A Teeming, Desperate Metaphor for Exactly What Ails Advertising

How a Trip to Cabo Neatly Encapsulates the Shortcomings of the Old Days

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Bob Garfield
Bob Garfield
CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico -- It is very tense and exhausting to rail constantly about the death of advertising. Even prophets of doom need a day of relaxation now and then. That's why my big brother and I came here: to kick back, have a tequila or 40, slay a gargantuan sea-beast and generally not dwell on shop talk.

So what did we blunder into, literally the moment we exited customs? Here's what: a teeming, desperate, ongoing metaphor for exactly what ails advertising. As soon as a visitor steps in the reception hall of the Cabo airport, he is besieged by timeshare hustlers.

They swarm around you, like leukocytes around a pathogen, or 7-year-olds around a soccer ball, not letting you pass until they explain how you can get free lobster dinners and recreational activities if only you'll sit through a three-hour sales pitch for one resort or another.

Now, let's just say you emerge from that onslaught without succumbing. (I certainly didn't. Mayan Palace was quite impressive, with a lovely view of the Sea of Cortez and the rocky land's end of the Baja Peninsula. Turns out it wasn't a "timeshare" at all, but rather a "fractional ownership" opportunity. I didn't buy only because a) of certain unfunded tuition liabilities, and, b) I don't want to endure the airport ever again. But the snorkeling cruise and lobster were very nice. And by reporting on the experience right now, the trip is tax deductible.) The random pestering does not stop there. You cannot walk down a street in Cabo without someone appearing in front of you with an offer.

"You want to go fishing?"

"No, gracias."

"Massage, señor?"

"No, gracias."

"You want Cuban cigars?"

"No, gracias."


"No, gracias."

"Señor, .925 silver. Almost free."

"No, gracias."

Some of the entreaties are from 3-year-old girls, offering trinkets, but essentially put on the streets to beg. Mostly the pitches come from adult men, and you've got to hand them this: These pests are diversified. If you don't want the golf trip, they've got (phony) Cohibas, and if you don't want Cohibas, they can hook you up with a pitch for Glengarry Highlands Resort or whatever. One evening, as my brother and I tried to run the gantlet of restaurants and saloons along the perimeter of the marina, one especially hustling hustler stepped into our path.

"You guys ready for a steak and shrimp dinner?" he inquired.

"No, gracias," I said, not betraying my gathering annoyance. In a developing country, you can't but make allowances for the poverty that puts people in the position of accosting tourists. That's where the money is. On the other hand, irritants can trigger irritation, and this guy had a counter-offer.

"Well, how about my sister?" Ugh. Pimping shrimp is one thing, but this was repulsive.

"Not if she looks like you," I replied.

The most astonishing moment -- a miraculous moment, really -- happened as Josh and I were dining al fresco on our complimentary timeshare lobsters. For no apparent reason, his hand went into spasm, his fingers curling from the cramp. Out of nowhere materialized a masseuse, who -- as God is my witness -- commandeered his hand and tried to upsell him on massage services. When he demurred, she pitched a timeshare.

All right, so maybe you are not quite getting why all of this human spam constitutes a metaphor for advertising or anything else. But isn't it obvious? All of these people bother you in the middle of what you are doing, with unsolicited offers you most likely couldn't be less interested in, and they keep bothering you until they have wrested your attention. Indeed, their business model is to annoy as many people as possible against the chance that a few will give them money.

Sound familiar? Advertising is failing because of the digital revolution, but Cabo reminds us of the inherent shortcomings of the supposed good-old days. Chaos may reign, but nobody will miss the pimping.

After the shrimp/sister proposition, my brother put it quite nicely: "They want to sell you everything but what you want."

OK, Josh, and what is that?

"Pepper spray."

Bob Garfield, now a consultant, has reported on advertising, marketing and media for 28 years.
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