Review of “Selling the Dream” by Jane Marie, published by Atria Books
by Robert L. FitzPatrick, Author of PONZINOMICS and FALSE PROFITS

Author’s Note: Having worked decades when publishers would not publish any “anti-MLM” book, I am very supportive of all new books that offer a consumer perspective and critique of MLM, as “Selling the Dream” does. 

Regarding this new book, I was extensively interviewed and consulted for the author’s podcast, “The Dream, Season One.” I provided the podcast producers with years of my research on MLM, its history and politics that are in my book, PONZINOMICS, which was published shortly after I was in “The Dream” podcast in 2018.

This book review responds to questions I am receiving about my views of the new book that is based on that podcast. Beyond more “anti-MLM” books getting published, it is also a positive new development that these books can be critically reviewed by colleagues, as my own book has also been reviewed.

Some have described their personal awakening to MLM’s terrible reality as “peeling an onion.” Discovering the nasty lies on the onion’s surface leads to more and greater lies at the next layer and the next. Others speak of “going down a rabbit hole”, each compartment leading to another containing deeper and darker deceptions. Most people abandon the search when they glimpse the darkness of where it might lead. A useful inquiry requires admitting to not knowing what MLM is and that what is believed might be untrue. Add in need for courage to speak a truth that can lead to scorn and gaslighting.

Having dug deeply into MLM and over a long period (my first national media interview was on CBS 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace in 1999) I liken my own MLM learning path to Dante Alighieri’s epic search for truth that took him through eight levels of Hell. In his famous allegory, The Divine Comedy, written about 1320, Dante descended successively through terrifying regions of evil. He visited the regions of Lust, then down into Gluttony, deeper into Greed, Anger, Heresy, and Violence.

Finally, he arrived at the very bottom of Hell, equivalent in my journey to grasping the true nature of MLM. He came to the regions of Fraud and Betrayal, which are also the core truths of MLM. 

These terrible truths are avoided in documentaries, podcasts, news stories, and academic treatments of MLM. Selling the Dream by podcaster Jane Marie offers a lot of good information about MLM while staying safely on that well-travelled path of avoidance. It repeats years-old research from other writers, including much from Ponzinomics, on the origins and history of MLM dating to the 1940s. The stories of the founders of early MLMs are told again. There are the sad stories of victims as told in numerous podcasts. One hapless guy claims he lost $200,000 because he said the products are overpriced and he kept buying MLM “tools” for “success.” Hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s short-selling fiasco is included. There’s a long repetition about MLMs selling snake oil remedies. 

If Selling the Dream were about mouse traps and written to help mice, the book would offer a lot of interesting information about various cheeses and other baits, their quality, taste, color, etc. It would tell the mice some colorful stories about the trap’s inventors. But it would avoid telling the mice right from the start, clearly, and forcefully that the cheese sits on a malevolent device designed to break their little necks! It would not definitively explain that the device is a murderous trap, not a plate of free food, as it is disguised.

There are understandable reasons for avoiding the core realities of Fraud and Betrayal. Facing them can be extremely unsettling. MLM is experienced on a person-to-person basis among those we trust and identify with and may even love. MLM lures each person to betray their own values and personal responsibility and then to betray friends and family. 

One way that Selling the Dream avoids the brutal realities is by omitting all history of the anti-MLM movement, the earlier books and websites, the pioneers, and how the lives of whistle-blowers were affected. Websites were shut down. Many were sued into bankruptcy or forced to settle with the coerced promise never to speak of the MLM again. A few left the country. Reputations were trashed. This is how traffickers in Fraud and Betrayal operate. It’s hard to describe that history in an upbeat or snarky tone.

At the levels of law enforcement, political leadership, Wall Street, publishers, the news media and academia, Betrayal involves abetting the Big Lie that MLM is an “industry” based on “direct selling.” Betrayal is withholding the truth that MLM is a calculated trap designed to break necks, financially, not provide “income.” Telling the plain truth of this can make some people in high places unhappy.

The reality of Fraud is avoided for similar unsettling reasons. To acknowledge this core truth means having to drop the popular pretense that MLM is a “complex business” that mysteriously escapes the rule of law, even as it inflicts losses on 99%, year after year. Avoiding the reality of Fraud includes avoidance of the frightening reality of cultic mind control, even as MLM recruits shockingly behave as self-sabotaging robots.

In fact, the basic nature of MLM is obvious, not new, not complex. MLM’s “endless chain” recruiting model, as regulators used to say, is inherently unfair and deceptive. Pyramid schemes purposefully use deception and cause harm. Loss to victims is by design. That design can be deconstructed to show how any enterprise using the MLM model will always produce the same results: loss to 99%. It’s hard to acknowledge this in an entertaining way.

Selling the Dream correctly reports that MLMs are “blame the victim” schemes though it obscures whom to blame. It diverts the focus away from actual perpetrators, the ones Dante put in his lowest regions of Hell. 

The first diversion redirects attention back toward all of us humans. The book explains how we can’t seem to grasp exponential math (5x5x5…), making it easy to deceive us with MLM’s “endless chain” proposition. This is not presented in Selling the Dream, however, to call for making such a false proposition per se illegal, as it used to be. Rather, the problem is with us. We just don’t seem to get that it’s “marketing.” Our bad.

Then, we seem to be hard-wired to recoup past losses, or “sunk costs,” leading us to obey, when MLMs tell us, “Don’t quit!” The book also explains that we humans desperately want “community”, even when it is artificial and only lasts the short time of involvement in MLM. We grasp for hope, even false hope. MLM, which the FTC says is “legal,” routinely uses these lures, tricks and promises as part of its “business.” So, the losses we suffer must be on us. Buyers should beware.

The other diversion has to do with law enforcement, in particular the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Selling the Dream correctly reports the FTC is doing very little to protect consumers from MLM abuse. But it advises not to blame this poor little agency. We should feel sorry for it. It has very limited resources, and many other priorities. It does the best it can, putting responsibility back on us.

Selling the Dream does not explain why the FTC should be in charge. Its job is to regulate “trade.” Fraud is not trade. Pyramid scheme rackets are not “business.” Why doesn’t the FTC just refer evidence of widespread pyramid fraud to the Department of Justice for prosecution? This more powerful path of inquiry is not pursued in Selling the Dream, and the author never plainly or forcefully offers her own position on what MLM is – a business or a disguised pyramid fraud?

Since law enforcement is not to blame, the book asks why doesn’t the market mechanism of “buyer beware” work? By now, shouldn’t there be enough consumer experience and information that most people would not sign up with MLMs? What’s wrong with us that we keep joining these “scams”?

It’s a question I am frequently asked by journalists. It seems reasonable, but it is not based on reality. Yes, a lot of people have listened to “anti-MLM” podcasts, documentaries about “bad” MLMs, and maybe even heard about the 99% losses. But they have real and immediate need of income, and they also hear much louder, more authoritative voices – FTC, SEC, Chamber of Commerce, Department of State, State AGs, Governors, military leaders, pastors, sports stars, celebrities, university professors, major news media – that MLM is “legitimate and legal.” They hear these voices say it’s not a pyramid scheme. It can’t be! Pyramid schemes are illegal. The FTC says MLM is legal. The voices say MLM’s not a cult. MLMs are businesses. Cults are not allowed into the US Chamber of Commerce! Hedge funds don’t buy the stock of cults!

Whom are people to believe, a witty and ironic podcaster or university Ph.Ds, elected officials, beloved celebrities, and law enforcement? And, maybe, just maybe, they are influenced by MLM stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange or former Presidents even a former Secretary of State working as paid MLM promoters?

Finally, the book laments the special plight of young women today, or struggling mothers, who, sadly, are the main prey for MLM predators. But, between the FTC doing all it can, and our innate weak spots and deep-seated needs, and with the US economy putting more and more of us in the hole, it seems there really is only ourselves to blame if we sign on with MLM.

The book concludes that this is all quite tragic, but also interestingly ironic how the American Dream has become such a sad spectacle, almost a nightmare. And, it admits, it is kind of entertaining to watch these psycho MLM leaders, spouting bible verses and wearing fake eye lashes, exciting so many people, almost into ecstasy.  It would make a great podcast, except a really good one was already done, called The Dream.