Monday, August 7, 2017

"The Cost of a Free Lunch"

"The Cost of a Free Lunch"
by David Cain

"Last Summer, out of morbid curiosity, my friend Hélène and I attended a motivational seminar at our local convention center. She had obtained free tickets by clicking, against every fibre of her being, on a gaudy Facebook ad. Hélène is, among other things, a reformed workaholic and rat-race escapee, who now writes about living life strictly on your own terms. With a background in marketing, she was curious where such a smarmy ad might ultimately lead those who click on it - and who those clickers are. Both of those questions were answered for us, during the terrible and fascinating experience that followed a few weeks later.

There’s something to be said for inserting yourself into an environment that all of your natural impulses would have you avoid. You learn so much when you’re outside your normal channels. The experience was a gold mine of insights for people like Hélène and me, who chronicle the human condition professionally. 

There were six or eight speakers on the ticket, one of which was billed as “The World’s Number One Motivational Speaker, and another who was The World’s Number One Inspirational Speaker”. There was also a financial expert (presumably the world’s #1), a productivity expert, a relationship expert, and a “success expert”. They were all described as “Top” or “#1” of something.

We were there for doors-open at 6:45, and the first thing I noticed is that the woman taking our home-printed tickets didn’t check to see whether they were duplicates, or even tickets at all. She dropped them into a bin and gave us info cards to fill out.

We went into the conference room. There was pounding music of some sort. Calling it techno would be too generous - more like wordless thump-pop. Two big screens flanked the stage, cycling quotations from well-known inspirational speakers who were not present at the event, and also Lou Ferrigno, who I understood was in the building (or was going to be later) for some reason.

We passed on the free breakfast, which was just coffee and a few paper plates piled with limp banana bread, and went to our seats. We had “Gold” seating, which appeared to be the worst seats, way at the back. The front three-quarters of the room was designated “VIP” seating.

While we waited, we checked out the crowd, trying to figure its demographics. It was mostly male, mostly under 50, and going by accents, disproportionately composed of Asian and African immigrants, including many young couples. Most of the lone men seemed to be in their 40s, many of them overdressed for what the event would turn out to be. From the clothing (and some of the reactions to jokes the host would later make) I would guess the crowd skewed conservative.

“I’m just trying to figure out… what’s the sell here?” Hélène said. I was wondering the same thing, since we strongly suspected most of the tickets had been given away. There were a lot of self-conscious and uncertain faces, ours included, and it seemed clear that few or none of the attendees had been to one of these before. The website said VIP tickets were $149 (“$499 at the door”) but I would guess close to nobody paid more than thirty dollars for their ticket, if anything. The room was full.

How to Get Five Hundred People to Say Yes: After a brief introductory video - an upbeat montage of Olympic athletes, civil rights figures, lunar missions, and helicopter shots of mansions - a goateed host came out, wearing a white suit jacket and jeans. This was 8am on the dot, and the crowd was already a little hopped up from the coffee and thumping music. “How you doin’ out there!? Feel good!?”

He asked for a louder cheer, then asked again. He really wanted those cheers. In fact, throughout his act he didn’t do much at all except try to get the crowd to make affirmative noises. Almost everything he said was a question the audience had to say yes to. “So… I got a family back at home. Any of you got families?” By 8:08 the crowd had already answered “Yeah!” to at least twenty questions. It didn’t seem to matter what he asked as long as the only answer was “Yeah!” At one point he told an anecdote involving a snail. “Anybody know what a snail is? Yeah?!” He waited for a few affirmative cheers.

I can’t describe how it felt to watch the room’s attitude shift during this first segment. Nobody was quite liking this guy, but you could see the crowd’s early-morning defensiveness start to give way to a kind of lightheartedness, as though the host’s cheesy, nearly incompetent style assured us that the whole thing was harmless.

It was around this time that I began to realize how shrewd and polished the whole operation was. It wasn’t an earnest but incompetent rendition of a Tony Robbins event, it was bad on purpose. It was so bad it felt safe to play along, to laugh and clap at the host’s jokes.

This simple tactic was working. People were smiling and laughing and nodding, and you could feel their standoffishness dissolving. My suspicions were confirmed when they elevated the cheesiness to a level that could not be explained by poor taste or incompetence. The host called for a round of applause for a very special guest, and “Hail to the Chief” started playing, to which entered a George W Bush impersonator. He did a bit of stand-up, then produced a guitar and sang a song he wrote, called “Freedom Boogie”. The VIP section, which was most of the room, clapped along, with visibly less embarrassment than earlier. Back in the “Gold” section, we were a bit less moved. No clapping, but some head bobbing.

The presidential impersonator turned out to be the most likeable part of the show. After him came an evangelical-style inspirational speaker, wearing a three-piece powder blue suit and gold rings large enough to see from our seats. He entered to R&B music, and the first part of his talk was in rhyme. He commanded the crowd to repeat his last line - “I feel good! I’m wide awake!” - several times. They did.

Despite my cynicism, I could feel the infectiousness of the call-and-answer format. The George Bush impersonator had been so patently ridiculous that we as an audience had became virtually unoffendable. I could see the crowd getting excited and ready to act - on something.

After the initial rhyming sermon, Gold Rings Guy proceeded to do what all the speakers would eventually do, which is to tell a story of moving from a destitute existence to an upper-class life. He had been in debt and depressed, then he found some principles that made him believe in himself. Soon he had a nice house and a nice car, pictures of which he showed on the big screens. Today he’s living the dream, which evidently means working on the motivational speaking circuit.

He showed photographic evidence that he had met some famous people, which was another common theme among the speakers. In fact I think all the speakers showed photos of themselves with Arnold Schwarzenegger and/or a former president. (Even the George Bush guy showed himself with the real George Bush).

For the end of his talk, Gold Rings Guy sang “Moment to Moment” to a montage of more presidential speeches, civil rights protests, NASA missions and the Tiannenmen Square tank guy. At this point nothing had been offered for sale.

The next presenter began with his rags to riches story, only this time the thing that got him to the riches part was training his memory. He took the crowd through some contrived but convincing examples of his memory-boosting prowess, and linked these powers to the acquisition of fancy cars and beach houses. By the end of the presentation he was physically selling memory training DVDs for cash from the stage, where a small mob had gathered.

After him came an investment guy. His presentation’s format was almost comically identical to the last few, with the rise-to-success story, family anecdotes, photos of money and cars, and photos of himself with former presidents and famous bodybuilders. He attributed his lavish lifestyle to the use of a computer program that identifies the optimal time to buy and sell stocks. For those interested in learning his secrets, he offered tickets to another seminar the following month - normally more than a thousand dollars, but discounted in our case to $99. This was hugely popular with the crowd.

By 10am the overall business model was painfully clear to us skeptics in the Gold section, and had already been astonishingly effective.

The host is there to make you smile and get you responding, and perhaps lower your standards. The comedian/impersonator is there to make the thing feel silly enough to be harmless.

The first speaker is there to make you feel inspired and instill the vague principles of “taking action” and “saying yes!” The remaining speakers are there to stoke specific desires about money, cars, houses and brushes with celebrity.

At the end of each of these presentations comes the opportunity to finally take some concrete action towards your own betterment - by saying “yes!” to their product, which by that point is a psychological proxy for fancy cars, six-figure incomes and beachside homes.

I left at lunch.

What The Good Life is Made Of: The how-to information - the actual principles the speakers supposedly used to attain the Good Life - was always vapid and trite. “’Repeat after me’, one speaker said: ‘Change is good… when your attitude is great!’” Later, it was “Execute the plan, with excellence!” Each speaker showed pictures of their spouse and kids, and gave some cute domestic-life anecdotes that got knowing laughs. Each also mentioned, once, the importance of helping the community - the DVD guy even encouraged people to buy his DVDs so that you can “donate them to a school.”

Name dropping was done frequently and shamelessly. Everyone had a picture with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Zig Ziglar or some former president. The investment guy mentioned Warren Buffet about fifty times. They also made a point of repeatedly distinguishing the action-takers from the rest. When a third of the crowd was mobbing the registration desks to get into the beat-the-stock-market seminar, the speaker said, “Notice that not everybody is acting on this opportunity!”

I found it surprising how well this noxious formula worked, until I remembered the crowd was not a random sample of the population. Through a series of internet ads and opt-in tests, the organizers were able to filter out the skeptics and pessimists, and anybody with any marketing knowledge, in order to assemble a roomful of people who were particularly vulnerable to their tactics.

Hélène and I were probably the opposite of the target audience. We happily wasted two seats, slipping past the filters due to an interesting irony - Hélène clicked on the ad because it was so perfectly unconvincing to her sensibilities. As Hélène wrote in her own recap, for many attendees, the free breakfast and lunch turned out to be very expensive.

On the walk home, I daydreamed about giving a seminar to the same audience. But instead of selling them things that don’t exist, like stock-market-beating software, I would illustrate what a sales funnel is, and what it feels like to be inside a nasty one.

I would charge $50 for tickets and could almost guarantee, with a clear conscience, at least a five- or ten-fold return on that investment. Lunch - sandwiches from a beloved deli two blocks from the convention center - wouldn’t be free, but it would be so delicious and substantial that everyone would know exactly where their money went.”

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