Your friend has this great scarf she wears all the time. You admire it. Before you know it, you're looking for the same scarf. You eventually find it, buy it and feel great when you wear it. It doesn't matter that you have the same item. Trends, in fashion, technology or whatever, have always been hard to predict. As advertising becomes ever more competitive - and consumers warier - many companies have hired marketing firms to start trends on their behalf as a way of generating sales. Until recently, I worked for one of those marketing outfits.
All I had to do was find people who had a certain "cool" status and give them a product. Easy enough, I thought. For $15 an hour, it wasn't a bad set-up.
Off I went, pounding the streets of Toronto, looking for that "cool kid" to give the "cool product" to, in this case a hand-held computer.
There were no payments, no "catch." The hand-helds were free, and I felt like Santa Claus giving them away.
The "winners" had to own a cellphone, a laptop and a portable CD player, but they also had to "look cool."
I walked around school campuses eyeing students, trying to figure out exactly what a "cool techie" is supposed to look like.
It turned out that what I thought was cool was different from what my employers thought was cool.
So instead of giving the hand-held computers to people I thought would love to have them, I had to give them to people who wear Triple Five Soul, Diesel and other brand names. My boss was particularly fond of the engineering student I found who had blue hair.
While traipsing around, I convinced myself that giving people these gifts was a good thing because they were items they actually wanted.
In actual fact, I was advertising to people who didn't know they were being advertised to.
Joe buys himself a hand-held computer because he sees Mark with the blue hair using it and looking cool. For $300, Joe can look cool, too - or so the theory goes.
I managed to keep my ethical problems at bay for a while.
But then my job changed, and I went from anonymous product planter to cool-hunter.
All of a sudden, my boss had me working to find the "trend-setters." Instead of looking for cool-looking strangers on the street, I had to find them on the Internet or in magazines.
Prominent people, people with influence, up-and-comers and the like, all under 30 and in high-exposure fields like art, graphic design, fashion, competitive sports, music and promotions. I needed their names, their accomplishments and, most importantly, their phone numbers. And I needed to find one perfect candidate per hour.
I got on the phone. I called my friends, their siblings and their friends who know DJs, sporty people, etc.
I phoned people I haven't talked to in months who tend to be "in the know." I even phoned people I don't know who know people to find out who they know.
Basically, I prostituted myself and everyone around me.
For what now seems like a paltry hourly wage, I handed over a list of names and numbers of these people to my boss. He then gave it to another underling to phone each person and pretend to have found out about the "lucky winners" because of their high profiles.
A sick feeling sank in when I hung up the phone after talking with people who were skeptical about handing over their friends' phone numbers. I hated that I had become a connector for a marketing scheme and they were being used for their "coolness" to slyly promote the next big product.
I handed in my last invoice and quit.
I am just as guilty as anyone else to have been part of this game.
But now, when I see people with what I think are cool items, I look a little harder.