You may have seen this clever, compelling, and creative campaign from Payless, the discount shoe chain. Payless took over a former Armani store in a Santa Monica mall. The chain stocked it with an array of their $19.99 pumps and $39.99 boots. Then they invited groups of so-called “Influencers” to the grand opening of the faux retail brand, “Palessi”.
The event attracted tons of media…
AdWeek: Payless Opened a Fake Luxury Store, ‘Palessi,’ to See How Much People Would Pay for $20 Shoes, The answer? A hell of a lot
CNN: Payless dupes fashion influencers into buying $640 shoes
CTV News: Payless Tricks Social Media Influencers into Paying $600 for $20 shoes
Fortune: Payless Opened a Fake Luxury Store With $600 Shoes
USA Today: Payless marked up discount shoes to $600 at luxury event ‘Palessi’
AdWeek reported, “Party goers, having no idea they were looking at discount staples from the mall scene, said they’d pay hundreds of dollars for the stylish shoes, praising the look, materials and workmanship. Top offer: $640, which translates to an 1,800 percent markup, and Palessi sold about $3,000 worth of product in the first few hours of the stunt.”
The entire event was well done. Check out Payless’ video explaining it, https://vimeo.com/303592261 and be sure to visit the slick Palessi website that will have you thinking all-things-luxury, https://www.palessishoes.com. Visit fast, as I am sure this site will be taken down.
The unwitting or, witless, influencers who made purchases had their money returned and received free shoes in exchange for hilarious and kind-of-sad video. It is brilliant for an accessible and affordable retail brand to take on the deeply flawed influencer-marketing model.
The agency who pulled this together was DCX Growth Accelerator. You can just imagine the fun of conceptualizing it in one of their meeting rooms. According to Doug Cameron, DCX’s Chief Creative Officer, the retailer “wanted to push the social experiment genre to new extremes, while simultaneously using it to make a cultural statement. Payless customers share a pragmatist point of view, and we thought it would be provocative to use this ideology to challenge today’s image-conscious fashion influencer culture.”
DCX hit the key marketing objectives. They challenged the hypocrisy in fashion retailing, questioned the use of influencer marketing, and got Payless press. The response to the campaign has been consistent from both the marketing and fashion industries. Most see it as a commentary on the positive and negative power of image and on the discernment, or lack thereof, among fashion influencers. After all, these “experts” paid 18-times the normal price.
However, I see something much deeper in Palessi. To be sure, forms of influencer marketing have been around for centuries. It started with endorsements. Royal families once endorsed Wedgwood china. This evolved into celebrity endorsements in the 20th century. Pat Boone crooned for General Motors, Ellen DeGeneres became a Cover Girl, and Donald Trump shrilled for Burger King and Pizza Hut (which should have prompted people to ask, “Is he really a billionaire?”, but that is a whole other story).
We are all familiar with the line, “Promotional consideration paid for by ___________.” That is sly, deceptive language that has brands hijacking whole programs on television. NBC’s The Today Show is four hours of ads weakly disguised as a news program. Why society falls for and allows such flimflam boggles the mind. It is hucksterism akin to tactics from Barnum, a sleight of hand that is a big false promise like every ounce of snake oil that has ever been sold.
So, while this evolution has taken place, there is a profound difference from days of yore. Today, the majority of influencers are nobodies trying to be celebrities. Influencers are close cousins to “life coaches”. These twenty-something life coaches hang out a pseudo-science shingle with zero bona fides except their shared love of not working. More often than not, they pump-out hollow, try-to-feel-good diatribes on Instagram beneath a photo of them posing in sunshine only to return home at night to a bed in their parents’ basement before crying themselves to sleep.
Influencers and life coaches suffer from self and broadcast disillusionment making both “professions” equally and profoundly dangerous.
We live in a time of credibility-missing expertise. That is why all of our institutions are in disarray. Are our truly best minds entering politics? Not by a long shot. Where are the sharp, ethically minded business leaders? Certainly not at Facebook. What we have instead are those that self-promote and wildly profit from our ignorance and apathy. We are eroding society from within by not calling B.S. and letting the least qualified have the loudest voice.
Payless may have viewed this as a stunt. A bit of guerilla marketing to gain short-term media exposure. And that is what it may amount to. However, if you look harder at what it communicates, calls-out and proves, it is a bigger story. When this period of history is written it may be pointed to as one of the many siren calls concerning our purpose and authenticity. A plea to eschew the vacuous pablum of silly commercialism we too willingly gulp down in liberal amounts.
This is neither a marketing stunt or tiny historic footnote, it is a sad and pivotal wake-up call that goes far beyond shoes, malls and marketing. It is an indictment of so much more.