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What we get wrong about multilevel marketing, explained by the host of the popular podcast about it

The Dream’s Jane Marie on MLMs, the Illuminati, and where all that money goes.

The Dream

Ronald Reagan. Madeleine Albright. My best friend from elementary school, and a lot of the women I did yoga teacher training with.

What do these people have in common?

They’ve all been proponents of multi-level marketing: companies that sign up armies of sellers (usually women) and encourage them to hand-sell items (often domestic or beauty-related: makeup, leggings, essential oils) to their friends and family — and then, more importantly, to recruit those friends and family into selling their products as well.

Multi-level marketing companies, or MLMs, are a polarizing phenomenon: Those who do it preach it like the gospel. (Sometimes literally, as in the case of companies like Thirty-One Gifts, which draws its name from a Bible verse.) And those who don’t avoid it like the plague. Either way, narratives around them tend to focus on the experiences of sellers: the single-person tragedies and triumphs, usually measured in dollars earned or debt incurred.

The Dream, a Stitcher podcast hosted and produced by the Hairpin and This American Life alum Jane Marie, has plenty of juicy seller horror stories. (Just wait ‘til you get about the woman who missed her best friend’s wedding to go to a direct marketing conference!) But it also takes a deeper look at the history of these companies and the networks of financial and political influence that have allowed them to thrive relatively unchecked since William Penn Patrick established Holiday Magic in the early 1960s.

So The Goods sat down with Marie in advance of The Dream’s season finale, which comes out Monday, December 3, to talk about not treating people like idiots, the possibility that there actually is an Illuminati, and where you end up when you follow the money all the way to the top. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You mention in the early episodes of the show that you grew up in a family and a town where a lot of people did, and still do, MLMs. How did you approach including those people in the show? Were you worried about them reacting badly to your questions, or the finished product?

I’m very straightforward already with people: No one was surprised to think that I might be suspicious [of MLMs], so I already had an in where I wouldn’t have to alienate anyone. If I would have alienated them, it would have happened 20 years ago. I was in a good position to go into my friends’ and families’ houses to be like, “What the fuck are you doing? Why??”

The second episode in particular, where you’re driving around your hometown in Michigan interviewing relatives, was where I really latched on to the podcast. There’s a lot of reporting on MLMs, but there was a genuine humanity to this, because you’re like, these are people — these are my people — who I both love, and don’t understand.

No one would ever describe me as a sweetheart, so that’s not where I’m going with this, but in all of my work, I really try to lead with empathy and not being condescending or judgmental.

When we first started doing press for The Dream, a lot of people came back with “Duh, everyone knows [MLMs] are a scam, why are you even making this show?”

And I’m like, well, because millions of people are involved in this, and I am not about to assume that the vast majority of them are suckers or idiots. I don’t think that’s possible. They’re my friends. This is not just a bunch of clowns getting clowned. There’s something more to it.

I also feel like it makes the podcast harder to argue with if you want to show it to friends and family who are involved with MLMs: It’s not just 10 episodes of exposé reporting, saying, “These people are all idiots.” If someone’s calling you an idiot, it’s easy to write them off and move on.

If we would have gotten into it with that attitude, we wouldn’t have found the surprising things that we found. I don’t think we would have ended up where we are now in the series, which is uncovering kind of an Illuminati-ish grand conspiracy. I don’t believe in the Illuminati, but I’m getting there in our reporting.

There are forces working on my friends, and family, and regular people that are super powerful. They are really the big thing that’s driving this industry. It’s not just gullibility or wishful thinking. That’s part of it, but the other part of it is a bunch of lies.

Yeah! I did not grow up in a community where a lot of people did MLMs, so I’ve always seen it as a per-person problem, but in particular the episode where Mackenzie goes to LimeLight Palooza [a sales conference for a makeup MLM], and hears all of these stories from women about what they’re trying to do by selling, and how not-grandiose their dreams are. One woman wants to buy a headstone for her father’s grave, for example.

I really felt the hopelessness of needing money, and having no way to get it. And when someone offers you a way to do that — how could you say no? Going into that episode I did have that shitty impulse, that moment where I was like, I’m gonna hear all these idiots talking about wanting fancy cars, and then it was like, oh no, I’m really not.

We have gotten so many emails from people wanting to buy that woman her father’s tombstone.

And the thing we didn’t even get to talk about, really: All of those women that went to that conference, they spent what Mackenzie spent to get there. Or more, ’cause a lot of them flew. These people are going to a hotel in San Francisco and they are already in debt. It’s wrong. And the people in the corporate offices, they have complete access to these folks’ finances. They know. They can look and say, “This woman is now in debt with us for $2,000. Let’s take out another $1,500 on this weekend.” Gross.

They won’t talk to us. That has been really frustrating. We’ve barely heard a peep from the MLM industry. I think there’s — we’re coming back to my Illuminati conspiracy theories — but it’s been mysteriously silent. I think they’re trying to stay quiet and ride it out and hope that it goes away, because they know. They know that they’re on the wrong side of this.

You mention on the show that, in addition to people calling about the headstone, they’re calling and asking you to call their friends or moms or whoever, to tell them that MLMs are bad. Aside from encouraging them to listen to the podcast, is there anything you think people can do for loved ones who are caught up in MLMs?

In our experience, we have had people transform their thinking over the course of an hour or two in our interviews, but it does take stacking up a lot of evidence and pointing out the cognitive dissonance folks are having: believing that they can make a million dollars doing this, while at the same time maxing out their credit cards.

I think that’s the thing to point out — we all need to agree on the facts and the evidence, and the facts and the evidence are: Something like 99.7 percent of people involved with MLMs lose money.

We spoke to some experts about how this type of fraud is so rarely reported by the little guys, because all of the rhetoric in all of these companies’ materials and their promotional stuff is all like, “If you fail, this is your fault!”

So if you want to get out, you have to decide that’s not really what’s going on, and then you have to brave enough to admit “failure,” even though you were set up to fail. So that’s a hard thing to do. We don’t like to share our failures.

It’s especially hard, it seems like, when on the one hand you have the company being like, “You’re stupid if you can’t make this work,” and then on the other hand, your friends being like, “You’re stupid for doing it in the first place.”

What surprised you most in researching this? What was unexpected, or exciting, or terrifying?

How in bed the owners of these companies — and the people who run these industries — how in bed they are with our government. It’s crazy. Every single president is working some angle. Clinton, Madeleine Albright — all the presidents. Anytime we overturn a rock, it’s like, oh, really, this guy?

It’s just depressing. I just feel like, is anyone looking out for us? Is it really every man for himself?

We could make 100 episodes because I just want to keep digging. If you think about the fact that a lot of the cash flow going into these companies is credit card debt, you have to ask: Who owns the credit cards that charge 26 percent interest? The money is flowing up somewhere.

The woman who called in on the voicemail episode, who went $25,000 into debt doing Herbalife? That $25,000 is gone from her life, but it’s somewhere. Someone has that, and bought a car with it. Which is just disgusting.

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