A shill is a person that serves as a “plant” in order to sell or promote another’s goods without disclosing the nature of the relationship between the two. Shills are very common at auctions, where they pretend to be legitimate bidders, but are there in fact just to drive the price up.
The presence of shills has become more complex over the years. There are now many corporate shills. We are becoming more and more familiar with them through “product placement” in the media, where the things we see the various actors using are planted there as a form of advertising. How come all the cars used in a given action show are Fords, for example? Not coincidence, surely. And Apple computers seem to dominate the lab scene in just about every crime show. From watches to scotches, everything you see in a TV show or movie has been bid and sold by the producers. And in the same way race car drivers used to wear the emblems of their sponsors on their Nomex suits, today actors and sports figures wear the products of their sponsors during their day-to-day activities. Since we identify with our various heroes, the obvious intent is that we will wish to emulate them in their choices of running shoes, watches, clothing, cars, etc. Psych 101.
Now product placement has entered the world of hotels in a big way. Oh, we’re all used to the little shampoos, conditioners, and mouthwashes that have been planted there for years. But on my latest trip to Toronto this week, staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in Mississauga, my hotel featured a magic adjustable bed, flat screen TV, coffee maker, and assorted other furnishings, each with their brand highly visible and a promotional card attached, telling me that I could buy each item immediately from the manufacturer on-line and have it shipped to my home where it would await me upon my arrival.
This is what the future holds (and the future is now): Every moment and every contact point with the external world, every day, will be (is) a relentless bombardment of advertising, promotion, and shills. Try to take a piss at a restaurant….the urinal inescapably faces a large poster advertising some beverage, massage service, etc. Walk down the grocery aisle and even if you stare at the floor, the floor is covered with ads. There are no Olympics any more…they are the Samsung Olympics.
Now, I have nothing against advertising. Usually, advertising is the price you pay for something you get free. But today, advertising is forced down our throats even when we’ve paid for something precisely because we don’t want advertising! Been to a movie theater lately? You get my point. And PR pretty much drives most of what we read in the press that isn’t a “hard news” story. That interesting article about how Bordeaux wines have survived the Leechy-fly infestation? A PR plant. That great story about the Yoga instructor teaching blind kids? Plant. That nice lamb recipe excerpted from a new cookbook? Planted there either by the cookbook author or the Australian Sheep Council. And car reviews? Hahahahhaha! Might as well believe in the Tooth Fairy. Bought and paid for. After my 6 month sojourn in the world of PR last year, I was depressed to realize that almost everything you read in the news media is planted there by an agency with a specific commercial or political agenda.
We are now well beyond Hemingway’s comment that what is essential to every great writer is a foolproof shit-detector. We are so buried in shit that we can’t even get our heads out of the pile to have a look around.