We all kind of know that multilevel marketing companies (known as MLMs) are scams. You may have seen your cousin posting on Facebook about the zany leggings she has available for sale, or even fondly remember the Avon lipsticks your grandma gave you that she bought from her friends. But you probably don’t know anyone who has gotten rich from—or even found a reliable side hustle in—companies like LuLaRoe, Avon, or It Works!. And yet, despite this reality, they persist.
The reasons why they persist—why people still take a chance on something despite abundant logic and evidence to the contrary—is the subject of the new podcast The Dream, from Little Everywhere and Stitcher. The series explains why it is so easy to get taken, with impressive empathy, a characteristic that makes its storytelling surprisingly effective. Like so many Americans, it badly wants to believe that it’s possible to turn a profit through such a fun, accessible business model. The facts it uncovers simply will not let it.
For the uninitiated: MLMs are basically businesses that rely on a task force of ordinary people to sell their products to their social networks. In addition to, say, lipsticks, these sales folks are also encouraged to sign other people up to sell for the company—to be part of their “downline.” You get a cut of anything your recruits sell, and a cut of anything their recruits sell. In turn, whoever recruited you profits off your sales. Making money off sales alone is all but impossible—you really need to get people beneath you to profit, who need to get people beneath them. It’s easy to end up with a whole town full of people trying to sell each other the same sets of lipsticks, with a large chunk of the product being purchased by people trying to buy into the company’s sales force themselves through starter kits. As The Dream explains, it is illegal to call these companies pyramid schemes, but … yeah.
What these companies are really selling is the promise of entrepreneurship to their own sales force, who are often people who don’t have a lot of options. The podcast’s host Jane Marie has a bias that serves her well throughout the series: Like many Americans, she knows a lot of people who participate in direct sales. In the second episode, “Women’s Work,” she drives listeners around her hometown of Owosso, Michigan, a “stretch of no-man’s land,” where, thanks to a deflated auto industry, 25 percent of the population currently lives below the poverty line. It’s now a “hot bed” of people—mostly women—selling each other consumer goods.
In that episode, Marie explains to listeners that she has returned to Owosso to ask “the question that pops into my head every single time they try to pitch me some new miracle essential oil, a makeup kit, or tell me about the key to financial freedom.” It is perhaps the same question you have quietly wished you could ask your loved one who shows up at family gatherings showing off some collapsible Tupperware bowl she has available for sale: “What the fuck?”
Marie knows the answer before she begins her interviews, but the interviews confirm it: People take to MLMs because they don’t have other great options. “Being a girl here,” Marie says, “there’s no clear path to a career, or an escape.” At so many moments throughout the series, I get the impression that Marie—who once did a video series called “How to Be a Girl” in which she drank wine and taught viewers makeup tricks, resulting in me personally purchasing a lot of goods from Sephora—would be out and out thrilled to learn that one of these companies actually worked. She goes in with a genuine willingness to buy into MLM’s, which is exactly what makes the series so damning.
The series takes seriously the fact that so many mainstream financial celebrities preach a gospel that implies that if we just exhibit discipline and hard work, we’ll have success. Rachel Hollis, author of the extremely popular Girl, Wash Your Face, one of the latest incarnations of the just-get-it-together school of thought, even implicitly endorses MLMs as an acceptable route, recently bragging on Instagram about the MLMs that invited her to speak at their conferences this year. It’s these kinds of endorsements, from people who present an ideal of just working hard, that make people trust MLMs in the first place.
The Dream exposes, step by step, how this just-work-hard ethos is deployed by MLMs and just how damaging it is. The series weaves together stories from people who have participated in (and in some cases, been driven into debt by) MLMs alongside episodes on the history of how the business model gained traction and why they’re still allowed by the Federal Trade Commission at all. The most compelling episodes are the ones where the show earnestly explores what it’s like to work for a makeup MLM called LimeLight. (The company recently changed its name to LimeLife.) In Episode 3, “Yes, I Would Like to Swim in Cash,” reporter MacKenzie Kassab begins a journey going undercover as a saleswoman for the brand. Before journalism, Kassab worked as a PR representative for major beauty brands and selects LimeLight because it’s more or less in the vein of luxury goods that she used to, essentially, professionally hawk.
The episode underscores exactly how easy it is to spend more on an MLM than you can make from it: Kassab has to spend $196 to purchase a starter kit just to get going, which comes with makeup suited to her skin tone. She also has to pay for a slew of fees and marketing costs. Suggestions for getting her business going include making over 30 faces in 30 days, which would involve buying more LimeLight makeup to go with other skin tones, as well as learning to be a makeup artist. The company further suggests hosting a Mai Tais and makeup party, which involves purchasing alcohol (and maybe learning how to make Mai Tais). The complicated and pricey hoops that LimeLight asks Kassab to jump through—there are website fees and business cards and a training conference called Destination Amazing that costs hundreds of dollars to attend all told—prove baffling and unhelpful. And in the end, former professional makeup hawker Kassab is unable to successfully hawk LimeLight anyway.
I’ve read stories of people going into debt working from MLMs. Listening to Kassab narrate her experience in real time—how she is “paralyzed by fear” as almost everyone ignores her Facebook posts and personalized party invitations, how truly impossible the gig is at every turn—forced me to confront the real feelings real people must be experiencing every time I scoff at one of their social media posts. For the first time, I thought about how easily I could end up in the hole if I took all my drive and ambition and affinity for chatting about fancy products and channeled it into an MLM.
This relatability is exactly what makes the show so excellent. Rather than perching from a place of financial guru explaining to people why MLMs are so bad, it willingly positions itself as closer to the victim of such a scheme. In the inaugural episode, The Dream dives into one of the central premises it explores, on how MLMs feed off a deeper lie in our economy—that if you live a good hardworking life, you will of course earn good things. Robert FitzPatrick, a pyramid scheme expert who himself participated in a scheme involving cash known as the airplane game, draws an analogy between these schemes and the pre-2008 housing market. So many people bought houses they couldn’t afford because “they were told a house would go up in value forever,” FitzPatrick explains (a mathematically ridiculous proposition).
“You nailed me,” Marie replies to FitzPatrick. “I did it. I loved that house, I wanted it.”
No wonder she’s such an empathetic host.