Canvassing in Boston

Just got back from collecting petitions out at Coolidge Corner in Boston. Specifically I was trying to get people to sign forms relating to McDonald’s marketing strategy which depends heavily on appealing to kids, who, as we know from walking outside for 10 minutes, are getting fat at a pretty young age.

I found this experience to be interesting on a variety of levels.

The first thing I discovered is that even foot traffic is a public resource that is competed for by individuals. I don’t want to reduce collecting signatures to an exercise in economic rationality, because it was not mainly about that, but here’s an interesting lesson: what one group can do in terms of getting people’s attention is heavily determined by what other people. So, if other non profit groups primarily ask for money, or ask for support in a rude, off-putting way, then this effects what I can do as a volunteer because people automatically assume that either a) I’m a socially defective radical or b) I want their money for something. Since neither a or b was true, I had to quickly, in the course of 15 seconds, get people to trust me and convince them that I did not want their money. By the end I even started trying “Kids are fat, I don’t want your money.” So, non-profits take heed, what you do effects what others can do using the same tactics.

There were some other interesting moments as well. Some people will just ignore you when you ask them about anything or say anything to them. Then you get some straight d-bags. I was working with someone else on this project and this kid dressed in a north face jacket and well-fit khakis with those ridiculous little man boots that you can get walks by me and complains, in a pretty whiny voice to his father that “all these people are trying to talk to me about mcdonalds.” God forbid people would speak to you.

Then there was the all time lowlight of the day. I saw this very obese man and asked him what he thought about McDonalds. He stumbled by me, but then stopped and turned around. Thinking he was interested, I told him that I wanted to try and convince McDonalds to advertise less to children, to which he responded angrily “O, I like McDonalds.” I felt bad for this guy.

Other people simply told me that “it was the parents’ responsibility” to keep kids from eating. This makes no sense to me. If I told them that I wanted to pass legislation or create some sort of government agency or task force, then maybe this retort would make sense: sometimes a problem is not so bad that it justifies such drastic societal investment. In fact, we leave many choices up to the parents that we could theoretically regulate, such as what video games the child will be able to play or what clothes the kids should wear. However, since the campaign I work with has such modest goals, such as having McDonalds take their vast sum of advertising dollars and throw them at a different demographic, this doesn’t make any sense. Pretend that I could sign a bunch of petitions that would convince kids’ TV stations exec not to program cartoons that display violence against women. Would these people be opposed to such a strategy on the grounds that parents should control what their kids watch? In other words, the goal of the campaign that I was working on did not deny that parents should be responsible for their children, but only that there are ways we can make their jobs easier by eliminating temptations.

Anyway, we got about 65 signatures in 2 hours. 40 of those were mine (25 for the other guy), so I got about 1 signature every 3 minutes. Considering it takes about 1 minute to rope someone in and watch as they wrote everything down, I think this was a pretty good pace. The real key though, which I did not execute well, was to rope in whole families or groups of people and then to get like 4 signatures in 2 minutes or something. This is hard because families are usually enjoying time together and so really don’t want to be hustled for signatures, even though it only takes 2 minutes.

I also wonder how many people don’t stop for the same reason a lot of people don’t vote: they honestly think that the short investment of time I’m asking for is still not justified given the EVEN SMALLER impact their signature will have in getting McDonald’s to stop marketing to kids.



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