Earlier this year, for reasons which need not detain us here, I attended a business fair at the O2 in London. I went unwillingly, and that may have coloured my reactions to what I saw there, but for better or worse, this is how I reacted.
For those of you who don’t know the O2, it’s what used to be called the Millennium Dome, and it sits on the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, looking north across the River at the buildings of Canary Wharf. I suppose, on evenings when a big event or concert is on at the arena inside, the O2 is quite a bustling, exciting place, but for the three days we were there it was cold and uninviting.
Like all ‘fairs,’ there were many stands. These were, obviously, business-related and therefore of limited interest to me. But what we had come for were the ‘seminars,’ where various self-made millionaires would tell us how we, too, could become self-made millionaires. Which is where the wheels began, for me anyway, to come off the whole enterprise.
I shan’t refer to individual speakers, but I don’t really have to because pretty much all the ‘seminars’ followed the same pattern. They proceeded thus:
- Someone comes up and introduces the speaker, usually in the manner of a television warm-up man getting a studio audience clapping and cheering.
- The speaker bounds onto the stage, starts doing a call-and-response thing. “Good morning!””I can’t hear you! Good morning!” The audience shouts “Good morning!”
- The speaker gives a quick precis of who they are and what they do. Surprisingly often, they were lowly wage-slaves in their former lives, but now they’re rich and they mix with the likes of Richard Branson and Alan Sugar – rubbing shoulders with Branson and Sugar is mentioned by a lot of these people – and they’re going to show us how to do it too.
- But first, we get a glimpse into their lives. They were once shackled to the daily grind, but now they have big houses, they have yachts, they snowboard – yachts and snowboarding also being common signifiers. This is the lifestyle they have, and they’re going to show us how we can have it too.
- But first there’s a presentation. A dizzying succession of slides and animations punctuated by the speaker asking the audience to join in in a “What do points make…?” kind of way. You can have this, you can make this much. And I’m going to show you how. And so on.
- Without fail, every speaker underlined the importance of ‘building a list’ – getting a database of email addresses so you can spam customers after the initial point of contact. More of this later.
- There will be little digressions about people who, using the speaker’s Method, are now multimillionaires with yachts and snowboards. And the speaker will tell us all how to do it. It’s simple. Anyone can do it.
- And then comes The Slide. The Slide arrives about ten minutes before the end of the ‘seminar.’ The Slide usually features A Book, or A Workshop, or A Box Of DVDs. And these constitute the speaker’s Method. And these usually retail at £1,500, but for this one occasion only the speaker is selling them, not for £1,500, not for £1,000, not for £500, but for £250 to the first twenty people to sign up at the back of the room where Marion is waiting with a sheaf of forms.
And that, literally, was that. Over and over again, for three days. Like a Revivalist meeting for Mammonites. About halfway through the first seminar on the first morning I was fighting an urge to get up and walk out. There was useful content to be found, but you had to winnow it out from the noise. And I found myself getting more and more annoyed.
I’ve had the misfortune, a couple of times in my life, to attend pyramid selling pitches. The first time, I didn’t know what I was seeing; the second, the speaker was really very good and I could only sit in admiration.
What I saw at the business fair, over and over again, were pyramid selling pitches. The speakers weren’t giving us tips on how to get on in business – the only balls-to-the-wall, end-to-end useful seminar I attended the whole three days was by the Copyright Protection people, who really had nothing to sell – they were selling us…what? I don’t know, because I didn’t buy any of it, but I doubt whether it did very much more than gather together some relatively easily-available information, give people some relatively easy-to-find advice, and invite them to spend more money on more Methods.
You find yourself asking yourself – at least I did – why, if the Method is so easy and so foolproof, these people are standing in a cold hall at the grotty end of Greenwich at half past nine in the morning telling you about it. Why aren’t they on their yacht? Why aren’t they snowboarding? And you start to wonder. Maybe the Method is what they’re selling. And selling is what it’s all about. This isn’t about manufacturing, or a service industry, or anything useful. It’s just about selling. The product doesn’t matter. Literally doesn’t matter. It’s all about selling.
This was all very interesting, in a jesus-christ-i-had-no-idea-this-kind-of-thing-went-on sort of way. We got our tickets online, so we had to give our email addresses, which meant…ah, but you’re ahead of me. Yes, we were on a List. And that means we now get spammed with invitations to take part in ‘webinars’ and all manner of other exotic stuff. And I’d like to mention a couple of recent emails.
The first – and again I won’t mention the name – came from one of the speakers, who said his business was doing so well that he needed people to run his websites. Jobs. Scroll down email. Quick recap of his career. Multimillion-pound turnover, big house, snowboarding, yachts. Opportunity to join in. Help me run my websites. Scroll down. For this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I would normally charge £1,500. But now, right now, I’ll send you all the materials to run my website to the first twenty people to respond for £250 each.
Sorry? Say that again? You need people to run your websites? And you want them to pay you for the privilege of doing it? Hm. Let me think about that one…
The second email was an invitation to take part in a webinar by a young woman who was going to tell us how to make money from Twitter. Fine. I spend enough time on the damn thing. I’ll have a look.
Presentation stamped using a cookie cutter. Wage slave, sudden epiphany, crafty Method, now Living The Dream, and I’ll tell you how to do it.
How to do it was to become a spammer. She had around a hundred Twitter accounts (anything less isn’t worth it) run by freelancers from Southeast Asia (“Who I’ve trained in my Methods”) and they were basically spamming on her behalf and she was making money out of it.
Now this was interesting stuff. Everyone on Twitter has encountered spam, and she gave us a couple of tips for free which put some accounts I’ve seen into context. Tweet six or seven pieces of actual content relevant to your audience – just paste in links from the BBC or somewhere – and then tweet the thing you want to sell. Then six or seven more real links. Then your thing. Sound familiar?
Anyway, the end of the webinar was the usual package – discounted for one time only – of books and CDs and DVDs and support from her ‘team’ (which she has trained in her Method). Blah blah.
Now, this is all very interesting in an anthropological, writery kind of way, but it makes me angry. It makes me angry because there were people there with recent redundancies, despairing of ever finding another job and desperate for advice in how to set up in business and they were basically being fleeced. Business people are not, on the whole, philanthropists. A person with a foolproof Method is not going to sell it to someone who could become a competitor. And even if they do, the market is getting saturated. We’re all wise to spam these days – although it must still be lucrative enough or it would just dry up.
What was being sold at this fair was Lifestyle, and the promise that, with very little effort, we too could have it. And that of course is bullshit. Work is hard and it more often than not crashes and burns. If making money was so easy we’d all have yachts and snowboards. What I saw was, in my opinion, not too far removed from hucksterism.
And you know what? It works. At the end of every seminar ten, fifteen, twenty people went to the back to talk to Marion and hand over their £250.
Which does make you think.