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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

It's Sooo High-Tech, She Cooed

Walking, talking cell phone ads have the right ring to them.

September 04, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

I'm imagining right now that I am sitting at a bar, one of those self-conscious, fashionable places where people order $12 martinis in pastel colors. A Bacall look-alike slides onto the stool adjacent. Bogart-like, I say nothing. I do, however, notice that she is dressed to be noticed. Which she notices, and strikes up a conversation about that topic that men always find irresistible. That is, she asks me about me. She hangs on my every word.

Bear with me, I told you I was imagining this.

After a few minutes, she seems to remember something. Oh, would I mind taking her picture using her cell phone? Hum, I reply. I didn't know cell phones took pictures.

Where are we headed with this story? Not to affairs of the heart. This is the new realm of reality marketing. Not a TV ad but a face-to-face encounter.

In trendy bars like this, in trendy cities here and there, actresses actually are playing hired shill, demonstrating to unwitting patrons how easy it is to start up a conversation and flirt if only you will run down the street and buy this just-released cell phone that takes photographs. Here, where high rollers will pay $12 for glacier-blue martinis, is where fads are born.

And that's the point.

Alas, it may be some time still before I personally encounter anyone playing the part of Bacall. My local tavern sells only beer in schooners and pickled eggs on paper towels, and it attracts no one of fashionable intent insofar as I can discern--and few cell phone users either. But at last we have a trend in consumer marketing that is worth a toast. Let's hope it sweeps the country.

The next time I buy tires for the Civic, I'd like it to be because an actress spent a few hours at Joe Jost's listening to what's on my mind while she coos and tells me that what made the difference for her, happiness-wise, was switching to low-profile radials. The usual kind of saloon prattle.

I know, I know. The Naderites are up in arms about this kind of "stealth marketing." One of them was quoted as saying: "It's deceptive. People will be fooled into thinking this is real buzz." But that's the trouble with the Nader crowd. They don't spend nearly enough time in bars. If they did, they might catch their breath and realize that the words "real" and "buzz" never belong in the same thought. Besides, they might be charitable and see that Sony Corp. and Ericsson actually are doing us a favor with this new joint venture that is sending actors and actresses into bars across the country for 60 days.

I'm not referring specifically to cell phones that take photographs. About those, I'm reminded of what a general said about swagger sticks: If you need one, get one. It's the personal service that I'm talking about.

Life would be immeasurably better if all sales clerks were trained like actors and actresses to convey interest in you, the consumer. So what if it comes straight from a prepared script? Better a nice act than authentic disdain. And if we want to do more business one on one in the dim lights of a bar with chitchat, smiles, perhaps even some harmless flirting, I'm all for it.

If George W. Bush had invited me to Waco for his economic summit last month, I would have told him that he ought to get behind this in a big way. When a guy with an XL waistline starts feeling like Bogey, that's consumer confidence of a new order. I still don't think I'd order a martini in any color but clear, but otherwise I'm game for these games.

Deceptive? Friends, the word has lost its meaning in consumer marketing. Last year, we stood by helplessly as brand-name companies quietly reduced the volume of products they put in packages, like corn chips, but kept the price the same. They figured we wouldn't notice or couldn't do anything if we did. And apparently they were right because I see that none of these companies are on the growing list of corporate failures.

This year, we learn that at least some big discount retailers are charging more per ounce for their "value-size" products. Wal-Mart, for instance, is reportedly pricing bulk-sized commodities at premiums up to 50% per ounce, taking advantage of the ingrained consumer expectation that buying larger sizes saves money.

Compared with these gouges, give me an actress and an empty bar stool and we can talk business.

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