The Great Pyramid (schemes): “The Dream” podcast reveals the exploitation of direct-sales

Pyramid schemes might not be quite as old as the pyramids themselves, but they’ve been around for a long time.

Senior Reporter

For most women I know, the beginning of their makeup journey was a handful of Avon products passed down from their mothers. These subpar lipsticks and eyeshadow palettes were collected at direct-sales parties, gatherings where women convince other women to support their “businesses” by purchasing products at a higher price and lower quality than what they could find in a store.

Perhaps it was just the suburban Michigan town where I grew up, but a staple of childhood was having a babysitter watch you and your siblings while your mom went to your neighbor’s makeup/Pampered Chef/quirky-tote-bag direct-sales party. Multi-level marketing and direct-sales businesses garner significant involvement across the country, for women of all ages. (Just look at how popular Pure Romance parties are on college campuses.)

In the 11-episode podcast “The Dream,” producer Jane Marie dives deeper into the underbelly of multi-level marketing and direct sales, from the history, legal battles and notable characters, to the small-business owners, currently involved. While, legally, these businesses cannot all be deemed pyramid schemes, just grab a pen and some paper and draw out the managerial structure of a business that relies on recruiting individuals below you, and you’ll see what they mean.

“The Dream” sheds light on business practices that take advantage of the most vulnerable individuals, revealing that no matter how you spin it, most people lose when they enter these schemes. To understand the current state of direct sales in the U.S., the podcast goes on a historical journey to when the first multi-level marketing schemes popped up in the late 19th century. “The Dream” goes beyond the history of how these schemes have been filtering through the economy for decades, revealing their inherently gendered nature.

As women were traditionally left out of the public-sphere economy, direct-sales businesses allowed them to make money within the home. At the same time, these businesses force women to draw on their pre-existing social networks to push products and recruit members to the business.

While it is evident that success is rare within a business structure that forces you to shell out hundreds of dollars — and forces your friends to buy your product — just to break even, “The Dream” takes us to Jane Marie’s hometown in rural Michigan, where direct-sales parties are a celebratory occasion, a warm environment where women can come together for conversation and stress-relief in each other’s homes. In places where economic opportunities for women are few and far between, direct sales can seem like the perfect autonomous business structure for some extra income.

The empowerment and joy some women feel when starting direct sales is all the more painful when remembering that these companies thrive off vulnerability. The dominant messaging seems to be that if you fail at making back the several hundred dollars you shelled out on miracle weight-loss energy drinks —a highly probable outcome — it is Your Fault. But Don’t Worry! You Are A Strong Female That Can Do It!

When “The Dream” takes us inside a conference for LimeLife, a makeup direct-sales company, it becomes clear that women are not trying to start their businesses because they want lavish cars or vacations; rather, they want an income to support their son with autism or purchase a tombstone for their late father. As Jane Marie says, when a business takes advantage of desperate, hopeful people with grandiose promises of empowerment and an easy, fast income, “There is no doubt in my mind that everyone involved in that entire organization knows exactly what they’re doing,”

“The Dream” critically explicates that one does not have to be a mindless consumer to get caught in a scheme where debt and loss are inevitable; you just have to have hope and desire for a better life. 99 percent of those in these schemes lose because they simply cannot make the numbers needed to ever turn a profit, but, as “The Dream” reveals, these companies will persist as long as consumeristic hope is alive.

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