The Dream: All Episodes
November 27, 2018 10:35 AM - Subscribe

This season on The Dream, Jane Marie dives into the world of pyramid schemes, multi-level marketing, and all the other businesses that require their members to recruit their nearest and dearest in hopes of a commission. Join us as we trace the path of get-rich schemes from Jane’s roots in rural Michigan all the way to the White House.

Our Story Thus Far...
Episode 1: Wanna Swim in Cash?
Episode 2: Women's Work
Episode 3: Yes, I Would Like to Swim in Cash
Episode 4: The Mind is a Fertile Field
Episode 5: Do You Party?
Episode 6: The Mind is a Fertile Field
Episode 7: Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead
Episode 8: Destination Amazing
Episode 9: Leave a Message
Episode 10: The American Way
posted by soren_lorensen (21 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There's 2 episodes left in the season (will there be a second?) and next week's promises to be extra-infuriating, so I thought now would be a good time for a group primal scream about it.

Way back in 1994, when I was 19 years old, I had a brush with Amway. I was about to spend a semester in China and a guy (not a student, a grownass adult who was in no way connected to the college--FIRST KLAXON SOUNDS) that I'd met during some of my embarrassing Libertarian-curious campus activities contacted me about a business opportunity [SECOND KLAXON]. He wanted to meet and talk about it. I verrrrry reluctantly agreed but even before he said anything I was basically perching on the edge of my chair ready to run out the door. Even at the age of 19 the words "business opportunity" made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Anyway, he wanted me to take Amway (which I'd never heard of at the time but again somehow knew was bad news bears just by how he talked about it) to China, since I was going there anyway. I humored him for 15 minutes and gave him some line about how I'd get back to him once I checked out a few things. I had no intention of getting back to him. It was funny listening to the last episode about how Amway was so hot-to-trot about China in the early 90s. (Yep, checks out.)

I've been fascinated by MLMs partly because I just don't understand how people don't immediately see right through it. Am I just unusually mistrustful and skeptical? It's not that I'm particularly good at math and finance, because I'm not. My antennae for scams go up in proportion to how enthusiastic the person trying to scam me is and so far that sole criteria has served me pretty well. No one wants to share their "business opportunity" with total random strangers that badly unless the entire business opportunity is sharing the business opportunity with total random strangers.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:51 AM on November 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Very worth listening to.

The front page post, for those who are interested.
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:01 PM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been loving this podcast and recommending it to everyone I know. I had always thought of MLMs as harmless annoyances and I have been shocked (and honestly, fascinated) by the revelation that these companies are life-ruiners with powerful allies. The mix of first-person narrative with straight interviews really works here. The reporters’ compassion for these women makes it more advocacy journalism than just plain voyeurism.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 9:17 PM on November 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've been listening to this and just got my husband listening too. I also had a vague notion that these things were scammy but not evil, since most people I knew who were into them were more about selling and never had anyone try to get me into the MLM as a recruit. So I was perfectly happy to buy a 31 bag from a coworker because I liked it and it was no worse than having a coworker whose kid is selling wrapping paper ask me if I wanted anything. But it's heartbreaking hearing the stories of these women and how they are throwing all their energies and money into a project that is clearly not making money. I suppose being told it's your fault that it's not working, plus having a group of friendly people around you all in the same boat is just that psychologically effective.
posted by PussKillian at 7:47 AM on November 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

The episode where their MLM mole goes to a convention (#8 I think?) is just heartbreaking. The woman who was selling makeup to be able to afford a headstone for her dad! The woman who wanted to bring in money so her husband could quit one of his numerous jobs! I almost started crying on the bus listening to it. And the full-time MLM company reps simply Do. Not. Care. Makes you want to go full Rosa Luxemburg.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:26 AM on November 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thank you for posting this! I've learned sooooo much! The latest episode had some delightful nuggets about how shitty the Democrats have been on this (Madeline Albright, What the Hell??!) I always had a vaguely bad feeling about pyramid schemes but the explanation of the FTC was basically hamstrung in prosecuting this stuff really sheds light on what this crap is and why it just keeps going on and on.

I also appreciate that this podcast talks about a segment of the country that is not as talked about in most liberal news sources - the actual working class - and what their real lives are like, and women, and what economic choices they are constrained into making. I don't feel like I've spent a lot of time hearing about like, young working class women's pressures and struggles except in the abstract form of big picture economics charts.

One shortcoming in my view is not diving deeply into how devastating this industry is for immigrant communities. Would have been good to interview some experts who have knowledge about the impact in Latinx communities for example, as well as people in those communities who have been involved in the "industry". Overall, structurally the series is a little loose and seems most guided by like, Jane Marie's personal connections to the industry. I notice but don't necessarily mind the meanderingness of it, but I think that leads to missing some chunks of information.
posted by latkes at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh one other thing I keep thinking about:

This really digs in to how people can be simultaneously oppressed and oppressor - exploited and exploiter - as structural constraints of the industry force them to exploit more people in order to survive themselves. It is like THE best advertisement for government regulation, because this is not a problem that we can solve by like, boycotts. People are financially desperate so will be susceptible, and then while the people on the top put their feet up on their desks and accumulate piles of cash, the people under them go about doing the dirty work of scamming more people into the company - they MUST in order to stay in.
posted by latkes at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

Combining a couple of your observations, latkes, is the fact that former LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is big into Herbalife. Yeah, the Madeline Albright thing was a huge whaaat the hellllll for me.

A shift that I hope takes place when (I say 'when' under the assumption that sooner or later people do retire and/or die, though we've so far had precious little evidence of this lately) Democratic leadership starts to get younger is that we'll have politicians who can actually Google that shit before throwing their support behind some sketchy biz. I mean, when the dude in 1994 approached me about Amway, I did just have my gut instinct to go on. Had I actually wanted to for really real research and find out what it was all about in a way that didn't involve a bunch of Amway representatives telling me how great it was, I would have had to go into news archives and government records. Here in the year of our lord 2018, however, we can find out all the dirt on everything instantly and there is no excuse for publicly supporting a predatory pyramid scheme.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:08 PM on November 28, 2018

I agree, orrnyereg, that convention episode was gut-wrenching. And I was also impressed with how they handled the reporter not being able to record sound. I still got a visceral sense of what it was like to be there.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 2:05 PM on November 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have always been fascinated by MLM, pyramid and ponzi schemes, etc. and am super interested to give this podcast a try, thanks for posting about it.
posted by skewed at 2:31 PM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

The podcast does a wonderful job of conveying the vulnerability of everyone involved on the "sucker" side of the scam. Every person interviewed sounds about one hard break away from total catastrophe. The really depressing thing is that the ones who go deep on one mlm seem to have a history trying several others. They're apparently taking the lesson that if they found the right thing to sell, they could be successful. I can't imagine how hard it would be to explain to someone that they've signed up for a business that isn't meant to make them any money. Even knowing how the Herbalife clusterfuck turned out (first time I've ever felt a bit of sympathy for a short seller) or that Amway is embedded in the Republican party, it just doesn't feel like something that would be legal. And yet...
posted by grandiloquiet at 11:32 AM on November 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

They're apparently taking the lesson that if they found the right thing to sell, they could be successful.

As a former serial dieter it reminds me a lot of fad diets. Science makes it clear that fad diets don't work for long-term weight loss, but according to one UK survey the average 45-year-old woman surveyed had been on 61 diets. You can blame your lack of self control, or the specific fad diet that didn't work, and keep believing the myth that the "right" diet will be your ticket to your perfect body size. The diet industry racks in the subsequent profits, much like the MLM industry.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 4:14 PM on November 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I happened to have been listening to the Escaping NXIVM podcast at the same time I started this one, and it is an excellent companion podcast. If you enjoyed this one, there's a lot of crossover. NXIVM used the same types of psychological manipulation, you hear the same themes come up. But they didn't just use it for money -- they also used it to control and abuse people both physically (you might have heard about the branding) and mentally. Basically, an MLM that went full-on cult.

I don't understand how people could fall so deeply into this stuff, but then again their pitch doesn't really appeal to me because I have no interest in being a business executive type person, it just doesn't fit my personality or aptitudes. But it does serve as a warning for how, exactly, people can use very natural feelings of low self worth to control people, and how important it is to value yourself as a person even when you don't feel particularly valuable.
posted by antinomia at 8:48 PM on November 29, 2018

I don't understand how people could fall so deeply into this stuff, but then again their pitch doesn't really appeal to me because I have no interest in being a business executive type person, it just doesn't fit my personality or aptitudes.

Right. A big part of the appeal is that MLMs allow people whose social class, education, and resources have not prepared them at all for the task of actually running a business cosplay entrepreneurship. And I don't say that in order to be mean to the participants, but it's clear that what the MLM provides them with are trappings of a business without any of the actual infrastructure that would help the participants understand how to actually make money. They take advantage of people who don't have knowledge of what a functioning business is meant to do by giving them things that look like an independent business, but don't provide any real transferable skills.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 9:42 AM on December 3, 2018 [6 favorites]

Wow episode 10 was stressful to listen to. The fucking *nerve* of the industry shill they got on record suggesting that it doesn't matter if people lose money because it's just an "activity" (not a job or money-making endeavor, dear me no! Which yeah, of course it isn't, but that's what they promise people. Gah.)
posted by LadyNibbler at 4:48 PM on December 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

Man, this last one really hit me hard because I happen to know just enough of accounting and business law to have cringed super hard at a few things she said--in particular that bit in the statute about "this doesn't apply to anything it doesn't apply to" being shadier than it really is--but I found it fascinating that Mariano seized on trying not to call it "a job". Not for the reason she seemed to think, though. I'm... about 75% sure that the reason he's so allergic to the word "job" is because reclassifying their sales forces as employees would instantly bankrupt every single member of the DSA, and the current noise being made about reclassifying Uber drivers and the like really has to have them nervous.

I mostly spent the episode wanting to punch Mariano in the face, though.
posted by Sequence at 5:17 PM on December 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ah, excellent point about the implications of "job"=potentially legally protected employees.

Also re: wanting to punch that dude in the face, as soon as he started on about personal honor and stuff I thought "this is the lyingest dude who's ever lied." Like, nobody who isn't aware that they're lying says things like "it's important to me that you think I'm telling the truth"!
posted by LadyNibbler at 5:43 PM on December 3, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm pretty sure I burned an extra 50 calories just in rage while listening to this on the treadmill. Christ, what an asshole.

That thing about "it's not a job, it's just an activity!" is so damning. It also heavily implies the very thing they're trying so hard not to imply--that the customers, the participants in this fun activity that the company is providing, are the sellers. I kept feeling like he was coming so close to comparing MLMs to casinos--yeah, many people lose a little money, some people lose a lot of money, a few others win big, but it's all just for fun! It's a hobby! An activity! Aaaand also heavily regulated, illegal in many places, and no one is pretending gamblers aren't the casino's customers.
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:25 AM on December 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was wishing for some more direct questions, but if he was there for 2+ hours I"m sure there there were tons of evaded and avoided questions and non-answers on the cutting room floor. But I was wishing to hear him directly asked:
- What percent of MLM new recruits hope to earn the equivalent of minimum wage or more doing MLM?
- What percent of those recruits achieve that goal?
- Think of whatever is the highest functioning, most successful, ethical MLM you know: in that company, what percent of the "participants" earn 20K a year or more doing this activity?
- How much does the average participant spend per year on the company products?
posted by latkes at 9:38 AM on December 4, 2018

Overall, I really loved this series. I wish there had been more interviews with a wider range of participants. It seemed like it was pretty challenging for them to find people who wanted to talk. The interviews they did get were great. I think it could have been a little tighter. They were in a hard place given the seeming almost total absence of data on this industry. So it ultimately left a lot of questions (and also rage at this terrible industry)! I hope this opens the door to more research, and hopefully meaningful legislation about this! In California we have a super-duper Democratic majority in our state government right now, but with Herbalife money at the top (Good point about Villaraigosa who wasn't just mayor of LA but made a really good run at Governor) it seems unlikely we'll do anything in my state.
posted by latkes at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

For some reason, a lot of the ads in these episode really raised my hackles, especially the ones for investment apps.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:18 PM on December 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

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