Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Are You for Real?

Life as a Big Fat victim. Stealth marketing

Despite its profound existential weight, the question first formed in the mouths of Valley girls, slouching around suburban malls in the early 1980s. However, it now seems to carry a certain poignancy and perhaps even urgency. Stripped of its derisive implications, it should become a requisite and completely literal part of all formal introductions, "Hello. Nice to meet you. Are you for real?" The age-old dialectic between seeming and being, imitation and authenticity, has become a nostalgic distinction. Imagine that you and a friend are in a crowded Manhattan nightclub and have managed to secure a seat at the bar. There is a party of people at your back waiting to place their orders with the bartender. A young woman emerges from the group and leans up against you. She is attractive, well dressed, and hands you $10-very friendly. "Could you order me a shot of vodka and a bottle of Brand X?" "Vodka and Brand X?" you ask, "What's Brand X?" "Oh!" she replies nonchalantly, "It's an herb-laced energy drink. I mix it with my vodka. It keeps me hydrated so I don't wake up with such a hangover. It's really yummy too." You pass the drinks and notice her friends-a lively group looking hip, happy and . . . hydrated, all holding bottles of Brand X, which they repeatedly mix with vodka. Throughout the night, you have continued exchanges with the group, and by last call, you are completely unaware of the fact that each member of the party has managed to communicate very subtly to you why he or she prefers Brand X to any other. The next morning, you wake up with a terrible headache. Over a queasy hangover-helper brunch with friends, Brand X is understandably on your mind, and you mention the woman you met last night and why she drinks it. And your friends mention it to their friends, who mention it to their friends. . . . Mission accomplished. Little do you know that you were the target of an invisible form of marketing, courtesy of Big Fat, Inc. Like a roach to roach bait, you entered, took the bait, and crawled back to your nest to share it with your friends. And little do you know that the woman who you thought wanted to take you for a ride actually did. But don't blame her; she was just doing her job. She's what Big Fat calls a "leaner," instructed to literally lean into people and inject the product into their lives "in a very real way," to quote the method's pioneer, Jonathan Ressler. With 50 operatives in 30 cities across the States and Canada, Big Fat has attracted a lot of media attention, most of it negative, for what are deemed its unethical advertising practices. Media critics adopt the mixed rhetoric of theatre critics and war reporters to decry the "invisible invasion" of "stealth marketing" by "commercial kamikazes" who enact "guerrilla performances" and "improvisations" in bars and nightclubs. Ressler himself employs theatrical terminology to describe the Big Fat event: "We plant a group of people in a bar or other public setting and instruct them to use a brand, perform a ritual, repeat a sound bite, and involve others in the activity." That the consumer is the unsuspecting victim of these brand-baited rituals is precisely what angers critics. Thomas Hustad, Professor of Marketing at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, feels the main point of contention is the lack of contextual frame.{{1}} When we are watching television or film, he believes, we are critically prepared to encounter ads, even in their more subtle forms, such as product placements and celebrity endorsements. With Big Fat methods, consumers are the framed, unprepared ones-like ducks in the shooting gallery. Ken Wong, a professor of marketing at Queen's University, finds Big Fat's practices "completely unethical" and thinks the lack of disclosure raises potential problems under the Competition Act.{{2}} Media critics, it seems, are not alone in their concern. "The act has specific prohibitions about . . . representations [that] are false or misleading in a material respect," according to Brendan Ross, an officer with the Canadian Competition Bureau. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission feels Big Fat operatives' failure to disclose that they have received financial remuneration to promote and target products is inherently deceptive. But Big Fat's methods seem to slip through the cracks of these strictures, and so far, no one has been charged with anything except bad taste. Jonathan Ressler, president and CEO of Big Fat, guarantees that the Big Fat "event" is absolutely invisible. "You would never know it was happening to you." "Never?" I ask sceptically. "Never in a million years," he insists. Surely the savvy folks of my generation-raised in a cuckoo's egg culture of music videos and cartoon serials, where commerce is the legitimate offspring of Art-have a sharp beak for pitchmen out to snatch the golden eggs of disposable income which our demographic is ostensibly laying. Moreover, as a theatre practitioner, I feel certain I would spot a performance if it were happening in front of me. I think I amuse Mr. Ressler. He smirks throughout our interview as I espouse the virtues of my Gen-X evil eye. "Do you have any pets? Do you like dogs?" he asks. "Yes, actually, I have two dogs." "What kind of dog food do you use?" "I, uh, I don't know, it's a natural dog food, I forget the name," I respond, confused by his sudden line of questioning. "How'd you hear about that dog food? Why'd you choose that dog food?" he persists. "Oh, uh, I was walking my dogs in the park and I was talking to this woman and she told me about . . . oh my god!" I am stunned. I am overcome with paranoia. A series of my life's more significant moments flashes before me and I begin re-evaluating the sincerity of every one. Now I understand, from a more intimate perspective, why these methods incite so much controversy. The way Big Fat's operatives blur the boundaries between conning and advertising, authenticity and illusion, seeming and being, eats at the very heart of existential insecurities - insecurities that have driven notorious anti-theatrical tracts from Plato to Nietzsche. Seeing myself as a potential Big Fat victim, my life and all around me suddenly thrown into doubt, I began to distrust my perceptions, my critical X-ray vision suddenly seemed damaged, and everything around me, including Mr. Ressler, was instantly cast in a very unsettling and unflattering light. Plato would sympathize. He believed that our faculties of discernment are precisely what imitation or mimesis targets. "Thus every sort of confusion," he says in Book X of the Republic, "is revealed within us; this is the weakness of the human mind on which the art of conjuring and of deceiving . . . imposes." Star puritan propagandists Tertullian, Stephen Gosson, and William Prynne-whose mammoth anti-theatrical encyclopaedia of 1632, Histriomastix, ferociously scourges every form of theatricality-all attack the dissembling, protean actor who, in Tertullian's notorious phrase, "makes Christ a liar." Such spiritual Spartans enlist people to be uniformly themselves, "to seem outwardly which they are inwardly; to act themselves, not others," as Prynne says. The concept of the performance without boundaries, or the paratheatrical, brings to light the frightening possibility that human beings might be other than what they present themselves to be, that the eye might not be continuous with the soul-jeopardizing trust and challenging any confident appeals to truth. The health of the state and safety of the social order vitally depend on a limitation of the paratheatrical. These puritans were threatened by the seemingly limitless possibilities that the idea of the actor implies-leading to a dystopian vision of the future quite similar to that of Big Fat's critics. "This is the world," as one media critic writes inflatedly, "that Jonathan Ressler is fast creating."{{3}} Had Friedrich Nietzsche entered "Ressler's world" he probably would not have been much surprised. Nietzsche considered performance a quintessentially American phenomenon and a symptom of democracy. The individual American, he says in The Gay Science, "becomes convinced that he can do just about anything and can manage almost any role, and everybody experiments with himself, improvises; all nature ceases and becomes art." The zany Slovenian critic Slavoj Zizek, in a recent article entitled "The Matrix, Or, The Two Sides of Perversion", writes, "in the late capitalist consumerist society, 'real social life' itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbours behaving in 'real' life as stage actors and extras . . . The ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the 'real life' itself, its reversal into spectral show." Cinematic reverberations have not stopped there. As the copywriter of a rival advertising firm sneered, "You know what this is? It's The Truman Show. Did your wife marry you because she loves you, or because she wants you to buy a certain brand of soap?" But if the idea of a media-made America that is constantly performing its national identity in a spectacle of simulacra is not new, why is Big Fat's under-the-radar, "performative" marketing so alarming? Clearly, these perennial existential anxieties are still very active in our imaginations, but what Big Fat's tactics force us to acknowledge is that any clear-cut appeals to domains of fact versus fiction, real versus unreal, are nothing other than nostalgic. The general recognition that our reality is so heavily mediatized as to render "reality" an atavistic term calls forth a contrary drive to find authenticity and locate it in contradistinction to artificiality, the synthetic, or illusion. The distinctions, however makeshift they may be, serve as a kind of existential soother; as theatrical theorist Bruce Wilshire says, "Sanity itself requires it." Curiously, while Mr. Ressler is quick to justify his practice on the grounds that we are all "in the Matrix" so to speak, he is still invested heavily in the idea of authenticity. He believes "real" people are key to the success of his operations, and is quick to correct me every time I allude to his team as "actors." "We don't hire actors," he says, "Actors would act. We want people to be real."{{4}} Ressler's marketing team defines reality according to a product's target demographic. "Say it's Miller Lite, and the demo is blue-collar men, 28 to 35, we'll go out and hire blue collar men 28 to 35. We hire mothers, grandmothers. Ninety-nine per cent of the time we use regular people in the target demo." These "ordinary" people are asked to fill out a questionnaire, then brought into the office and interviewed. If they are somewhat dynamic, approachable, good conversationalists and "sincerely love the product," they are hired. "I know a lot of people who are crazy passionate about dogs. . . . If I'm not a dog person and you are, and I was trying to sell you something, a dog food or something, you'd bust me in a second. You'd know that I was pulling this thing. So people we hire really need to connect with our product." This is the secret to guaranteeing that a performance remains invisible. Predictably, though, individuals hired for a job do not go in cold as themselves. Mr. Ressler's team takes initiates through theatrical basics, such as role-playing, so they can practice key pieces of brand bait and making smooth transitions that steer conversation subtly to the product in question. "We tell them 'yeah, that would work, that wouldn't work.' I'm sure there are times when it doesn't happen. We tell them never to force the thing. But it's almost impossible for it not to happen. I can take this conversation any way I want." Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times Magazine was allowed to spy on a Big Fat event on the condition that he not divulge the brand in question or identify himself to the operatives at work. Rutenberg interviewed Lawrence, a member of the vodka-and-water group, by telephone afterward. "We invent scenarios, like we'll make up what kind of company we work for and say we just sold it so we're celebrating and we're going to buy you a drink. Then we'll try to implant things about the product into their head that don't come off as if we're planting things in their head. It's somewhat challenging." A former music promoter in his late 20s, Lawrence added that basically, "You're getting paid to drink for free and act weird." Big Fat's employees are not the only ones inventing scenarios in bars. As though to demonstrate the viral condition of simulation, New York media began coordinating their own Big Fat events after reporters were denied the privilege given to Rutenberg, raising the question, à la Baudrillard, "Did the Big Fat Operation Actually Take Place?" One can only imagine what sort of direction the youths, hired to play Big Fat agents hired to play themselves, were taken through by news anchors in order to get the "authentic" live coverage needed for the televised report. What Ressler unwittingly presents is a rather developed theory of acting-and quite a conundrum for Plato and his followers. These are people paid to play "themselves," not in the way Jack Nicholson is, safely contained within the cinematic frame, but as "secret agents of capitalism," to borrow Jim Rutenberg's phrase- everywhere and anywhere, prepared to make the product a part of your world in a "real" way, when you least expect it. Mr. Ressler rolls his eyes at his critics' accusations and reasons that humans have been doing this since the beginning of time: "From the time the first cave man said to the next cave man, 'Hey, if you want bigger buffalo, go to the next field.' " The overly simplified logic Ressler uses to defend his company's identity is both strategic-his innocence rests on the argument that he has merely tapped into "natural" human behaviour -and romantic. His methods are remarkably (and romantically) pre-technological and a rather ingenious way of creating a product buzz among the cynical 18-34 demographic notoriously disdainful of heavy-handed, mainstream advertising. Ressler emphasizes his company's return to the simple innocence of word-of-mouth communication, the kind of passing on of savvy shopping tips that friends do among friends. But perhaps most strikingly, what Big Fat's style of business presents is the franchising of a quintessentially American tradition, that of the confidence man, captured so vividly by Hermann Melville in his 1857 novel The Confidence Man, after the first of the breed, one William Thompson, was captured in 1849 by New York police (the term "confidence man" was coined by the New York Herald in their coverage of the event). The confidence man is the consummate protean dissembler whose penchant for deceit becomes a trade.{{5}} As with Big Fat's operatives working a roomful of bingo mavens, the con involves empathizing with the victim, seeming familiar, and winning the victims' trust at their most vulnerable point-that is, when there is nothing to fear. The con man's biggest pleasure may not be getting paid, but simply the artistry involved in the successful con. As the wooden-legged sceptic in Melville's novel jeers, "How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?" How much Big Fat has made, however, is a better question. At the end of our interview, Ressler slackens his starched-collar, businessman's posture somewhat and asks, "What's this for again?" When I explain I am a graduate student in Theatre Studies, placing his marketing phenomenon in the context of the Western anti-theatrical imagination, he waxes nostalgic. "You know, in college, I was a theatre major," he says. "I studied Strasberg. We're all actors, you know? And I became a much better actor the day I decided I could not be an actor. I became so much more real once I had this stigma of actor off my back. When you act like yourself, you're believable." Then, in the spirit of the American con man, he has a sort of small epiphany: "You know, I never thought my acting background had an influence on what I do today. But it has. I believe studying acting has made me a better businessman . . . I can match and mirror you, make you comfortable with me, and I can take this conversation anywhere I want to."