Media Circus: Confessions of an undercover drink fink

Fed up with traditional techniques that don't reach the hipsters, advertisers have begun hiring people to start trends themselves.

By Michelle Goldberg

Published December 9, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

As advertising firms grow increasingly desperate to penetrate the youth market, some are finding that bombarding them with images just isn't enough. Merely suggesting trends doesn't work anymore -- instead, they're using their cash to pay craven hipsters like me and my friends to start them.

For four months last year, my friend Hakeem and I were employed by a PR firm that paid us to go to bars and drink cocktails. Each night that we went out, we were given $150 to spend, plus a salary of $50 apiece. Our only responsibility was to order a particularly misbegotten variety of martini that the firm was trying to make popular, hopefully turning our friends on to the vile concoction in the process. We were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement stating that we would not give away the name of the company and told to keep what we were doing a secret, even to the friends we were boozing up -- apparently, they were to believe that Hakeem and I had simultaneously become addicted to obscure top-shelf mixed drinks, and that despite our obvious poverty we had also both found a mystery fund of hundreds of dollars to spend on our habit. But whether our corporate masters truly believed we'd toe the company line was irrelevant -- they were financing our social lives in the hope that we, hip young things that we are, would start a fad.

It began like this: My friend Bonnie, a well-paid Planet Hollywood PR woman turned earnest grad student, got a call from an old acquaintance. The liquor company her friend worked for was recruiting people for a secret project, and all Bonnie knew was that it involved free drinks and easy money. Bonnie immediately thought of me. I had just turned 21 and was still enamored of being able to order cocktails without my fake ID. In turn, I alerted Hakeem. Hakeem is a hyperactive club kid who wakes me up at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning to see if I'm ready to go dancing at an after-hours club, a boy any street-cred craving flack would adore.

Bonnie, Hakeem and I met in front of San Francisco's elegant Mark Hopkins hotel. We were directed to a conference room, where we were seated across from a pretty girl named Amy and a balding, smirking man named Jeff. Neither would tell us why we were there -- they just asked us a few vague questions about our social lives and drinking habits, took our pictures and said they'd call us in a few weeks.

By the time I got home, there was a message on my machine. I had gotten the job, though I still didn't know what the job was. Hakeem and I were instructed to return to the hotel the next day.

On the second meeting, Jeff and Amy told us what the "job" entailed. They had been traveling from one major city to another recruiting teams of kids in their 20s. We were all paired off (Hakeem and I were together), and for the next four months each duo had to go clubbing on assigned nights, selecting three bars from a list of local hot spots and ordering one martini at each. With the leftover money, we could buy drinks for our friends or order appetizers and desserts. Then, we had to fill out forms rating the bars' "pretentiousness," "smokiness" and "friendliness," as well as the bartender's familiarity with the cocktail.

"[Mystery booze] was our parents' drink," Amy said. "This martini is our drink." To confirm the pitch, Jeff and Amy showed us a promotional video for the cocktail in which a series of well-coifed bartenders gushed about the concoction and the incredibly up-to-the-minute scenesters who drink them. "This martini is so cutting edge it bleeds," said one.

My friend Andrew, who had done the program two years before I did, said the PR people explained to him, "When you're trying to sell a product into a really savvy and hip market, traditional methods don't apply. Magazine ads aren't sufficient, you can't do television, and they just felt the only way to do it was by word of mouth." Indeed, the firm had been saturating magazines and matchbooks with plugs for the drink, but I'd never noticed them until I was hired.

For the next few months, Hakeem and I traded our usual dives for swank bars where drinks cost seven, eight or nine dollars each. We subsisted on the mounds of fried calamari and LP-sized, thin-crusted pizzettas that litter late-night menus across California. It wasn't our job to push the cocktail on anyone, but Jeff assured us that people would probably ask us what we were drinking. I didn't believe him -- the martini is the murky brown color of weak iced tea, hardly curiosity-inspiring. Amazingly, though, people started asking about it right way. Usually, after I listed the ingredients, they'd grimace and go away.

Who could blame them? It was repulsive. "I thought it was a horrendous drink," said Andrew. "I've never seen anyone drinking it. I think the product is crappy. The liquor itself makes a good aperitif, but in this cocktail its disgusting. There's not a food item on the planet that goes well with this martini."

But it didn't matter. My social life and self-regard had both gone way upscale. As a kid, I was just a bit less cool than the girl from "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and though I knew I'd gotten beyond that, I certainly never thought I could bank on hipness. When the checks started coming, it was the same incredible egocentric rush that I got the first time I sauntered up to a clipboard-wielding drag queen in front of some New York City nightclub and said those incredible, Cinderella words: "I'm on the list." It was the feeling every poseur lusts after -- the feeling of having finally arrived.

But just as the thrill of clubbing burns off after too many dissolute nights, the stupid satisfaction I got from this scheme didn't last. After a few months, it became a hassle to have to go out drinking even when I was exhausted or hung over or busy. In time, I developed a kind of fashion-victim paranoia -- what other manipulations had the Machiavellian marketers designed to sucker the socially insecure? I knew that advertising seeps into our consciousness, but there was something both comical and ominous about the giant hand of marketing coming into my neighborhood and offering my friends and I much-needed dollars to be living billboards. Why was Mindy offering me her Newports? Was Cassie tricking me into having wraps for lunch? I have no problem with selling out myself, but it was disturbing to think that those around me might be doing the same thing and I would never know it.

A few weeks ago, the program ended. We had a "debriefing" in the penthouse of another expensive hotel, complete with a huge spread of fruit, cheese and candied nuts. Like before, Jeff looked like he had crawled out of a Jay McInerney novel in his slick black suit and tight black T-shirt. Amy, I found out, had quit the firm and gone to work for a charity for the homeless.

All of us were invited to mock the incompetent servers who didn't know that the drink was made with a twist of lemon and not, of course, a slice of lemon, and share the funny lines we used to put them in their place. One well-scrubbed young man in a button-up shirt bragged about how he proselytized for the drink, how he bought rounds for strangers and indignantly chastised bartenders who didn't know the ingredients or who didn't stock the liquor. Two of the girls, we found out, were so zealous that they've been allowed to do the program over and over for the last four years. Hakeem and I, who had been lax about getting our forms in on time, weren't invited back for another four months. Neither of us really minded. Even being a lounge lizard can get to be a chore when you have to do it professionally.

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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