OPINION: Marketing Society - Beggars today know power of marketing arts

Hooded and hunched on the pavement, her skirts were pulled up to the knee to reveal one deformed leg and foot. Hand outstretched; eyes downcast.

Hooded and hunched on the pavement, her skirts were pulled up to

the knee to reveal one deformed leg and foot. Hand outstretched; eyes


’Pity my deformities and give me your money,’ was the wordless


She might have added: ’I am exploiting your sympathy for monetary


Echoes of Hogarth’s London or an Eastern souk you might think, but in

fact it was Oxford Street in mid April. In the rags and flesh it was

shocking and embarrassing.

Charity advertisements of emaciated children in the daily newspapers, on

advertising hoardings or the television screen, we are used to, inured

to, even.

Grim expressions and starved bodies have become an advertising


Nonetheless, we recognise the form - ignore the substance - so that,

despite charity fatigue, we still give. The generous British public

gives between pounds 5bn and pounds 6bn to charity each year.

In contrast to media begging, the public display of mutilations on the

pavement is a different genre, but part of a wider scenario in which

pity is the motivator.

I was once handed a note in the Paris metro by a North African boy aged

about 13. It said: ’I am deaf and dumb. I have no parents. I need money

to return to my country. Please help me’. Since then I have seen many

similar notes and have become cynical.

What a clever idea, though? Deaf and dumb means he can’t be quizzed, or

reply. His story stands, unquestioned and unquestionable, on the grubby


An interesting subtext, too, with a xenophobic undertone: ’Give me money

and I will remove myself from your society’. He, or his beggar masters,

understand you better than you understand yourself.

With the unerring instinct of a confidence trickster, beggars show a

basic understanding of human psychology that seems rarely to fail. Pity,

fear and prejudice are all brought into play.

The haggard man on the blanket draws our sympathy, and coins, because of

the cute, watchful dog at his side; the wino outside Westminster

Cathedral catches us in pious mood; the gypsy outside the tube with the

sleeping baby (drugged, they say) makes us think of our own


So simple; so effective. So market-wise. But modern begging employs a

gamut of sophisticated techniques.

Private Eye runs a whole column of begging small ads each fortnight -

complete with bank and building society account numbers for easy


How about: ’Funding required for new wife, please help. First

Direct ...’ What an opportunity for e-commerce?

In last year’s Royal Society of Arts Christmas catalogue - with its posh

silk scarves, pencils and calendars - the introduction disdainfully

notes: ’Today, adjectives such as ’exclusive’ and ’unique’ have become

devalued verbal currency because of the exaggerations and even outright

mendacity of marketing and media wordsmiths.’ (That’s you he’s writing


It rather spoilt the high-minded effect by adding that: ’We are

particularly fortunate at the RSA ... in being able to produce a

beautiful range of gifts that particularly justify an exclusive label

and where many are also limited editions’.

In short, marketing speak has become common currency. Phrases such as

’up-market’, ’market share’, ’share of voice’ are regularly used in the

popular media, where the reading age is 15 years or less, and it is

expected they will be understood.

To distort Sir Edward Heath’s famous statement: ’We are all marketers

now.’ Even the poor.

Eugene Bacot is a director of Oakes Bacot Public Relations and a member

of the Marketing Society.