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For Hire: Professional Real People

Graduates take heart. Social media marketers will pay you for your authenticity.

Shannon Rupp 30 May

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Elle and Blair Fowler, self-made 'teen haulers' who've become fashion gurus to the masses.

When it comes to career planning, the class of 2012 should look no further than the job with the single greatest growth potential: stylist.

Yes, the career that sprang up to prevent tasteless Hollywood actresses pulling a Cher on the red carpet is about to face a big demand from a public that is just figuring out that Facebook photos are forever. As are the ones on Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest....

Forget the Arab spring, what social media have really done is reveal the vast majority's desperate need for a makeover.

I might not have noticed this if it weren't for the fact that we're all being turned into marketing fodder by companies anxious to use the images of genuine customers in their bumf. So not only are we being marketed-to from cradle-to-grave, now we are expected to provide the advertising content too.

This hit home when I chanced on a photo gallery featuring patrons of a local theatre company that stages an art form favoured by the nearly-dead. This arts group is on record discussing how it has to reach younger audiences and has decided to hip-it-up by getting with The Twitter and The Facebook.

In honour of their stated marketing goal, I expected to see shots of savvy young professionals out for a sophisticated evening at the theatre -- which is the demographic I know they're trying to woo. Instead, they posted shots of their actual audience. Viewers were treated to shot after shot of dowdy, grey-haired women in ensembles that can only be described as eccentric. Weird red floral kimono thingies over ankle length skirts paired with walking shoes and cross-body bags. Those who escaped the screaming floral craze showed an equally startling penchant for neon purple garments in all shapes and forms. Then there was that flamboyant woman in some bizarre high-collared gown that wouldn't have looked out of place on Snow White's evil step mom, not least because it was in comic book shades of green and blue.

While women outnumbered men five to one in the pics, there was one noteworthy shot of an aging lounge lizard in an expensive suit with a lovely young thing on his arm. (Oh, how I hope it was his daughter.)

Just what is this arts group trying to tell us about the sort of people who find their shows appealing? And did they really just imply that I, too, am a badly dressed candidate for the ice floe? Which, while not untrue, is hardly the thing to inspire a sudden urge to subscribe and join what looked like an audition for a Depends ad.

Truth and beauty

How is it that supposedly professional marketers don't realize this social media mania for unvarnished reality does their cause more harm than good? Certainly after some early attempts at using real people in their come-ons, the advertising industry learned they needed "aspirational" images to pry open our wallets. That's why celebrities have been hawking wares ever since actress (and royal mistress) Lillie Langtry's pretty face graced Pears soap adverts in the 1880s.

Sure it's cheaper to have unpaid amateurs decorating your blog, but it's also true that nothing is free in the digital world -- it's just a question of who is paying, and how. In that light, what is the real cost of trying to market fugly?

I ran this question by Laine Slater, director of marketing for the Vancouver International Film Festival, who snorted a laugh and then pointed out that she doesn't worry about such things because: A. her audience is not ugly; and B. it's everyone.

"If the movie is about zombies we get guys who are 20. If it's about (visual artist) Gerhard Richter, we'll get an older audience -- it depends entirely on the film. So our advertising focuses on what the films are about."

But it turns out that Slater also wonders about any marketer treating her audience as a commodity to be packaged and sold. The whole trend reminds her of Tex and Edna Boil's Organ Emporium, an SCTV skit that parodied the unfortunate rash of self-promoting retailers doing their own commercials in the 1980s.

The thinking at the time was that customers were more likely to be seduced by the "authentic" voice of the retailer than by some slick ad campaign. Sometimes it worked; mostly it just led to mockery. As anyone in the propaganda trades will tell you: truth is never pretty.

So promoters learned to buff up their images, wrap them in an illusion of sincerity and call it public relations, a business that was invented in the 1920s by Woodrow Wilson's political propagandist Edward Bernays. Their goal was to blur the line between promotions and reality and they were so successful that today even people in the business of reporting facts are confused. Recently Montreal Gazette reporter Anne Sutherland earned a three-day suspension after she tweeted caustic remarks about Montreal's naked student protests along with pics of bulging bellies. "Won't be posing for Playboy," was one of her quips in the now dead Twitter account.

Aside from the ethical faux pas of disparaging the people she was supposed to be covering, I was struck that Sutherland admitted publicly that her idea of beauty was defined by pornographers. That she assumes everyone exists only to titillate her is even more telling.

As news media morph into marketing and promotions sites featuring linkbait slideshows along the lines of World's Ten Sexiest Hockey Players, it's likely that Sutherland was hoping to wow her editor with pics of the Ten Sexiest Protesters -- now that would pull traffic. No wonder she was miffed by that parade of plump babes and skinny guys in clown-striped modesty socks who were unlikely excite the digital mob.

The long good buy

Still, it's clear from the recent spate of stories about how news media are being charged fees for the privilege of quoting banal comments from A-listers like Brad Pitt, that someone will have to step up and fill the news hole reserved for voyeurism -- reality TV can only do so much. But if we're going to be cast in the role of pseudo-celebs, and have our privacy invaded for someone else's profit, I figure we're entitled to the perks that traditionally come-with: swag-bags and sponsored clothing.

We can already see the trend taking hold in the legions of fashion bloggers and teen haulers who post photos of themselves and their latest buys on YouTube for fame and freebies. Some sponsored bloggers even turn their hobby into advertising sites, in the latest twist on influencer marketing.

The goal is to create an illusion of authenticity by avoiding the overly slick ad treatments, all the while producing aspirational images. That's led to what can only be called a meta career: Professional Real People. These aren't models in the current sense of the word, but they're well above average looking and will happily play-act their real lives for the camera and blog in order to promote fashion and related services like wedding photography, restaurants and tourism.

So it turns out Andy Warhol was only half right when he said that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. It seems we're really going be spokesmodels 24/7 in a relentless game of promotions.

With that in mind, graduates take note: it's clear we're going to be needing an awful lot of stylists.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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