Earlier this week, our sister publication Business Insider SA published a story about Beauty Pass, an invitation-only app for models from selected fashion agencies that gives them free deals in cities they are working in including Cape Town, Milan and New York.
The app grants the young and beautiful chosen ones free meals, drinks and access to gyms and clubs that are closest to them.
The reasoning is simple: according to the Beauty Pass website, it "relieves" models of "costly everyday expenses" (because, according to the latest Census, SA's poorest households were almost exclusively headed by models?).
No, more likely is what was explained to Business Insider by booking agent James Smith, who noted that "for years" some clubs and restaurants had been scratching their heads trying to get models to market their establishments as "the place to be".
Now, I believe that in the same way the body sends unpleasant physical sensations as a warning bell to tell us to stop what we are doing or risk injury, I believe our emotional reactions, too, are instructive. So when I found myself feeling some outrage at Beauty Pass, I did what I always do when I am offended: stopped and asked myself why.
To my surprise, I didn't have a satisfactory answer.
Make no mistake, this marketing strategy is, at best, cynical. At worst, it's an expression of the most unpleasant side of human beings.
One could fairly say that it's disingenuous to market it as a generous cost-saving measure when it's patently obvious its target market is the city's glamoristas.
One could also say that it gives expression to human beings' shallowness, narcissism, and seemingly blind desire to follow all that we want to be; which is, sadly, often not kinder, more generous, or more educated, but usually thinner, younger, and better looking.
But offensive? No. Because you can't be offended when you get a visit from Captain Obvious.
This app is not an indictment on advertisers and marketers as much as it's an indictment on the consumers it's selling to. It's simply the logical culmination of what a great deal of marketing and advertising has become. The industry has long been built on beautiful people selling us products and lifestyles. And this hasn't changed because it works.
The question we should all be asking ourselves is why it works and what needs to change.
The very word 'model' suggests a mould to imitate; it's why the profession exists in the first place. This concept goes hand-in-hand with selling consumers a dream.
But it's not just fashion models consumers follow. Building on traditional advertising, some celebrities later became 'brand ambassadors'. After that, fame became more accessible.
We saw the rise of 'influencers' and people who are famous for being famous, riding the wave to do a little advertising and brand ambassador work via their own social media. (I'm still not 100% why many of these influencers have influence. Sure, many have something to say. But others – like the 'cash me ousside' girl Danielle Bregoli who was charging upwards of $40 000 for a meet and greet by 2017 and was promoting numerous products at staggering fees, have me utterly flummoxed.)
The followed and the followers
With this blurring of lines, and through the ongoing rise of social media, we've seen more and more ordinary people trying their hand at fame and self-promotion - desperate to be the followed rather than the followers.
Some are so caught up in this self-marketing wave that they don't even need fame, they just want validation. (Constantly.) We have children saying on camera that their parents don't have time for them because – I quote one little girl of about four – "mummy is always taking selfies on her mobile phone".
Some are so desperate to be famous that they will do anything, including shooting their boyfriend dead on YouTube as a prank. For their personal "brand", which is not a product, service, or anything at all – just their own personal self that wants to be famous.
We’ve also had a toxic, related culture of exclusion rising alongside. For years we have seen reports, both locally and internationally, of nightclubs and restaurants discriminating on various grounds: race, sex, age, looks. The odd promoter has even come forward to explain how the bizarre process of selecting the 'right' crowd actually works.
No wonder poor mummy is taking selfies all day long.
So why, I ask myself, are we surprised that a symptom of this desperately narcissistic, self-promoting culture is that good-looking people get freebies in order to lure everybody else to spend their money in the same places their idols are seen, desperate for a spot in the golden circle?
Maybe this marketing stunt by Beauty Pass – and the discomfort it brings – is a call for all of us to look in the mirror. For introspection, that is, and not to practice the perfect face for the next selfie.
Marelise van der Merwe is a journalist and sub-editor at Fin24. Views expressed are her own.