When solicitation becomes intrusion
Robin shares this bizarre story and begs the question - huh?
We've all heard it, over the loudspeakers: "Solicitation on CTA trains is prohibited; violators will be arrested." Sure, panhandling can be troublesome, but it's not sinister, like what I saw this morning. Solicitation? Maybe. Completely insulting? Without doubt.
I ride the brown line from Western to Chicago during rush hour. At Fullerton, an eye-catching gent gets on the train, cell phone pressed to his ear. He wears gray pants, a blue zippered hoodie, and a black backpack. There is a large white logo on the left breast of the hoodie, and a smaller one on his backpack. Aaaand...his face is painted blue. From hairline to jawline. Blue Man Group blue. Bears fan blue. I don't recall any major sporting events today, but maybe I've missed something. So, like a good little city mouse, I ignore him and his blue face. He enters at the opposite end of the car from me, but at Armitage, he moves to the doors nearest me. He's yapping away on his cell phone, which is annoying enough, but as he contrives to turn completely around in the unoccupied doorway, I can finally read his logos: "Talk Until You're Blue in the Face, with U.S. Cellular."
This makes things more interesting and more distressing. Not only is he a complete dink, he's being paid to be a complete dink. Not only is his yapping intruding on my aural landscape, but his yapping constitutes an ad.
His conversation (is it one-sided? is he talking to himself? is he a marginally-employed actor??!) sounds mundane enough: "No, man, I didn't even know she was his sister. Not like she was his girl or something. Well, she's awfully cute." Then, at a no-doubt pre-scripted spot--once casual eavesdroppers are sure to be hooked by the mini-drama between two friends, a third friend, and that friend's sister--he says "Naw, don't worry about it, brah, I've got free incoming calls with this thing. Yeah, and they gave me a sweet phone, too. Yeah, we could walkie-talkie. Even takes pictures." The ad portion of his broadcast concludes with "No, I took no naked pictures of his sister with it." He gets off at Sedgwick, just as I am resolved to shoving him off the train when the doors open.
Okay, so, on the one hand, this is brilliant guerrilla marketing, the likes of which I usually associate with underground theatre. On the other, it's absolute co-opting of that kind of whisper-campaign, word-of-mouth advertising that can really make a product move. Do they think they're clever? Do they think we don't get it? Aren't they concerned with the (assumed) fact that this isn't allowed on the CTA, and their man might get ejected or arrested, as the announcements promise?
Then, distressingly, I wonder if this is NOT the "solicitation" the CTA deems illegal, but if the transit authority, strapped for cash as it publicly is, accepted money from U.S. Cellular to allow the company's shill on the train to pose as a satisfied customer who, out of the joy he gets from his phone, pitches a phone service to his buddy on the line and everyone in earshot.
I don't mind if they sell the sides of trains, the turnstiles, or the walls. Like all millennial gen-Xers, I'm so used to constant visual intrusion that signage is wasted on me. But can the CTA really offer up its atmosphere--the soundwaves in its cars--to the highest bidder?
Clearly, I'm going to never ever spend any money with U.S. Cellular--and encourage my friends to boycott as well--because of the intrusion and stupidity of having an actor in blue-face pimp their phone during my commute, but I want more action. I want to know if the CTA is complicit in this crappy ad campaign. If they aren't, I want them to come out against this kind of activity on their buses and trains. If they are, however, I want the riders to rise up and demand that the soundscape of the CTA remain unsold.