Last Friday I dropped by Associated Market on 5th Ave. My mission was simple: buy toilet paper.
As the cashier checks me out, loud bells ring and colorful balloons pour from the ceiling. A man in a sharp suit emerges holding a giant check as an eager reporter bobs a microphone in a shocked man’s face. The cameras roll. “Congratulations sir," the man in the suit says. "You’re our millionth customer! You just won $50,000.00!”
As they whisk him away, a woman starts yelling about how the man cut her in line and she’s entitled to the winnings. They tell her to take it up with the manager and ignore her as she storms out in a fury. Her acting was poor though, so I start to think I'm in the midst of an Improv Everywhere skit. At the very least, this was a familiar scene I'd viewed on that show What Would You Do? I ask the cashier what the deal is and she gives me an awkward smile. She can’t say anything.
I leave the market un-showered and pretty much in my pajamas carrying a value size pack of TP, when I see a huge camouflaged bus with newspaper taped to the windows. Various young and hip people are shuffling around with clipboards and earpieces. I ask them for an explanation on what I just witnessed. “Marketing research,” one tells me. “A sociological experiment," says another. Everyone produces vague and often conflicting responses. One man admits that the entire scene was fabricated and most are hired actors, although the “victim” who gets cut in line is often an unsuspecting shopper.
It was only after I approached a few people that someone asked me to sign a waiver.
The document was rife with legal jargon and I could barely make heads or tails of it, so I refused. They ask to at least take my picture, to which I said they already shot video of me without my permission (I was standing right behind the “winner” as the cameras rolled. Note to self: maybe put a bra on before leaving the house next time? Just a thought), so that was enough for one day.
I left pretty confused but very entertained. What marketing research could possibly come from this, and why didn’t I think to take out my phone to film it for Facebook? I’d just updated my status yesterday bragging about my Maggie Gylenhaal spotting (looking ravishing in her emerald pea coat as she entered a town car in front of Al Di La) and now THIS. Folks, we just don’t get this kind of fun back in Smallbany, NY.
So I turn around and go back for a double feature. My sense is they were looping this scene all day, if their research is worth its salt.
I enter the market and notice that many of the people I thought were normal shoppers were actually part of the ruse! They are now bored extras pacing aimlessly through aisles, stretching, and playing cell phone games. Crew members quickly stuff bags of balloons back into the drop ceiling as the reporters take their places in a private back room.
The cast of The Truman Show has invaded Park Slope. I feel duped. And yet thrilled. I wait in the cleaning aisle, camera in hand ready for show time. I wait. And wait. Finally a man approaches. “Please," he begs. "Don’t film this. It’s a sociological experiment and we can’t have it filmed.”
“Can I just hang out and watch?” Because this has now eclipsed anything else I’d planned for my Friday afternoon. What conference call?
“We really just need people to cycle through as quickly as possible to get their groceries.” he says. I surrender and leave the store. He really did beg.
As I reluctantly head home, a chubby old man asks if I know what all the fuss is about. I start to explain and he interrupts -- “I know! I left my store to get some chicken and almost won $50,000 but some man went ahead of me in line!” He was practically kicking himself. I assure him it was all just a prank and he didn’t lose out on any money. Now I’m irritated that no one bothered to debrief this poor man.
Later that evening, my friend tells me about how her boss burst into their local restaurant shouting, “You won’t believe what just happened to me!” He was already having a horrible day, and to top it all off (you guessed it) some dude cut him in line and took his money. The waiters were up in arms on his behalf: “Ya mean he didn’t even offer you some of the money?” I disclosed the truth to my friend and she relayed the real deal to her boss, saving yet another hapless victim who would have surely lost sleep over his misfortune.
Said friend, who missed her calling as a lawyer, was having none of this. So she called Associated Market and learned this was all a commercial for Ally Bank. The store manager advised her to call the production company. Posing as an attorney with several disgruntled clients, she gave the head of production a lesson in protocol. The end result was wiping the footage from a day’s worth of “work.”
I felt kind of bad, until I thought about the old man at the store who thought he was thisclose to winning a ton of money. Well, that and how gross I looked that day.