July 26th, 2011
Reclining in a doorway doing his best Burt Reynolds impression, Maxime Filiatreault panhandles for change in downtown Toronto relying on an age-old marketing approach — using sex and humour to sell.
He holds up a sign that screams "SEX!" in block letters, followed by the line "Now That I Got Your Attention … Spare Change?"
Filiatreault, 23, from Montreal, says the sign works, typically netting him $20 to $30 in a couple of hours, enough for some food and cigarettes.
"Basically the word sex is used a lot in life, like in advertising to sell stuff," he explains. "People when they see the word, their eyes go right to it. They laugh. They love it."
They were caught off-guard by his sign: "Travelling, Hungry, Sick and Too Ugly to Prostitute, Please Help!" The last part about being "too ugly" belies his dark good looks.
Urban centres across the country are besieged by such panhandlers in the warmer months, who often resort to soliciting money from strangers out of necessity because of homelessness or other desperate circumstances.
"In the context of what is one of life's unfortunate situations, in this case, living on the streets, the underlying principles of marketing are the same. You still need to capture people's interest and attention in a way that stimulates action, that is the giving of money," says Joshi.
The foremost challenge for any marketer, including panhandlers, is to get people's attention, he adds.
"As citizens, we are distracted, there's lots going on in our minds, so it's not easy letting their messages through. The challenge for panhandlers is considerably greater because they have to overcome all these biases against them, and they lack a discernable product or service they are selling."
"Panhandlers are likely safest and most successful operating in the third category, because they have to attract your attention in a non-threatening way."
Melanie Scott, 20, sitting in the sweltering heat on Queen Street West in Toronto, has figured this out. She used to have negligible success with a sign asking for money to buy food, so she changed it to: "Spare change for marijuana research. All proceeds go to my lungs! Thanks!"
The sign gets attention and makes people laugh, which can translate into about $30 a day in small change, she says.
Singing, telling a joke or playing a musical instrument are also non-threatening ways for panhandlers to get people's attention that offer value in return for a donation, says Joshi.
Lisa King and Adam Baker have travelled across Canada supporting themselves by thumping out a "universal world beat" on their overturned buckets. Sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of Osgoode Hall, they prefer not to use signs.
"I don't like to use words when I'm performing. "It takes away the feng-shui of it," says Baker. "We're not sitting here begging. We're providing culture."
In India, where Joshi spent extended periods of time to set up Schulich's campus in Hyderabad, he says panhandlers (or beggars as the locals refer to them) eliciting sympathy by exposing amputated or mutilated limbs are a common sight.
Sitting in a wheelchair across from the Eaton Centre, Ralph Raponi, 58, packs a double whammy by singing loudly and exposing his legs, which are both amputated just below the knee.
"They call me the singing panhandler," he proclaims loudly before breaking into a few bars in an unrecognizable language. "Most of the time I sing gibberish. I'm f--king making it up as I go along," laughs Raponi.
On a good day, he makes $150, much of it from his "regulars," who slip him $10 or $20 bills at a time, says the resident of Seaton House, a downtown shelter for men. He uses the money to supplement his disability cheque to buy extras like a hot dog, cigarettes or a lottery ticket.
Raponi claims he stumbled upon panhandling accidently when someone dropped $20 in his lap one day while he sat in Yonge-Dundas square just people-watching.
"They genuinely think by giving you a donation, they feel they've done some good that day. It's more about them than me."
People often want to know how he lost his legs before pulling out their wallets, he adds. He tells several versions of his story, ranging from that he lost his legs when he was shot down as a fighter pilot to, more rarely, the truth, that he lost them to frostbite and eventually gangrene when he passed out drunk in a snowbank.
Even if Raponi doesn't always tell the truth, engaging people in a conversation about his plight is key in relationship-building, another marketing technique that often triggers giving, says Joshi.
Sitting in the shade, reading a discarded newspaper, with his mutt Isis lolling beside him, Derek Storm solicits money via his upturned ball cap sitting on the sidewalk in front of them.
But he is toying with the idea of inventing a pitch to boost their panhandling efforts. "I find it's less intrusive not to use a sign. But I think I make less money without one."