That's right: for the first time ever, a white guy is going travelling in South America. Read about my adventures as I travel the continent and try my best not to steal or conquer anything.

April 21, 2006

The selling culture

I often measure a city or country on how easy it is to move around without someone trying to sell you something. Toronto is fine, though degenerating, whereas Morocco makes for tough slogging. I've found porteños to be pretty good about respecting public space, on the whole, though of course one can expect to at least encounter someone handing out commercial pamphlets on busy corners. I find though, refreshingly, that sales efforts aren't too invasive around here, and there are only a few places in which one can expect to see a pitch.

On the Subte

The Subte is what they call the subway system here, and with such a great number of people of trapped for at least the minute to the next station, it's little surprise that a few people try to take advantage of some impulse shoppers. The dominant technique, by far, is to enter the subway car armed with one's collection of goods, walk down the car dropping the goods in each passenger's lap, and then make a return trip, collecting the dinero if the subject is convinced, and the goods otherwise. The funny thing is the reactions of the passengers: were I to sit on the subway - and I never sit - I would cross my legs and wave off whatever was coming. But most people react by ignoring the vendor's efforts; "I don't know what you have in mind, but there is nothing in my lap right now but my personal space, okay?" They simply look the other way, both when the product alights on them and when it is reluctantly removed. A few will take a casual look, flip it over, appear to consider it, but ultimately leave it for collection if it doesn't suit their expectations of what they were going to buy on the subway car today. A few will buy it.

What sorts of products can one expect to see falling from the hands of previously unnoticed passersby? Oh, packets of coloured pencils, mesh laundry containers, notepads, an odd leather envelope that might have been meant to protect a passport, small plastic geometry sets. Most cost just a peso or two, though I've seen some go for five. The uniting theme, usually, is products that commuting parents might think to buy for their children. Not an unreasonable target market. Today a gentleman in his early thirties sitting in front of me purchased a small colouring book featuring Dora la Exploradora. He was wearing a Boca jersey and looked a little scruffy and tired. He very carefully slid the frail book into the front pouch of his backpack; it looked as if it wouldn't fit, but the pouch was just long enough, and he closed the zipper very carefully so as not to catch the book's cover in it. A gift for his daughter, no doubt.

During the summer the salespeople were kids, but now that they've returned to school, I hope, adults have taken over. While the drop-and-go technique is the most popular, some come in with a bit more of a hard sell: "a tape measure, a very fine tape measure, suitable for use in the home or office, five metres for five pesos, five pesos, nothing more, thank you very much señor, five pesos for this fine tape measure." Still some jump past the product entirely and straight into the sales pitch; once the tape measure fellow had moved on (one can transfer freely between subway cars, even while the train is moving), as if he had been tagged in, the man with the white cane and sunglasses stepped forward: "Ladies and gentleman, I'm sorry to disturb your passage. A workplace accident that struck just eight months ago has left me completely blind . . ."

The last group that has entered the Subte to make a little moneda - and by far my most preferred - is the buskers. While I'd happily dish over at least five pesos to any tango musicians who made the trip into the tube, that's just not their scene, they preferring to stalk the floors of smokey, crowded bars, and the asados of fortunate gringos. Most buskers play what I assume is a charango, and accompany it with a bamboo panpipe, looking like a Peruvian translation of Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. Traditional songs are standard, of course, but without exception these gentlemen will play one song and one song only that I recognize: El Condor Pasa, which I had always just thought of as "I'd rather be a hammer than a nail." Apparently the song is based off of a traditional melody from the highlands of Peru. You know, you learn something new every day. You really do.

In clothing stores

The clothing salesmen here definitely look to make the most of your presence in their store. I did a lot of shopping when I got back from Patagonia, as I had only packed city clothes suitable for the sweltering BsAs summer, most of which I spent in the particularly un-sweltering south. I had few opportunities to wear all that linen, and when the temperature dipped below 20C, I found myself pathetically unprepared. I take jeans shopping pretty seriously, and since getting jeans that fit demanded spending more than any sane Argentine would rightly consider (Ben Simon's biggest jeans came down barely to my ankle), I asked for three similar pairs, with slightly different cuts. When I had tried them on, and picked out the pair I wanted, I brought them all to the desk, pointed to mine, and said "these." He then packed them up with the other two, and said "these two as well, yes?" Right, I want three pairs of very expensive, nearly identical jeans. Of course. No, just the one pair, thanks. He then asked which shirts I'd like to throw in, in the same tone that the waitresses ask whether you'd like fries or salad with your carne. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the exemplary clothing salesmen with whom I've mostly done business, but still.

In restaurants

The drop-and-go has made its way into restaurants as well. You'll be sitting there, eating your pizza that tastes suspiciously like an empanada (I'm eating cheap these days), and before you even notice that someone is walking by, there's a pen on your table. One of those pens with five different colours of ink loaded in it, which takes me back to that time in my academic career when it seemed practical to have such supplies, like a complete highlighter set, or a compass. Grade 6 or 7, perhaps. So you go back to eating your pizza, and the next time you look up, it's gone. More aggressive salespeople might give you an inquisitive look before moving on, but I've never seen anyone try to push the sale. No reason to, I suppose, as they make sales frequently enough as it is.


I used to get a little riled up at this kind of stuff. I got quite irritated in Vegas with the ubiquitous advertising cards that young gentlemen would practically flick at me as I walked down the strip, or the struggling actresses in New York who approached me to discuss some adventure travel scheme. Even more galling were the invasive tactics that I witnessed with increasing frequency in my last days of employment in downtown Toronto: the choir clad in Rickard's Red robes at King and Bay belting out a beery ode set to a melody from the Carmina Burana; the imitation revolutionaries in Union Station skipping right past social justice in order to vehemently campaign against halitosis. I didn't stop to check, but I'm pretty sure that Listerine was behind that one. I don't hold anything against the instruments of these pathetic shenanigans (every city needs a use for its struggling actresss); I save my vitriol for the profiteers in the background - the suited "entrepreneurs", the geeks and poseurs - who imitate legitimate businessmen, but offer nothing but a willingness to sink lower than their predecessors in poisoning whatever remains of public space.

Here, at least, one sees the face of need behind the sale; those who benefit and not their agents. The work isn't demeaning either; I'd spend a year hocking something in the Subte before I'd spend a week wandering through Toronto's underground with a rediculous artificial tan rolled in a stripe across my face, as another struggling actress that I saw a year ago was asked to do. She had spent too much time watching her Delissio pizza rise in the oven, you see. For the most part, I've observed here that the customers respect the vendors and the vendors respect their customers. There's a demand, for one, and for another, it's difficult to dismiss the needy when they make up a little more than a third of the population. I still haven't bought a tape measure on the Subte, but to these guys I'll at least give a little respect.

3 Comments:

Blogger J said...

"I don't hold anything against the instruments of these pathetic shenanigans (every city needs a use for its struggling actresss); I save my vitriol for the profiteers in the background - the suited "entrepreneurs", the geeks and poseurs - who imitate legitimate businessmen, but offer nothing but a willingness to sink lower than their predecessors in poisoning whatever remains of public space."

Writing as a "geek and poseur" who admittedly attempts to invade your personal space by vying for your attention via these and other cheesy tactics...I take offense to your comment!

Sure these "campaigns" (i use the term loosely) didn't resonate with you, but would you complain if the choir was dolling out free Rickards in the subway? Do these people actually accost you in the street or merely cause an entertaining scene that adds some variety to your daily commute?

As an advertiser I think that these spectacles actually add a little value to the average persons day, via a free sample that you'll probably never use...or at the very least, in providing you with an entertaining story to blog about from South America...

I fail to see how a group of poorly dressed choirists are more invasive than people dropping multi-coloured pens in your lap?

I say kudos to these charlatans! As long as the masses of sheep...errr I mean commuters proceed to lineup for their free Listerine breath strip, these "pathetic shenanigans" will never cease...

Personally I'd rather see more people giving me free swag on the street rather than an increased number of billboards on the QEW, annoying television ads repeated 50x daily, or the 100 daily viagra spam emails in my inbox...

But those are just my thoughts...and I'm a cold heartless corporate whore...

Cheers!

2:39 PM

 
Blogger Dave Peer said...

Thanks for the comments Jay; I appreciate it, and will try not to respond in such a way that seems at all combative, as I have a habit of doing. You make good points.


"Writing as a "geek and poseur" who admittedly attempts to invade your personal space by vying for your attention via these and other cheesy tactics...I take offense to your comment!"

I didn't have anyone in your line of work in mind when writing of "geeks and poseurs" (are you not with English Harbour or whatever any more?). I'm not anti-advertising, and I believe that advertising has a role in society, even if in some cases modern advertising has overstepped its rightful bounds. What I'm looking for is a transaction: some kind of value that the consumer receives in exchange for the intrustion that advertising inevitably makes, in exchange for the value that the advertiser gets. To me, some advertising feels like stealing: my attention has value; I know it has value, because advertisers pay a lot to get it. What do I get when my attention is sold to an advertiser? If I'm watching television, the answer is that I get programming, which I don't pay for otherwise. I pay for the television, and for the cables that get the programming to the television, but I don't pay for the costs of producing the programming. Programming is created by the networks to get me to watch, and I am then sold to advertisers to pay for the cost of the programming. So there's a three-way transaction there: each party (network, advertiser, consumer) gives up something but receives something of value in return. I happen to think that television programming offers pretty poor value, on the whole, so I don't watch it much, but I'm not against television advertising on principle. I see the benefit.

So back to my point about stealing: any time I see an advertisement, I should ask myself what I'm getting in return. Something of mine, be it the space in front of my eyes, or my time, or just my sense of peace is being intruded, and I expect compensation. Take advertising at the movies: I'm not going anywhere for the 20 minutes before a movie starts, so if I'm to be subjected to advertising during those 20 minutes, as I so often am these days, what do I get in return? Nothing, so far as I can tell: tickets cost twice as much as they did a decade ago, the food is still ludicrously expensive, and the theatres themselves are barely more comfortable, though they're certainly more garish. I paid to see a movie, and I paid a lot, unlike the television programming. So what do I get in exchange for being subjected to advertising, and why is it happening at all? The answers are nothing, and greed. I don't like being ripped off, so I stopped going to Famous Players and Cineplex Odeon theatres towards the end of my time in Toronto. I saw "Ray" at the Mount Pleasant before I left; $10, I think, no ads, and you know what? They still showed the movie.

So I'm not against advertising, I'm against advertising that offers me no value, because I do believe advertising to be fundamentally intrusive, a form of cultural pollution, to use the Adbusters term. So let's look at the rest of your comments in this context.

"Sure these "campaigns" (i use the term loosely) didn't resonate with you, but would you complain if the choir was dolling out free Rickards in the subway? Do these people actually accost you in the street or merely cause an entertaining scene that adds some variety to your daily commute?"

If they were giving out free pints, then there's your value. I would be okay with that. In fact, I'd call that pretty damn good value. If you want to set up a booth on King & Bay in which choristers sing the praises of Rickard's Red AND give me a free pint, you'll have my support, my friend. Entertaining scene? I found the entertainment value of this particular shenanigan to be rather dubious. But everyone has to create their own value equation.

My only caveat is that I think, in addition to offering value, that ads ought also to be kept to their rightful places. Consumers are becoming jaded about ads these days, so as I'm sure you've noticed, ads have responded by getting more insidious. They're popping up in the back of taxi cabs, in parks, in the middle of television shows (pathetically disguised), on every spare strip of highway. I dislike this trend. I dislike that there are people out there who are trying to find every moment of my life in which someone is NOT trying to sell me something, and figure out how we can get someone selling me something. These are the ones for whom "I save my vitriol" in the passage you've quoted. People who profit off of selling my attention and offering me nothing in return, and who do it by invading public space, and by closing in on every moment of my life that has been protected from their reach. I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a world in which every place I go in public, every time I step out of my home, on every block and in every square I'm subjected to advertising. Again, it has a role, but it ought to be controlled.

"I say kudos to these charlatans! As long as the masses of sheep...errr I mean commuters proceed to lineup for their free Listerine breath strip, these "pathetic shenanigans" will never cease...

Personally I'd rather see more people giving me free swag on the street rather than an increased number of billboards on the QEW, annoying television ads repeated 50x daily, or the 100 daily viagra spam emails in my inbox..."

No free samples from the Listerine folks, as I recall. They might have been giving them out, I suppose, as I didn't go over, I just remember them shouting and making a scene in Union Station when I was trying to get my coffee and have a conversation with the Portuguese barrista. Pity her for having to listen to them for hours on end, at least I could leave and be done with them. What's worth that? Ought I be able to go to public places without having to shout over black-clad Listerine-obsessed struggling actresses with megaphones? I have definite answers to those questions, but I'll leave it to the individual to find theirs. I notice that you share my dislike for billboards and spam (though I don't get any about Viagara; maybe somebody tipped those folks off about you?), thus I suppose that you see why I find advertising to be intrusive sometimes. Let's just decide when we want to limit those intrustions, and what we want in return.

"I fail to see how a group of poorly dressed choirists are more invasive than people dropping multi-coloured pens in your lap?"

It's not. But here's the other point I was trying to make, and I admit I was being somewhat subtle about it (for me): the groups who benefit by invading my personal space in Toronto when I'm driving, or just walking down the street, are the corporations doing the advertising, and "the suited 'entrepreneurs'" to which I referred who sold them the space. They're doing it to drive up their quarterly profits, they're doing it to feed the corporate machine, man. And who benefits from the drop-and-go sellingon the Subte? A few of the many poor inhabitants of this country, quite a few of whom were considerably better off before December 2001, when men in positions of power made decisions that crashed their economy and robbed them of their savings. As a general principle, I expect more from those who have power than those who have none. If one with a rather poor lot gets in my space to sell me something, thus helping that person to eat that day, I won't be angry, and I might even buy whatever is going if I have any use for it all. If a large corporation or a group of young ad execs try to do the same, I'll tell them to piss off. Or at least, I'll resist, boycott, and rant on my blog. It's not having much effect, but it's what I've got at my disposal.

Anyway Jay, I think there's a lot of room for discussion on this, and you make valid points, even though it may appear that I'm trying to dismantle them. I'm not: I just want to clarify where I'm coming from, and fill in some of the holes that my blog post left. I think we mainly disagree in the value that we pull from these "shenanigans", not in the need for such value to exist. As long as people are thinking about the role that advertising plays in their lives, and reacting, and running through the same calculations that I think are important, then I won't dispute anyone's findings, and certainly not yours, hombre.

8:56 PM

 
Blogger J said...

Appreciate the rebuttal Dave - even though it did come with a Viagra crack at my expense...

To be fair I really wasn't offended by your original post - just thought I'd stir the pot a little and back up my current field of work...

I agree with most of what you said - and I do agree that there is a fundamental difference between drop and go on the Subte and the masses of propaganda spewed by Corporate America...

I didn't find that the underlying point you were trying to make was too subtle - I just feel that even though the drop+gos do need the money more than the machine that fuels corpocracy I don't want my space invaded by anyone if I'm not interested...ironic isn't it since I pay to invade individual's space on a daily basis...especially since I was defending invading space in my last post...but I contest that I'm not a hypocrite

Anyways thanks for making me use my brain a little - I'm done stirring the pot for now...I think I should take a closer look at why I'm still receiving those Viagra emails...ha!

Cheers!

On a side note - hooray for independant theatres in Toronto - the Royal Princess on College is one of my favs...

6:06 PM

 

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