The most famous advertising slogans live in our memory. Mentos’s “The Freshmaker,” Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” and Energizer’s “He keeps going and going and going” are just a few that have embedded themselves in our minds and tugged at our wallets. As any marketing executive could tell you, familiarity is a basic tenet of advertising. And that might be why Ronnie makes a fair amount of money.
For years, Ronnie, who usually stands near the Engin Arch or on State Street, has greeted passersby with a refrain that’s now famous around campus: “Spare any change, my good friend?” Unceasingly polite, he offers both the generous and the stingy the same wish, “Have a nice day.”
Ronnie’s doing fairly well, and though his efforts pay modestly for so many hours standing in the cold or the heat, people feel a little more comfortable talking to him and handing him their change instead of the men who sit in front of Urban Outfitters looking at the ground, holding an empty cup. For those not as well-known or well-loved as Ronnie, soliciting quarters can pose a more formidable challenge.
Picture this scene: You’re walking down the street when you spot two panhandlers asking for that spare change in your pocket. There’s a man in a wheelchair, a disheveled Vietnam veteran and a woman sitting on the ground with a sign that says, “Please help.” Who do you give your quarters to?
If thinking about this makes you uncomfortable, it’s supposed to. This is the exact scenario web designer Cathy Davies tried to recreate on her website, NeedCom, which was taken off-line in 2001.
For her student thesis project on web design at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Davies wanted to make a site that had information about panhandler stereotypes and resources and tips for panhandlers who haven’t developed a technique on how to bring in a greater profit.
“At the time, panhandlers were thought of as tragedies. There wasn’t very much information out there,” Davies said.
The question of panhandling and begging is one that is both intriguing and uncomfortable for average Americans. In the economic spread, panhandlers tend to represent the failure of capitalism, even though they’re a staple of it. People asking for money are found in almost every urban setting, from dense, bustling cities like New York to smaller college towns like Ann Arbor.
While research on panhandling as a money-making method is sparse, it has been done, but not always well or with ease. In 2003, a Pennsylvania State University study called “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?” looked at the available data of major national surveys on the topic. Studies in panhandling, wrote authors Barrett Lee and Chad Farrell, usually involve a limited number of people in specific sites, which makes it hard to get accurate, applicable data about the success of different techniques.
Researchers curious about panhandler strategies have had to create their own methods to find answers.
Davies’s website incorporated humor and serious issues to apply market research to panhandling. The site included a survey for visitors to take and pass along to friends. Pictures of different panhandler “types” – like a disabled veteran or a woman with a child – popped up on the screen and visitors were asked how much, if anything, they would give to each person if they were actually out on the street. Results were displayed at the end of the survey.
By presenting the panhandler types in such a blunt, controversial fashion, Davies created a media buzz about the site in hopes that people could use it to talk about more serious issues like homelessness, she said.
Davies used grants she received from PBS to continue her project for the next three years, taking to the streets of Manhattan to ask panhandlers about the science of their trade. In exchange for lunch or a few bucks, she asked them what worked, how much money they made on an average day, and she noted their race, gender and style of approach.
Her interviewees responded positively.
“They were interested in the project because of the prospect of making more money,” she said.
After hours of interviews, Davies developed a pretty good idea of what opened the pockets of the average passerby.
One of her most successful interviewees was a man named Robert who collected about $40 to $45 a day in the tourist-heavy area outside of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Robert was in his 70s and handicapped, he had lost an eye and he was in a wheelchair, but he wasn’t homeless. Robert wore a clean, pressed jacket over a turtleneck and whispered a soft, “God bless you,” to passers-by.
“My way is the best,” he had explained to Davies. “I’ve never asked a person for nothing.”
Another panhandler who made money was a woman named Easy, who referred to her job as “hustling.” Her approach was creative and funny, which played well, especially in the student areas near New York University recalled Davies. Easy had a different approach, cracking jokes and trying to “talk people out of their money.” She made about $60 a day.
So that means the guy on State Street who uses the line, “Spare any change? No? How about 50 bucks?” is tapping into a tried and true technique. Of course, it’s not just the New York City panhandlers that have imbued their pitch with humor, all the most successful corporate advertisers strive to do the same thing.
For more answers, other researchers on panhandling have simply gone to the people with the pockets, asking passersby what makes them feel generous.
“I approached it as if the person on the street was the consumer . buying into this person (the panhandler),” said Matthew Zimmerman, a senior in the Johnson School of Business at Cornell University. Zimmerman questioned scores of New Yorkers in 2006 about what kind of person they gave their change to for an unorthodox project during his summer internship at Sinek Partners, a New York City-based marketing company.
Zimmerman’s project was to learn why people were giving their money to panhandlers and to find out what methods could improve an average panhandler’s income. By doing so, Zimmerman said the company CEO, Simon Sinek, was convinced he could better understand the emotional attachments that exist between products and long-term, repeat consumers. So Zimmerman went out to try to improve the lot of New York panhandlers, but he found that it wasn’t just the message or the slogan that swayed potential givers – it was familiarity and trust, too.
The same principle was likely at work for a while last year when other than Ronnie stood on East University a few blocks down from his usual post by the Engin Arch and said, “Spare any change, my good friend?” After a week or so, they abandoned the effort, likely because it didn’t meet much success. People know and like Ronnie, so it’s easier for them to give to him regularly than another guy who’s using his line.
“Most people feel like they should give,” Zimmerman said, “But what affects whether or not they do is if the person looks authentic, if they had new shoes, if they really need the money or not.”
Establishing a sense of need is important, but even more so is creating an emotional bond between the consumer and the panhandler, Zimmerman explained.
“If the consumer had their own kids, for example, or when females give to females. There needed to be a deeper, more personal connection,” he said.
Zimmerman took the responses of New Yorkers and applied them to the case of one Manhattan street panhandler, a woman named Amy. Looking at how simple cardboard signs convey information, Zimmerman replaced Amy’s original sign, which said “Help me, I am homeless,” with one that said, “If you give once a month, please consider me next time.” In addition, Zimmerman encouraged Amy to make eye contact with people who walked by.
Amy panhandled until she reached her goal of $30 and then left her usual spot. After using the new sign, Amy was able to earn her goal in a dramatically shorter time.
“She swore by the sign,” said Zimmerman.
Why did it work?
Basically, explained Zimmerman, it made people feel good about giving. Similar to a customer purchasing a product, the street donors could “buy into” this spirit of generosity. The sign reinforced the notion that they are, generally, a good person.
In the advertising world, positive or humorous messages like this, explains Ross School of Business Prof. Rajeev Batra can be used to approach an uncomfortable topic. For certain people who might avoid giving money, a positive or humorous message can ease a consumer’s mind about purchasing a product, Batra said in an e-mail interview.
“I think that panhandling raises uncomfortable feelings for many people, (so) using humor is indeed a great way for panhandlers to approach potential givers,” Batra added.
If these studies found that making donors feel good about the act of giving was the best way of getting money, then why don’t all panhandlers change their strategies for a more positive approach? Somehow it’s hard to imagine most people asking for money on street corners in Ann Arbor grin and crack a joke or ask for 50 bucks, and even if they read this, they likely wouldn’t start. Even though someone can panhandle artfully, most have heavier burdens weighing on them than perfecting their pitch. So the next time you see someone in Ann Arbor asking for money, before you keep on walking, consider that while his approach might not be particularly winning, that might be exactly why he needs your spare change.