring to the world if they’d just apply their hard work and ambition toward something other that making other people rich.

  20. Amway was big with Mormons, as well, when I was in the church in the 80s. In fact, Utah is like the center of multi-level marketing. I’ve been approached by four different companies that sell nutritional products in the past three years and when you do the research, it’s all the same family in Utah.

  21. Doesn’t matter what the name is … it’s the same rigamorale, and it irritates me that so many Christians get involved in it and try to mix the two belief systems together. I had a conversation recently with a good friend whose wife used to be much closer to me than she currently is, and we were talking a little about why the wife and I had drifted apart. I finally came out and said, “I just felt like every time we were really getting into a good conversation, it turned out she was trying to sell me something.”

    And that RIGHT THERE is why I think Christians and Mormons are such a good fit for multi-level marketing. They’ve already spent their whole life starting conversations with a hidden agenda, steering them in the direction they want them to go so that they can casually drop the sales pitch into the conversation. So all they have to do is shift from selling Jesus to selling soap.

  22. This is kind of a pet topic for me. I had an online friend that got into one of these multi-level marketing groups. He became an “independent distributor” for one of those mangosteen health drink companies (headquartered in *gasp* Utah). He kept posting messages on the forum we were both members of, singing the praises of this stuff. He claimed repeatedly that it was a magical cure for what ails ya. He proudly admitted that he’d sold cases of it (the drink is ridiculously expensive) to a friend’s mother, and claimed that it was curing her breast cancer. Of course, when I asked him if he was actually making a profit from selling the product, he sidestepped the question. When I pointed out that you can buy it on ebay for significantly less than what he was paying as a distributor, he accused me of being jealous of his opportunity for success. Then he stopped posting to the forum for a while.

    When he came back, several months later, it was to post a long apology. Turns out his friend’s mother had relapsed after stopping her treatments in favor of the drink, and she was very ill. Meanwhile, he’d nearly lost his shirt trying to sell the stuff to everyone he knew while trying to keep up with his purchasing quota. He’d had to stop paying a lot of bills, including internet, which explained why he hadn’t been posting.

    If anyone is interested in learning more about how these sort of companies operate, Rob Cockerham of Cockeyed.com has an excellent report he published in 2002 (and has updated several times since) after spending a lot of time researching the Herbalife company. They’re the ones ultimately responsible for the vast majority of the “work from home” and “lose weight” signs and ads you see posted all over the place.

    Although the business practices of these companies are reprehensible, they are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Because their entire sales force consists of independent distributors, they claim no responsibility for the sales tactics that are used. And as long as they have a salable product, they don’t legally qualify as a pyramid scheme. The key, though, is that very few people, if any, ever make a profit selling the actual product, no matter how good it is. They can make much more money by selling the overpriced training materials and getting commissions for bringing in new distributors. The goal, then, becomes recruiting more and more people into the organization rather than actually making sales. Which means they are, in reality, pyramid schemes.

  23. I’m an atheist, a liberal, a skeptic, and Amway distributor. There’s a deal of ignorance about how Amway operates, and unfortunately quite a lot of that is shown in many of the posts given above. First of all, for at least 25 + years, if you’ve ever been to an “Amway meeting”, it’s highly unlikely it was a meeting run by Amway. As theantichick pointed out, most meetings are run by individual diamonds or other organisations that have sprung up to support Amway distributors (currently called Quixtar IBOs). Given the very nature of networking, these groups tend to reflect the leaders that developed. Some of the largest in North America sprung out of the religious south, and as such they have a very strong christian base in them. To an atheist like myself their meetings, tapes etc do indeed feel very “cult-like”, quite scarily so. On the other hand, the group I work with developed out of the kitchen of an aerospace engineer. While he’s a christian, he doesn’t promote it, and his group has many other engineering types. We’re not exactly leaping in the air and chanting and singing at our business seminars.

    Skepchic – I’m not sure where your comment regarding “legal challenges” comes from. Amway itself has had extremely few legal challenges since the FTC first investigated the company in the 70s. There have been lawsuits involving disgruntled former-distributors, but most of these have related to problems with other distributors rather than the company itself. As for Amway products, they’ve pretty much always been considered some of the best around, with their first products also being some of the first environmentally friendly products on the market. Their brands such as Nutrilite, Artistry, and eSpring are some of the biggest selling in the world and have one numerous awards.

    Finally, I think it’s worth pointing out that Amway, and it’s current North American counterpart Quixtar (being renamed back to Amway this year) actually has rules against things like promotion of religion and politics at Amway related seminars. They’ve been extremely poor at policing such rules, however in the last couple of years they’ve launched an “accreditation” program for the organisations that run these seminars, and they’ve now linked accreditiation to quite a number of the commission payouts. If the organisation you choose to work with or yourself doesn’t obtain accreditation, then you don’t get the payments/free trips etc.

    Hopefully many of the types of stories given above will become footnotes for the history books.

  24. icerat, thanks for your comments. i have to admit, the information about legal challenges i cited came from the fitzpatrick interview. sometimes we forget we should be skeptical of the skeptics, too. i’m interested to do some more digging on this topic.

    what you’re saying about the amway corporation’s views on the issues i’ve raised is interesting. i hope they do take more initiative in correcting some of the cultish behavior out there. until they do, i think my criticism stands.

    i spent 15 years of my life immersed in it, and there was never any distinction made between the diamonds and the corporate structure. they were seen by my family and everyone else we knew in the business as the face of amway.

    if this wasn’t indeed the case, i think it was irresponsible of the amway corporation to allow this to become the common view of their company. by saying nothing, they essentially condoned it.

    i think it’s clear from the comments on this blog that many people have had similar experiences to mine, and have the same general understanding of how amway operates and the messages associated with it. as i said above, if these are indeed inconsistent with the amway corporation’s intentions, then they should have stepped in long ago and corrected it.

  25. carr: Frankly, it reminds me of the Church of Scientology’s strategy of decentralisation. Rather than having a single, large lawsuit magnet, they form a bunch of splinter groups to diffuse the liability and protect the organisation as a whole.

    The Diamonds in the Amway case seem to play the role of, say, the CCHR in Scientology of pushing the controversial stuff that might attract lawsuits for fraud or libel (respectively). At least, that’s my read of the situation.

  26. carr2d2 – you are correct about them being “the face of Amway”, my point is that as such there were *many* such faces. Historically the corp. itself used to run seminars etc, but some groups, primarily the evangelicals, became enormously successful running their own seminars with an even stronger religious and political bent. This plays extremely well to those who like that kind of thing, and through the late 70s and 80s these groups grew significantly. In the early 80s the corp. tried to take back a sembelance of control, but some of these “big pins” effectively called a boycott and in 1983 Amway sales dropped more than $300 million in one year, then nearly a quarter of total corporate turnover.

    The corp. itself had little choice but to go into “survival mode” and effectively ceded control of the “field” to the “big pins” and pulled back much of the corp. training . Others who were not part of those organizations were effectively forced into forming their own organizations for running seminars etc. and you ended up with literally dozens of different organizations supporting and promoting the Amway business., each with their own methods of doing things and organizational culture. Through the 80s the evangelicals were still the major players of these groups in the US, but through the 90s other groups and Amway itself focused on international expansion, eventually reaching the place we are today, with Amway being far larger outside the US and the evangelicals having had their power dramatically curtailed. Today the non-evangelicals make up a much greater portion of Amway’s revenues both globally and within the US, allowing Amway to wield a big stick against miscreants without fear of being forced out of business. Groups have until the end of this year to abide by accreditiation guidelines (www.quixtaraccreditation.com) or they will forfeit the right to all of the higher bonuses and commissions.

    Joshua – there’s actually been remarkably few Amway related lawsuits given the size and nature of the organization, and except for one recent case involving a dispute between distributors, Amway is pretty much always named as a co-defendent. In most cases the accusations have been Amway didn’t do enough to stop “abuses”, and in my opinion there’s some justification to that charge, though it carries little legal weight. Diffusion of liability just isn’t an issue when you’re attracting few lawsuits in the first place.

  27. How else can you defend something so far removed from the truth but with untruths, spin and faith?

    We can all sing in the same choir of truth, reason and common sense here at SkepChick, but maybe more of us should also have our songs with the deluded and gullible masses on other blogs. There is some evidence that many faith heads leaving organised religion end up with something even more bizarre and delusional, and that is some New Age guru’s word that the paranormal is normal and the supernatural natural.

    Some of us were doing our best at http://www.intentblog.com the Deepak Chopra family blog where he tells the world that RCB (remote cutlery bending) is a fact. Can you imagine, in this day and age telling your readers that mental spoon bending is a reality that our society is trying to deny? He says, “Let’s not waste any more time on spoon bending. For millions of people it is now a trivial example of mind and matter as inseparably one”. http://www.intentblog.com/archives/2007/10/my_last_message.html

    http://www.intentblog.com/archives/2007/10/a_letter_to_all.html

    These pretenders are doing their stuff often without the slightest challenge! Please have your say at http://www.intentblog.com. Your first comment should be a mild one in order to be approved and displayed in up to 24 hours. Subsequent posts will appear quicker. We must try to tell these gullible folks to give reason a chance to find the truth before accepting some charlatan’s word and advice not to be skeptical and to have faith in his teachings

  28. i may have to give that a shot, skeptisch, but this makes me think we’ve lost the battle before we’ve even entered the game:

    NOTE: We do not tolerate comments that are disrespectful, slanderous, or generally unrelated to fulfilling a mission of collective empowerment. If community members are found to consistently violate this mission, they are banned from contributing

    that sounds like they could find grounds to ban just about anyone they don’t like. it almost makes me mad enough to try it, though. i guess if enough of us do it, they’ll have a hard time filtering us out.

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