Multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) are having something of a moment as of late — and not in a good way. From the podcast The Dream to the public disintegration of the women’s apparel company LulaRoe, MLMs are being exposed for their deceptive and manipulative marketing tactics, as well as the very real financial and emotional toll they take on people’s lives.
The latest entry in the genre is On Becoming a God In Central Florida, a Showtime series set in the 1990s that tells the story of Krystal Stubbs, a plucky new mom (Kirsten Dunst) whose husband Travis (Alexander Skarsgaard) becomes deeply ensnared in Founders American Merchandise (FAM), a pyramid-structured company that sells home cleaning products. Despite Travis being hailed as a master salesman by FAM recruiter Cody (an immensely creepy Théodore Pellerin), the family is in dire financial straits, and it isn’t until Travis — spoiler forthcoming — is eaten by an alligator in the pilot episode that Krystal realizes why: He quit his day job and sunk all of his money into the company, leaving her to pick up the pieces.
Alligator-eating aside, the show has been hailed as an accurate depiction of the psychic and financial damage wrought by MLMs, as well as the deeply perverse version of the American dream they sell to lure in new recruits. But it isn’t based on a true story, according to show creators Robert Funke and Matt Lutsky, who told Popsugar they actually intended to write a show about a cult before realizing that MLMs and cults had a lot in common. “It’s very fictionalized, but it’s very much in the world of the kind of big-business, ’90s multilevel marketing home goods commerce,” Funke said.
So which aspects of the show have some basis in reality, and which are wholly fictionalized? Well, FAM itself probably has most in common with Amway, a multi-level marketing company that sells beauty products and home goods (indeed, Dunst explicitly compared FAM to Amway, as well as the dietary supplement company Herbalife, in an interview last month with Stephen Colbert).
Founded by entrepreneurs Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos in 1959, Amway essentially established the precedent for MLMs in the United States, promising recruits that they could become their own bosses and operate as self-made entrepreneurs. Though Amway has expanded over the years to offer beauty and health care products, it is, like FAM, probably best known for its home cleaning products, such as the laundry detergent brands SA8 and its original product, the multi-purpose cleaning product LOC.
Amway has long faced accusations of shady business practices. In 1979, it was under investigation by the FTC, which ultimately found that though it was guilty of deceptive marketing practices, it was not an illegal pyramid scheme; in 2010, it agreed to pay $34 million in cash and provide $22 million worth of products as part of a settlement for a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company misled recruits into believing they could earn more than they actually could. Amway continues to be in operation to this day, reporting $8.8 billion in sales last year.
On Becoming a God also features FAM salespeople listening to motivational tapes recorded by FAM owner Obie Garbeau II (Ted Levine), who speaks at length about his wealth and how easily attainable it is to anyone in the company. In some ways, this is like Amway, which has a long tradition of selling motivational audiobooks and tapes with vaguely evangelical undertones to its members, encouraging people to purchase them on a weekly basis.
But Garbeau offers the slippery proposition that extreme wealth is possible for anyone if only they work hard and believe in themselves — and that if anyone is poor, well, they’re probably not working or believing in themselves hard enough. In this sense, Garbeau echoes one of the most famous MLM founders, William Penn Patrick, the creator of the cosmetics company Holiday Magic. The company required people to pay less than $50 to become a “Holiday Girl,” or essentially a door-to-door salesperson; achieving a higher position in the company usually cost up to several thousands of dollars, according to a 1974 federal indictment that implicated four former company officials.
Patrick was also the author of a 1967 best-selling book about his business philosophy called Happiness and Success Through Principle, an Andrew Carnegie-esque text that is featured in the podcast The Dream. Patrick believed, among other things, that the only thing standing between the average American and enormous financial success was a negative attitude, and that extreme wealth was achievable via little more than a change of perception. (His most famous quote, “Those who condemn wealth are those who have none and see no chance of getting it,” is a pretty concise crystallization of this attitude.)
Of course, as we see in On Becoming a God, the theory that you’re only poor because you’re not trying hard enough can wreak some pretty serious damage on a person; Skarsgaard’s Travis is so determined to achieve success with FAM that he fails to sleep and gets in a car accident as a result. (It also happens to be patently untrue, as demonstrated by the fact that Patrick’s company spectacularly imploded, declaring bankruptcy in 1974 following multiple lawsuits and an SEC investigation.)
Unfortunately, the allure of MLMs lingers to this day. Though inspirational audiobooks and door-to-door recruitment is largely a thing of the past, companies like clothing maker LulaRoe, the essential oils company doTERRA, and the cosmetics company Rodan + Fields are still alive and well on social media, where they target primarily stay-at-home moms and continue to promote the message of achieving wealth and empowerment by recruiting your friends to sell mascara and leggings. And even though there’s been increased scrutiny on the shady practices of some of these companies, it’s clear that as long as there are people looking to get rich quick and on their own terms, there’ll be MLMs looking to exploit that desire.