I know you see me. I’m standing right in front of you, yet you pull your phone out of your pocket as if it’s some clever new scheme I’ve never seen before. I don’t block your path or crowd your personal space, but you push your ear buds in tighter, happier to risk permanent hearing loss than let my voice reach your consciousness. You edge your body away from me as if I were carrying an infectious disease, when in fact the only thing I can give you is these flyers in my hand.
Every day there are dozens of people standing on street corners in New York simply trying to do a job and nobody seems to give them any credit. More often than not, you’re considered nothing more than a nuisance. Standing in the hot sun, going for hours without food or a bathroom break just so people can talk down to you. I don’t know when working in street promotions became equal to being inflicted with leprosy, but it’s been the case for as long as I can remember. There is something utterly grotesque to New York City pedestrians about a human being standing on a corner trying to give out information. We will cross streets in the middle of on-coming traffic just to avoid interacting with the stranger holding the glossy flyers.
It could have something to do with our inclination as a society to shy away from any human interaction that we haven’t planned in advance, or it could simply be that we, as a culture, don’t give a… It’s not as if I don’t understand it on some level. After all, I grew up in the city and endured years of people trying to pass me information on the newest gentleman’s club or a deal on suits or a comedy show. I had perfected the art of ignoring people by the time I was graduating elementary school.
The truth of the matter is that I would rather be spending my days doing almost anything other than handing out information on the street, but lately it’s become something of a necessity for me. I’m trying to create some semblance of a career as a writer and as any freelance worker knows, trying to make a living as an artist is inevitably joined with work in street promotions or “grassroots advertising,” as we luxuriously refer to it nowadays. It’s the only job with flexible hours that pays a decent wage, allowing you to make money while still keeping time for your own projects.
When done properly, there is also no better way to get your information in the hands of the right people. Sure, you can stand on any corner and pass out flyers to passersby, but there is a great likelihood that they will throw them in the trash. But if you select your audience carefully, assure that it’s something the majority of them would have an interest in, and also give them information in a package small enough to carry home, you may achieve remarkable success.
Which is why, as I get ready to promote my next cancer benefit concert, I know I will turn to grass roots promotion. I’ve designed business cards with the organizations mission and social media information to be dispersed at concerts throughout the summer. Sure, I’ll be standing in the hot sun and not getting paid, but I’ll be getting my information directly into the hands of music lovers, who are after all, my main target audience. The cards are easy for pedestrians to store comfortably and a well-placed mention of charity and music should at least intrigue them. If I hand out a couple thousand and only 10 percent come to the next show, it will still be a couple hundred new supporters.
But planning street promotions yourself is entirely different than agreeing to promote for someone else. When you’re planning the distribution yourself, you can at least come and go as you please. When you work for somebody else, there are few choices other than waiting out the storm and looking. Most people get involved in street promotion work through friends or family. Somebody’s company is throwing an event, launching a product or a service and needs to get word out fast. You need money and feel some duty to help, and the next thing you know, you find yourself with a backpack draped over your shoulders filled with hundreds of flyers.
The daily task of ridding yourself of their burden never seems to grow any easier. No matter what type of information I’ve passed out, people didn’t seem to care. Whether it was about the benefit concerts or trying to tell people about a new ferry that can get them from Brooklyn to Manhattan without cramming on the L in the morning, they don’t want to hear it. But those same people will complain a week later when they hear it from someone else that nobody told them about any of this.
For some reason, certain people don’t feel that ignoring you is enough. These people also need to try and argue with you or belittle you. “Free service for the first two weeks,” you might yell out, only to have a man come up to you confrontationally: “It’s 12 days.”
“You said free for the first two weeks. It’s only free for 12 days. You’re standing out here lying to people.”
Sure, he’s right, if you’re that focused on semantics. But the truth of the matter is, you only have about three seconds to get somebody’s attention. You find out what works and then you run with it, fearing that any change may kill your momentum. If people would give you a couple of minutes to explain, you could go into detail about your information, but we all know that is never going to happen. Instead, you’re basically a writer trying to pitch a story to a producer in less than 20 seconds. You have to find something to grab them. If you can use the word “free,” you might come away lucky. If not, you could be in for a very long day.
In the end, nobody takes street promotion work because they’re trying to make it a career. The people you see on the corner are trying to make money to pay bills and keep their dreams alive. Is that so disgusting that they don’t even warrant being looked in the eyes? You don’t have to take a flyer. You don’t even have to lower your music enough to hear what they’re saying. All you need to do is say “no thank you,” and we’ll call it even.