Here in America, they’re a perennial sight in any suburban neighbourhood, particularly during the summer months. You hear a knock on your door and open it to find a youngish person, usually just out of their teens. Smiling earnestly, they introduce themselves as a student at the local college, adding that this summer they’re hoping to earn enough “sales points” to win a vacation abroad, simply by selling you magazine subscriptions at drastically reduced rates. Sometimes, you can check a box and for an extra dollar send a magazine subscription to one of our troops overseas, desperate for some reading material from home.

Young people selling magazines: what could be more wholesome than that? what could be a more fitting job for a bright, ambitious, and outgoing youth wanting to see the country?

To digress briefly: in order to research some of my work, I occasionally have to watch a certain movie or TV show for reference (mostly documentaries), and I usually count myself lucky that I am essentially paid to fill my brain with information and then pass it along to the right people, and, what’s more, I get to watch movies on my own back porch in the middle of the afternoon. That said, yesterday afternoon, I saw a film less than thirty minutes long that was well-made, well-acted, and completely authentic, with compelling subject matter in an area which never ceases to fascinate me.

I hated every minute of it.

The 2008 short film Mag Crew starts with the jarring image of a clipboard with a paper bearing the words: “NO SALES! F**KED!” clattering to neon-lit asphalt: the frontspiece to a brutal opening scene, featuring a young man being beaten severely while a circle of his peers looks on, shouting taunts at him, egging the attacker on. The expressions on the faces of the young witnesses are almost as disturbing as the violence itself: frozen masks of unconcern peering out from under hoodies, howls of displaced rage born from deep resentment and terror, sneers of schaddenfreude on freckled cheeks barely divested of their baby fat. The faces themselves provide a gallery of subtle horror: too pale, with gray circles under reddened, puffy eyelids, their cheeks sallow and their hair greasy and ill-arranged, these youths look like extras from The Hunger Games.

The victim of this attack gives up on defending himself all too soon; as the intensity of the violence increases, he visibly resigns himself to his fate and submits to the vicious blows from balled fists and booted feet. Surrounded by the jeers and catcalls of his fellow sales crew, the young magazine vendor wails in pain and waits for the end.

Most of the assembled crew regard the beating with jaded expressions; this is something they see every night. However, on the fringe of the group, a slightly older man – perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties – stands with three kids who are watching the ongoing brutality with authentic expressions of horror and shock.

Watching these obvious novices to the scene closely, the man uncrosses his burly arms and waves a hand in the direction of the violence.

“See those kids?” he asks them harshly. “You’re not gonna be like them, because my crew sells f**kin’ magazines. Remember that.”

Mag Crew is a collection of a half-dozen brutal, hard-hitting vignettes, full of violence and despair; we are pitched into their world in the midst of events, they are trapped in a hopeless cycle of violence, theft, drug-taking, and the scramble to collect credit card numbers – no matter what. From a crew member faking a seizure in order to steal medications from an elderly woman, to a barely legal teenage girl submitting to the slobbering attentions of an extremely creepy middle-aged man, to a vulnerable youth finding himself beaten bloody in a cruel version of the badger game: many would dismiss these situations as unreal, nightmarish, and completely unlikely, snorting in disbelief at the words on the screen: “based on true stories.”

A scant couple years ago, I would have scarcely believed the tales myself, even having lived through similar humiliations during my own cult days. When the pretty girls and bright-eyed boys came to our door and my husband readily paid a few bucks for magazines that often did not arrive, I would shake my head with an indulgent smile at his protests: “Well, it’s for a good cause, and the kids are getting a great experience.” It wasn’t until researching the facts on human trafficking for the Open Minds site that I read the stories of real youth living the lifestyle of the magazine sales crew member, as told in sites like magcrew.com, drawn from the experiences of young people from all walks of life and from all over the country. The product being offered may change (in some areas, it’s soaps and toiletries; in others cleaning products, flowers or candy), but the stories would be monotonous in their similarities if they were not so terrifying; for these kids, violence, drugs, credit card fraud, and rape are just part of the everyday grind.

The youths are promised fun, easy work with good pay and even better experience, but according to most of the accounts, the pay is swallowed up by the expenses the crew leaders charge – room and board and other hidden fees mean that even when a crew member is assured their money is going “on bank” – that is, saved for them to withdraw after the selling season – many of the sellers end up broke, or even worse, if they don’t make quota or complain about conditions, they might be abandoned without any money in cities far distant from home. Some even tell of being beaten and left for dead by the roadside; others did not live to tell the tale: in 1999 in Wisconsin, a van driver, exhausted after a long schedule of too many drugs and not enough sleep, rolled his vehicle and killed seven “mag crew” members. Other deaths are not so accidental, and far too many young people simply go missing, never to be seen by family or friends again.

So, what to do when the knock comes at your door? First, although it sounds cold, do not let them inside unless you’re prepared to watch them like a hawk. The former crew members tell of rummaging through purses and medicine cabinets, stealing whatever they can from the customers (called ‘Joneses’ in the trade) in order to acquire money, drugs, and credit card numbers – whatever they can to keep themselves fed and high. Those who don’t make sales quotas might be abandoned; some crews keep ‘enforcers’ on hand, ready to teach a very physical lesson on why it’s not good to disappoint the management. For female crew members, rape is almost an inevitable occurence, and if the girl dares prosecute, she finds that it is her word against several other crew members and the managers, who stick together and vouch for each other when faced with external authority – one never ‘finks’ on a fellow crew member.

When speaking to the mag crew member at your door, remember that they have most likely been humiliated, bullied, threatened, and subjected to mental and emotional coercion and social pressure techniques that any prostitute or former gang member would find sadly familiar: the insistence on loyalty, lack of sleep and adequate diet, and a population traditionally under-trained in self-assertion and over-trained in obedience to their elders makes for a volatile combination indeed. Be gentle but firm in your refusal to buy: even if the company actually does get you the magazines, you can usually buy them at much cheaper rates direct from the publisher, and you may be assured that there is no ‘sales contest’ or subscriptions sent overseas to troops. These pleasant tales are invented by the managers and then fed to the crews, coaching the kids to lie smoothly to make the sales pitch more palatable to the ‘Jonses.’

Do hand the kid a phone and tell them to call their family. Often that’s all it will take to get the youth away: a friendly voice and a ticket home. Unlike those conditioned into totalist relationships, a mag crew member is usually only too happy to leave the life, but are unable to contact friends or are too ashamed to do so. The next youngster knocking on my door offering magazines shall get not only get a hot meal and a chance to call home, they will also be shown the relevant websites, such as http://magcrew.comparentwatch.org, and travelingsalescrews.info, where a sales crew member of any age or background can turn for help. Hopefully, they might even be able to bring a few friends out with them; after paying for a bunch of magazines we didn’t want and that usually never came, I think it would be nice to be able to do something positive instead.

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about sales crews that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!