"Hey girl! I was just looking at your pictures, and you're so cute! I love how much spunk and personality you have! Have you ever thought about doing what I do? You'd be GREAT at it! I make money just by selling products I love on social media! It's so easy, and I make great money! Right now we're running a special and you can sign up to be a presenter for a MAJORLY discounted price. Plus, FREE products! Are you in?!"
If you haven't gotten at least one DM like this from an acquaintance in the past three years, are you even on social media? These all-to-familiar messages (read: pitches) are from people who work for "Multi-Level Marketing" companies, or MLMs. Some of the more common ones you've probably seen shared on social media include but are not limited to: Rodan + Fields, Younique, Mary Kay, SeneGence (LipSense), Monat, ItWorks!, Arbonne and LuLaRoe. There are countless more. I was already fascinated by MLMs before I discovered The Dream, a podcast from Stitcher and Little Everywhere that investigates and exposes the problems with such companies, so I'm going to admit my biases up front. I think MLMs have predatory business models.
But even if you don't come to The Dream with the same opinion, don’t count yourself out of listening. The podcast works like a good documentary. It takes a stance, but it makes its argument responsibly and arrives at its conclusions through even-handed investigation, fact-checking and a commitment to interviewing people with differing experiences. You can take the podcast's conclusions or leave them, but facts are hard to ignore, and The Dream presents some pretty tough ones.
(Some minor spoilers follow, but nothing that will ruin your experience of listening to The Dream.)
Host and producer Jane Marie, a Peabody and Emmy-Award winning journalist, takes the listener from present to past and from personal to big picture throughout the show's 11 episodes. The Dream examines the history of pyramid schemes and multi-level marketing (also called "direct sales" or “network marketing”), including the legal loopholes these closed-system companies jump through in order to be able claim they are not "pyramid schemes." If you've never experienced one of these companies either through purchasing their products (which I've done, before realizing I was buying MLM) or through selling for one yourself, this historical lesson might sound boring. But it's not. It's totally fascinating. It's not just an economic exploration either — MLMs have an interesting and tangled past in American politics, with certain direct sales companies (cough, Amway, cough) playing major roles in getting certain people elected in order to control market regulations.
The Dream does so much more than give listeners historical and political context. Perhaps the thing it does best is get to know real people who work for or have worked for MLMs. Jane Marie attends a house party thrown by a Thirty-One sales representative who is actually pretty high up the "ladder" (it's a pyramid) and made $42,000 in a year selling bags for the Christian-rooted MLM. That doesn't sound too bad, right? It turns out she's only making that much money because she has nearly 200 people in her "downline," whose sales also contribute to her commissions. The chance of anyone she recruits ever making it anywhere near her own level in the pyramid is minuscule.
Her experience is not typical, however. Through The Dream's investigations, we learn that 99% of people who buy into an MLM end up with a net loss. You read that correctly. 99% actually lose money in the end. That statistic is why this whole podcast is so compelling to me. Why do people keep signing up? Jane Marie interviews a woman who lost thousands right out of the gate after signing up to sell Mary Kay cosmetics, as well as a woman who bowed out of being a bridesmaid in her best friend's wedding to go to a conference for her makeup-selling MLM under the pressure of the company (only to get fired later). The podcast even goes undercover.
A producer for The Dream actually signs up to be a sales representative for LimeLight (now called LimeLife), a makeup MLM. The podcast stays with her as she buys her starter kit, receives “encouragement” from her upline to buy more product and host parties, and even attends a conference. The result is eye-opening and even emotional, and I'm not going to spoil it for you here. This section of the podcast is just one way The Dream exposes how MLMs often target women, particularly women in tougher economic positions. The revelation of the tactics some MLMs use to get women to not only buy in, but also to recruit more and more people, helps answer the question of why people keep signing up. The answer is that often, they're being swindled.
People who work for MLMs can be defensive when others call their companies "pyramid schemes" or use the word "scam," and who can blame them? No one wants to be feel crappy for what they've invested time and (sometimes lots of) money in. One of my favorite things about The Dream is that it doesn't look down on the people who buy in. They're not treated with disdain or judgment, but rather with sympathy and empathy. Judgment and disdain are reserved for the people at the top, the ones who knowingly and willingly set up systems designed to keep 1% of people making a living and 99% of people contributing to the 1%'s wealth. (If you're seeing parallels to the US economy, there's a reason.)
Overall, The Dream is enlightening and compelling throughout its 11 episode arc. Jane Marie is a top-notch journalist who is committed to following this story where it takes her. Like any bingeworthy investigative podcast, there are plenty of juicy revelations that will make you say, "What the hell?" The Dream moves easily between intimate portraits of MLM employees and the bigger picture of the legal and political landscape of capitalism, and the result is a fair, if indicting, assessment of MLMs.
My Rating: 5/5 Stars