If you drive for long enough in Utah you will, sooner rather than later, see the headquarters of a multi-level marketing company. These companies, which are commonly referred to as “MLMs,” rely on participants directly selling products to friends and family while recruiting other people to join. They are especially prominent in the state — NuSkin, Doterra and Young Living are just a few examples founded in Utah. Even if you have no interest in these companies, you might see them all over your social media feed, or receive regular pitches from acquaintances evangelizing about a “great business opportunity.”
“The Dream,” a podcast hosted by Jane Marie from the production house Little Everywhere and Stitcher, takes a deep dive into the world of MLMs, and the results are genuinely unsettling. Over 11 entertaining and informative episodes, Marie thoroughly explores the history of these companies, using notable case studies like Amway and Holiday Magic. She also explains the legal history of MLMs and shows the ties between the industry and prominent political figures. She even looks at her own personal history, questioning why her own family and friends are attracted to these companies.
Marie’s chief purpose is to expose the dishonesty of the industry and share the stories of victims. The business model of MLMs requires sellers to earn commission by selling products to family and friends. MLMs advertise this as a prime business opportunity, and participants are attracted by the chance to work from home and get rich quick. The vast majority of sellers, however, lose money, and the system is rigged by design — even if every person in the world signs on to an MLM, there will eventually be nobody left to recruit. While MLMs are legally separate from pyramid schemes, Marie’s reporting shows that in most cases, the distinction is basically meaningless. From the first episode, “The Dream” is an effective and enraging depiction of corporate greed and blatant manipulation.
To Binge or Not to Binge?
While “The Dream” is not exactly experimental, it still demonstrates the possibilities of podcasting as a form of journalism and entertainment. Few traditional outlets would dedicate the time and resources to cover this narrow topic in such granular detail, but the results here are fascinating. Marie is able to explore the topic from a variety of angles — historical, political, personal, cultural — and give audiences a complete, vivid portrait of a strange phenomenon. The podcast is even a necessary public service — recommend this show to anyone in your life involved in an MLM. Hopefully, they can see the light before losing all of their money and most of their relationships.
It would be easy to scoff at people who buy into these companies, especially the ones that seem obviously deceptive. Refreshingly, Marie takes a different approach. She understands why people are attracted by these “opportunities” and convincingly explains the particular appeal for women with limited options. “The Dream” features many interviews with current and former MLM distributors, and their personal accounts become the lifeblood of the show. Marie has a unique ability to hold powerful people accountable while reserving empathy for those who are actually victimized.
Marie, along with other contributors including Dann Gallucci and MacKenzie Kassab, are affable presences on tape, and they maintain a sharp sense of humor and a strong instinct for narrative and storytelling. If there is one bone I could pick with “The Dream,” it’s the occasional inconsistencies in tone. Marie does not hide her opinions, and sometimes, like in a combative interview with Joe Mariano, head of the Direct Selling Association, she does not even strive for objectivity. “The Dream” eschews the (mostly) impartial narration of other popular long-form reporting podcasts like “In the Dark,” “Slow Burn” or “The Dropout,” another fascinating portrait of corporate scheming. This style is not the only way to produce good a podcast, but at times, the mix between investigative journalism, personal narrative and editorial activism turns muddled, threatening to derail the show’s authority.
Still, both the facts and the arguments in the series are consistently convincing, and “The Dream” reaches some truly insightful conclusions. Without any explicit diatribes, Marie draws parallels between MLMs and the broken promises of the American dream. These companies prey on the optimism of people looking for a better life and benefit from a culture that values success in capitalism over human lives. Donald Trump has not only promoted several MLMs, but he rode to the presidency on a similar wave of false hope and empty showmanship. From Theranos to the Fyre Festival to an endless stream of online conspiracy theories, we have a seemingly limitless capacity to invest in — or gleefully debunk — scams. “The Dream” encourages listeners to proceed with eyes wide open.
Episode 8: “Destination Amazing.” In the series’ most interesting thread, Kassab joins the MLM LimeLife to understand firsthand how these companies do — or do not — work for distributors. In “Destination Amazing,” Kassab attends a LimeLife conference, and the results are downright dystopian. Desperate people rely on LimeLife to escape dire circumstances, all while higher-ups offer useless platitudes. This episode uses one specific experience to evocatively portray the human cost of MLMs.
“The Dropout,” “This American Life,” “Revisionist History,” “DTR,” “Believed,” “Freakonomics Radio,” “American Scandal” and “Household Name”
Occasional strong language.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Available to stream wherever you listen to podcasts
11 episodes, about 40 minutes each