Accepted Paper:

Amway the Thai way: direct sale and the businesses of faith  


Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute)

Paper short abstract:

This paper focuses on the success in Thailand of a particular American Way of doing business, namely that of direct sale. In order to understand how 'Amway' became a Thai way, the specificities of the Thai case will be examined.

Paper long abstract:

In 1987 the American direct sale company Amway, short for the American Way, came to Thailand. Through a network of salespeople, so-called 'distributors', Amway sells cosmetics, cleaning agents, household products and the like directly to individuals. Direct sale products are not for sale in shops. The direct sale system was developed in the United States in the late 1940s by inventor Ed Tupper, the founder of Tupperware. The initial idea was that women in areas with few shops could buy household products easily.

Tupperware and Avon had come to Thailand already earlier, but only in the early 1990s did the presence of direct sale companies become visible. The success of the American direct sale companies also inspired the establishment of Thai direct sale companies. These Thai sisters, like Mistene and Gifferine, sell Thai beauty and personal care products. Moreover, the pyramidal recruitment principle became also the basis of certain modern Buddhist religious organizations, the Dhammakaya temple in particular.

There are several explanations for the success of direct sale in Thailand. First, it was directly linked to the extraordinary economic growth between 1985 and 1995, which also involved an exploding domestic consumer market. Second, direct sale products and being a distributor tapped into Thai imaginations surrounding upward social mobility and being modern. This imaginary places direct sale in the world of 'occult economies' (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2000). Third, the Thai hierarchical structure of patron-client relationships provided an ideal social substrate for the equally pyramidal direct sale business.

Panel W120
'America' abroad: the good, the bad and the ugly (MAC workshop II)