The Fraud

Headshot of Tim Nudd

You have a great time at your job. You plot. You primp. You travel to bars and nightclubs in trendy areas. You drink on your company’s tab. You mingle. You try to be noticed but not found out.

You are good at this job. No one knows who you are. You amble over to the jukebox and play a few songs (“One Step Beyond” by Madness is a favorite). You play pool. You throw darts and hit the bull.

We are also at the bar. We drink beer and watch the ballgame. We are unsuspecting.

Soon you drift over and say hello. You order a drink and hang around. You are nonrepellent. You are cool.

You make jokes. You say you like the color of Mike Piazza’s hair. We laugh at your witticisms. You argue in favor of stem-cell research. We back you up. You bemoan Julia and Ben’s break up. We feel your pain.

You charm. You emote. And occasionally—subtly, offhandedly, but more than once—you remark on how good your drink tastes. You are having vodka mixed with flavored water. You credit this brand of water for the quality of your drink.

We listen. We absorb. We say, “Hmm.”

We are unaware that you are a fraud. We are unaware that someone pays you to promote this brand, that its welfare is your business and the whole reason you’re here. We are unaware that your jokes might be funny but you are not.

You trick the filters we rely on to separate commercial messages from noncommercial ones. You fool us. You mess with us. You are disagreeable, even creepy, but you may be worse than that.

You remind us of something David Foster Wallace once wrote. Wallace had come across an essay by a famous writer extolling the virtues of a certain pleasure-cruise company. It was spirited and poetic and persuasive—affectionate, even, in the sense that all essays are gifts to the reader and meant primarily for the reader.

But it wasn’t an essay. The cruise company paid for it. It was an ad.

“This is dishonest,” Wallace wrote, “but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our de fenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.”

You, too, are goodwill without its real spirit. You pretend to be a person, but you are an ad. You get us to lower our defenses, but we are not your priority. We are pawns. We are dollar signs.

You have no qualms. You believe we can’t be alarmed since we don’t even know you’re here. But we read BusinessWeek. We read the Times. We know you’re here. We just don’t know where.

We wonder what we can do. We don’t see many options. We could leave, but should we have to? We could tune everything out, but what good is that?

Maybe you’ll leave. Probably you won’t. Either way, of course, we’ll never know.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.