The Amway society

This piece from the NY Times magazine documents some truly creepy shit in the world of advertising, in which companies allegedly recruit volunteers to hype their products in casual conversations, becoming walking viral carriers of product placements. In he article Rob Walker describesthe “growing number of marketers organizing veritable armies of hired ‘trendsetters’ or ‘influencers’ or ‘street teams’ to execute ‘seeding programs,’ ‘viral marketing,’ ‘guerrilla marketing.’ What were once fringe tactics are now increasingly mainstream; there is even a Word of Mouth Marketing Association”

As Walker notes, there’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers overtone to this; your friends, your parents, they could all be in on it — so that’s why my Dad wouldn’t stop talking about National Treasure at Thanksgiving! What makes it truly scary though is Walker’s claim that these new trend-starters are doing it for no pay, are doing it merely to feel what it is like to wield influence in our culture (which shows you how low politics has sunk). This is narcisissm run amuck; it’s like a commercialized version of Friendster, but instead of counting your total number of contacts (“friends”), you see how much of a niche product you can move off the shelves. You get “the upper hand” on people in a consumerized version of the information-is-power mantra. You get the gratification of that power, even though it’s by proxy, power suited to a corporation’s ends rather than your own. (But who minds being a proxy? Most people get their pleasure by proxy throiugh entertainment and spectatorship already.) “Word-of-mouth marketing leverages not simply the power of the trendsetter but also, as [ad exec] Balter puts it, ‘the power of wanting to be a trendsetter.’ ”

Of course, journalists and editors do this sort of thing all the time; some reviewers seem to write for this reason alone, to fancy themselves broad taste-makers, hyping something obscure to see how far their reach is. It follows that people are evangelical about products not because they specifically care about them but because the power of being persuasive is addicting — there’s an immediate gratification in seeing yourself as the cause of some clearly recognizable, unmistakable event. If you want to be truly cynical, you might conclude that Evangelicals have the same attitude toward Jesus that these volunteer shills have toward pork sausage. There’s an undeniable pleasure in proseltyzing, because you talk so much from the point of view of conviction and righteousness that you begin to absorb those qualities, inhabit them habitually. Walker ends just short of this note, suggesting that becoming a shill gives anomie casualties something to believe in, that most people are desperate to join anything (a new wrinkle on the Bowling Alone thesis perhaps — the desire to belong to a group will be thoroughly commercialized and will revolve not around companionship but around salesmanship, the Amway society.)

Another explanation for why people might volunteer to do this is that it gives people a conversational purpose. It gives people a reason to talk to others, in a culture where we are subtly encouraged to be engaged always in a one-way conversation that we control with a TV, radio, or Internet connection. People want human contact, but the pretenses for it are endangered, always threatened with being technologically supplanted (i.e., I often e-mail people who sit ten feet from me rather than talk to them. This is office protocol). But this provides people with a mission that justifies their circumventing those barriers; it transforms conversation into the latest technology. Walker quotes an ad exec: ”I think this is a new kind of media.”

And in such a consumer-driven society, what else is there to talk about but shopping, commodities. If your friends started talking entirely of products, would you really notice a difference? (That might be going too far — sorry). As an advertising plant, you’ll have the scoop on new things (which makes you more interesting) and you’ll have prepared talking points (which makes you more eloquent) and you’ll have a clear-cut goal (which makes you more compelling). Indeed, Walker includes testimonials of how shy people are brought out of their shells by becoming volunteer marketers, walking advertisments. People are accustomed to paying attention to ads, people tolerate the invasiveness of ads far more than that of people. So if people behave more like ads, become ads, strangers are more likely to let them in. When strangers have a clear-cut sense of what others want — to try to hawk something — they are more likely to feel comfortable with the exchange. Walker tries to embrace all this under the idea of a “social market,” where one labors not for money but for social rewards: prestige, favors, attention, etc. But this seems to me a stretch of the word market — unless you’re willing to grant that psychological needs can be charted on supply/demand graph, and friendship is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility (each extra minute spent with a friend is marginally less satisfying).

What’s fascinating to me is that the advertisers are now looking to bypass traditional media outlets and the cadre of editors and producers and go straight to consumers to be their water-carriers. Editors are used to being innundated with promotional materials (the bound galleys and reader copies are the tip of that iceberg) and perhaps not so impressed with the flood of free swag, but regular people are probably extremely flattered when they are given free junk, and probably then feel a responsibility to promote it — like that shopworn tactic of sending people address labels unsolicited and incurring a debt of honor toward your charity organization. Walker discusses the “endowment effect,” through which people attach more value to something given to them, or which they are allowed to own.

Some companies search for the people most likely to be effeectively viral: Walker describes the painstaking process companies go through to find what he calls “Magic People,” those pathologically gregarious early-adopters whose self-esteem is more closely bound to being influential than the average person’s. In other words, they are trying to find would be editors who aren’t in the publishing business. But other word-of-mouth-advertising organizers are finally giving regular people the chance to feel like editors. This would seem to discount the notion that editors have any special insight at all, that anyone can start talking about anything, and people will be interested and persuaded — provided its face to face, and that’s the catch: people will tolerate nonsense in conversation, for the pleasure of human interaction, that they would never tolerate in a magazine or on TV, morning shows notwithstanding.

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