Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They win again

I've done, in my time, some pretty embarrassing and morally-questionable things for a fistful of dollars, from donating plasma to selling stolen books, from being a chewing gum tester for the Wrigley company to posing as a fortune teller. Many of the stranger or more unsavory rackets I've pulled have come from craigslist, that rowdy town square of the online world, and it was here that I came across a posting offering an enticing $150 to participate in a one-day marketing campaign. The marketers, a New York agency called GoGorilla, were recruiting a fun and outgoing street-team--not exactly my usual self-referents, but I could pretend for a day--to fan out across downtown Chicago, costumed as "homeless" Uncle Sams, and "beg" for 12 trillion dollars to pay off the national debt. GoGorilla's client, a website called DefeattheDebt.com, was launching this promotion in several cities to spread its message and gain publicity.

The whole thing reeked, right off the bat, of
Teaparty Patriot-style right-wing propaganda, but it didn't seem any more offensive than dressing up as a chicken, say, and passing out menus. And I very much needed the money; your blogger's finances are paltry at best. So I sent along a photograph and a little biographical resume, and promptly received a call back from the marketing agency; as a sentient being capable of holding a cardboard sign for several hours straight, I apparently met their qualifications--though I suspect they could have found far more experienced panhandlers without great effort. There are a lot of guys hanging out near the public library that could really use the $150.

The job entailed arriving at a Gold Coast hotel at the profane hour of 5:30 am to dress up and get some coaching. There was already a group of guys huddled outside the hotel when I arrived, drinking coffee and smoking. They more-or-less resembled any
pre-dawn crew of day laborers, though better-dressed and more Caucasian; this was day labor for the nouveau-poor, guys that went to college but still can't pay the rent.

We made our way up to a 4
th floor conference room, the sort of bleakly-lit room where one hopes in vain to find at least a box of donuts awaiting. Here we met our "team leaders" from DefeattheDebt.com. Unreasonably chipper, they glowed with the grotesque health and optimism of Young Republicans. The Defeat the Debt campaign, one of these twats proceeded to explain, was actually a non-partisan and fairly uncontroversial one, a public awareness project run by a group called the Employment Policies Institute, which he memorably described as a "sleepy little thinktank in Washington"--y'know, your old fashioned, mom-n-pop type thinktank, where everybody knows your name.

Having done a bit of research the evening prior, I knew this to be fallacy. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the
EPI is a front group for Washington, DC public affairs firm Berman & Company, which is largely funded by the fast-food and tobacco industries and which lobbies against the minimum wage and organized labor. In short, enemies of humankind. While the political logic behind their Defeat the Debt campaign was beyond the scope of my layman's understanding, I knew that coming from these scumbags it couldn't be good. Still, we were assured, we didn't need to actually know anything about the national debt--"Just tell people to go to defeatthedebt.com," our leader advised. "Oh, and don't talk to reporters."

That said, we were ready to get suited up. As Uncle Sam costumes go, these were good-quality--our blue coats had actual tails, and we were outfitted with both beards
and sideburns--but the costumes had been meticulously distressed according to some intern's idea of homelessness: painted-on grease marks, fingerless gloves. The money expended on our homeless costumes would have gone a long way, needless to say, toward clothing some actual homeless people. No matter, we were on our way.

Any location would have been mortifying in its own way, but my post was an especially gnarly one--I'd be spending the next four hours standing, with my cardboard sign reading
Spent it All--Can You Spare $12 Trillion?, outside of the Chicago Board of Trade, the financial district's heart of darkness. Though it was only 7:00, the parade of commuters was already in full swing. Cranky and bleary-eyed, the throngs of day-traders paid me little notice beyond the occasional smirk or sneer--although, a few clueless passers-by offered me their spare change, and several people told me, mistakenly, that they'd seen my picture in this morning's Red Eye (Defeat the Debt had taken out a full-page ad). I'd done some seedy gigs in the past, but I'd certainly never been mistaken for someone in the Red Eye--surely this was a new low.

But as the morning wore on, and the day-traders wandered out for their cigarette breaks, several of them insisted on engaging me in conversations on economic policy. The mood in the financial district was decidedly bitter on this grey and windy morning, and the sight of a panhandling Uncle Sam can't have helped. "You know what you
do?," one particularly feisty trader suggested, pointing to the grand edifice across the street. "Burn down the Federal Reserve Bank." I laughed nervously.

The guys panhandling outside of McDonald's weren't very amused, though. I was obviously infringing on their turf--and mocking their predicament, no less! There was a certain bitter irony in the fact that I was being paid $150 to fake-panhandle, while the real panhandlers just down the block were struggling to get enough for a cheeseburger, or a bottle of Night Train. They were gracious enough, to their credit, to not whoop my ass.

But most pathetic of all is that the whole campaign seemed not only stupid and wrongheaded, it also seemed to be a dismal failure. The organizers made it seem as if we'd be mobbed by reporters and television cameras, as if this troupe of fake Uncle Sams would make some sort of tremendous splash downtown, but in fact people were downright apathetic. There was a basic miscalculation at work in the offices of the Employment Policies Institute. Hiring a large, New York marketing firm to subcontract out a shitty, sad-looking street-team for four hours on a Tuesday morning is not novel or newsworthy. People, in fact, have grown quite bored with marketing agencies and their shitty spectacles. For all it will affect economic policy, we may have been passing out sample-packs of breath mints.

On the other hand, the $150 is very significant, on a micro-economic scale. I'll pump that money straight back into the economy, even throwing a few bones to the very tobacco companies which are bankrolling this whole project in the first place. They win again!

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