“Wanna swim in cash?” The first season of the podcast “The Dream” starts by asking the listener this question. This is the ploy many people who sell the fantasy of wealth for a multi-level marketing company, a type of business “The Dream” argues is a legal form of a pyramid scheme.
If you have ever received a Facebook message from a loose acquaintance asking if you “want to own your own small business,” then you’ve probably been approached by a multi-level marketing company. According to the Federal Trade Commission, “MLM companies sell their products or services through person-to-person sales. That means you’re selling directly to other people, maybe from your home, a customer’s home, or online.”
If you join an MLM, you can make money by both selling the MLM’s products yourself to customers and by recruiting new distributors whose commissions you earn based on what they purchase and how much product they can sell. Many of these multi-level marketing companies are big names — Tupperware, Mary Kay, Cutco and LuLaRoe — and are all run openly with a direct sales structure.
The host Jane Marie’s interest in this topic began in childhood. Marie grew up in the small Michigan town of Owosso that has become a hub for various #GirlBoss entrepreneurs who are confident participating in multi-level marketing schemes will allow them to work from home, have flexible hours and take better care of their families. These entrepreneurs spend their workday posting incessantly on social media, hosting “parties” in person or on the internet and attending conventions.
After leaving Owosso, Jane Marie became a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist who helped produce the radio program “This American Life.” With industry experience, a relaxing voice, extensive background with audio work and great production abilities, Marie makes the season easy to binge but also high-quality enough to still be great on a second listen.
“The Dream” really excels in its diverse sourcing. The show seamlessly transitions from personal anecdotes of those who were involved to the history of MLMs to an experiment that tests whether anyone can make it in an MLM. In the second episode alone, Marie speaks to her grandmother and Tracey Deutsch, a history professor specializing in gender and capitalism at the University of Minnesota. The podcast is informative and entertaining; the listener can understand the economic losses like debt, excess goods and low salaries as well as the emotional turmoil that come with one’s involvement in an MLM thanks to Marie’s expert analysis and first-hand engagement. Along with speaking to conventional experts, Marie travels to Owosso to interview women who have been involved in MLMs, such as a local seller from the MLM Thirty-One Gifts, who has been able to make a steady wage to her own family members.
Although the podcast succeeds at storytelling, the music meant to help set the mood can be distracting. Different interludes fade in and out of each episode as the show progresses and don’t really serve a purpose. Sometimes the music is so quiet it leaves your ears confused as the listener tries to hear the tinny melody while a voice speaks over it.
But where the music fails to connect, the raw, emotional anecdotes from the winners and losers of MLMs and pyramid schemes reel listeners in. Marie’s first interview with a friend’s mother was particularly compelling. She tells a story of a young single mother in New York City who was able to join a pyramid scheme early enough to see profits. It’s a modest and humorous story that reveals the appeal of the flexible work hours and promise of a fun side hustle that makes a pyramid scheme or MLM attractive for women, particularly those with children.
Marie poses a stark contrast, however, in episode three, titled “Yes, I Would Like to Swim in Cash.” Marie interviews her colleague MacKenzie Kassab to hear about her hand at a makeup MLM LimeLife and the listener quickly realizes swimming in cash is the last thing many people involved in MLMs will be doing.
The podcast tries to appeal to people’s emotions and culminates in “Leave a Message,” the show’s ninth episode. The episode isn’t broken up by scripted dialogue or interviews with experts. Instead, the premise of this episode is simply to let listeners take control of the show by leaving voicemails. Some of the voicemails are filled with rage as the listeners beg Jane Marie to call their friend to humiliate them, while others are filled with passion, such as a listener whose father-in-law tried to convince him to become a seller of ‘Melaleuca,’ hoping it would save the caller’s failing marriage.
The show is a great podcast for anyone interested in social justice, economics or the American legal system. It plays to the emotional and logical interests of listeners. It shows how these companies are a fallacy of the American Dream. Despite the effort MLM dreamers put into what they believe are their legitimate small businesses — just like in so many other predatory industries in our society — the likelihood of failure is impending. It’s a warning to dreamers that their dreams can turn into nightmares if they let their naivety get the better of them.