There was a time when I voluntarily became part of a polling company’s regular panel of Internet users, dutifully filling out a weekly survey on some product or service. It’s good to be involved, to have a voice, I thought. I was also quite co-operative with telephone pollsters, for the same reason.
One day as another poll invitation popped up in my email, the thought occurred to me that I was, as Humphrey Bogart might have said, being played for a sap. Here I am, I thought, giving up my time so that one company can make money by helping other companies make more money. And I stopped co-operating with polls, including the telephone ones.
Then, ever so quietly, I began to get drawn into online voting schemes.
“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” the brilliant cynic H.L. Mencken said. Today, he could have extended that observation to include computer and smart phone users.
What possesses us, I wonder, to wilfully, cheerfully, even enthusiastically, give up our time and information to participate in “voting” schemes. This week it was a Facebook promo for favourite local producers, and who among us doesn’t want to help by casting daily votes for Cherrybrook Farms, Kootenay Alpine Cheese, the Purple People Feeder food truck and others who work so hard to keep us fed? A couple of weeks back I was dutifully linking in to vote in an attempt to help Tabletree win an advertising campaign.
And I think back to the hours I, and hundreds of others, sat voting, time after time after time, so that the Therapeutic Riding Program could win $25,000 in a Kraft Foods contest and Creston could play host to a TSN telecast.
In the latter case, we voters were exposed to the Kraft and TSN messages hundreds, perhaps thousands of times, so we could help a very important community group win some much-needed funding. In the first instance, I think the winners don’t get anything except the honour of calling themselves winners. Rarely do the prizes equate to the effort required to win them. Meanwhile, faceless companies are gleefully racking up information about us and our consumer preferences, all in the hope that they can sell us something at sometime down the road. And getting far more attention than if they were purchasing traditional advertising space and time.
I don’t think cynicism is a particularly admirable trait (Mencken also said, “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”) but the constant bombardment of advertising, schemes to gather information and endless ways of trying to capture our personal information and preferences helps sow the seeds of doubt in even the most generous of spirits.
Recently, amid news of reports of anonymous Tim Hortons customers paying for the next 500 coffee orders, the first thing I thought of was that the whole thing was a guerrilla marketing campaign, designed either by the company or an advertising firm. Not that it’s impossible to conceive of individuals just wanting to pay it forward and spread good will, but you can’t buy advertising spots in radio and television news reports, and that’s exactly what happened when reports of this particular generosity made news across the country.
Would the same attention be paid, I wondered, to these nice people if they had spent the same amount of money to buy sandwiches, then went out on the streets to distribute them to homeless people? Probably not. The work that food banks and soup kitchens do day in and day out isn’t as romantic as the thought of a free cup of coffee for someone who doesn’t need it.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.