Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bachelor Parties and The Business Model of Objectification

I spent the weekend in South Beach at a bachelor party for one of my HBS classmates.  It’s hard for me to count the number of people who, when notified of these plans, either A) noted that I wasn’t the bachelor party type, or B) commented, “Wow, that sounds just like ‘The Hangover.’”

My responses were, A) “You’re right.  Bachelor parties involve spending money, cigars, spending money, alcohol, spending money, and scantily clad women without advanced degrees.  There’s pretty much nothing that appeals to me about a bachelor party except spending time with old friends.  Fortunately, that’s enough.” And B) “Dear God, I hope not.”

(Personally, my idea of a perfect bachelor party would involve great food, playing sports, visiting a museum or two, then lounging around and having small-group and 1:1 intellectual discussions before retiring early to get a good night’s sleep, but I understand that I’m a bit atypical in this respect.)

Fortunately, the weekend went off without any major hitches, except for damage to our wallets.  As our fearless leader noted to me afterwards, “We partied as hard as it’s possible to do without making any truly bad decisions.”  Nonetheless, I suspect it’s better not to go into any detail about how Johnnie Walker Blue Label and “El Diablo” played a role in the weekend.

What I will do is to comment on business models—specifically, the male willingness to pay to spend time with attractive young females.

On our first night, we went to popular dance club, and were ushered to our private booth, which came stocked with a dedicated team of servers (attractive young women scantily clad in black uniforms with a lot of fishnetting) who then brought us copious amounts of ridiculously overpriced alcohol.  I had never gone to a club or experienced bottle service before (this is probably the first and only bachelor party I’ll ever attend where all the men are financially successful 40somethings trying to recapture their youth), so I found the concepts mystifying at first, but gradually I was able to unravel the business model.

Unlike a straightforward gentleman’s club, where men directly pay exotic dancers for specific services, a club caters to two audiences: Attractive women, and men with money.  I had supposed that men paid for overpriced alcohol to please the attractive servers (a minor variation on the gentleman’s club transaction), but the actual dynamic is more complex.  In fact, the club’s primary asset is its ability to pull in attractive women.  Most clubs actually seed the market by paying attractive women to go to the club.  These are not escorts or performers—in fact, their amateur status is what makes them valuable.  An attractive woman might be paid $500 to go to a club for the evening; her role is simply to enjoy herself.  Don’t even ask how much the bottle service “girls” are paid.  The club’s revenues come from the men who are then willing to spend money on overpriced alcohol in an attempt to attract the women in the club to their table.  To get a prime table, you might have to commit to spending thousands of dollars on alcohol which you might otherwise purchase for a total of $500 at Costco.  The club is dark and disorienting, with music playing at ear-splitting levels.  The poor lighting helps the participants appear more attractive by hiding physical flaws, while the noise forces men to rely on their spending to convince women of their worth.  (The disorientation is probably similar to the strategy of a Vegas casino—disorient patrons so they lose track of time and what they’re spending)  When I shouted into one of my friend’s ears to ask how on earth he ever managed to have a conversation in a club, he shouted/replied, “I don’t.  I say something, but I understand that I’m essentially talking to myself.  You can’t possibly hear what the other person is saying, so you both just nod and pretend to understand.”  Personally, I see no appeal to meeting people in an environment where you can’t have an intellectual conversation, especially members of the opposite sex, but that’s obviously not a stance that is shared by the majority of clubgoers.

(Side rant: Why is it okay to call women "girls?"  It seems insulting and infantilizing.  I certainly wouldn't want to be referred to as a "boy".)

Men who don’t spend a lot of money have to rely purely on their physical attractiveness and dancing skills to meet women, assuming they’re even admitted.  Because of their lack of contribution to the bottom line, these men are tolerated so that the club can maintain the appearance of being a hot spot for the young and beautiful, rather than the young and beautiful of the female gender, and the older but wealthier of the male gender.  A club is essentially a real estate developer on steroids—each night, the club has to convince people that it is a good neighborhood, then sell off its real estate as dearly as possible.  The good news for the club is that the dynamic ensures a continuous flow of irrational alcohol purchases—as soon as a table runs out of alcohol, the men have to spend more or lose the women they’ve managed to attract to their table to others tables which are more plentifully supplied.

I didn’t enjoy my club experience, not just for the reasons above, but also because I was repulsed by how we might be seen.  If I were to look at our table through the eyes of an attractive 25-year-old woman, I would see a bunch of 40something men with greying and/or thinning hair, not nearly as attractive in their eyes as younger, fitter, more stylish men their age, but who are willing to provide free alcohol in exchange for being around me.  Now I’m an old married guy who has no need to impress single women, but even if I were single, I would want to attract companionship based on what I view as personal merits such as intellect, sense of humor, and conversational skills, not simply my willingness to open my wallet.  (Side note: This is a fundamental problem for the wealthy, and one of the reasons they like to associate with each other. One of the only ways to be sure that someone isn’t spending time with you because of your wallet is to spend time with people who are equivalently rich)

Yet as we’ll see, this business model repeats and repeats itself.

The next day, we spent all afternoon in a private cabana at our luxury hotel.  Each weekend, this famous hotel transforms one of its pools into a giant beach party.  As with the club, we secured our prime real estate by committing to spend thousands of dollars on alcohol and food, which were delivered to us by attractive young women wearing skimpy uniform bikinis.  As with the club, the hotel carefully curated the guest list to obtain an optimal mix of the young and attractive, and the older and wealthier.  As I looked around the pool, I noted that the people with private cabanas were disproportionately male and older (there were parties of older women as well as older men).  Again, conspicuous consumption was a key communication tool.  One of the options was for a champagne spray.  When you ordered this option, four bikini-clad servers would come out, each riding the shoulders of one of the young male employees of the hotel (who, while young and handsome, were dressed in shorts and polo shirts) and carrying a bottle of champagne.  They would then parade around the pool to the cabana that had placed the order, open the bottles, and shake the contents onto the people at the cabana.  In other words, this was conspicuous consumption in its purest form—the champagne wasn’t even being drunk, and could easily have been replaced with $1 seltzer water.  The cost of this performance was an even $1,000.  The benefit is that it would attract the attention of everyone at the pool, and thus convince more attractive women to make their way to the cabana. (I will note that we did not purchase this option, considering it wasteful.)

As with the club, I pictured how attractive 20something women in bikinis would view a cabana full of older, largely-out of shape gentlemen.  It’s also a matter of perspective.  At one point, bespectacled gentleman in his 60s, bald and pot-bellied, sauntered past, and I joked, “Look guys, it’s Rupert Murdoch!”  This got a good laugh, but then I realized that while he looked old and fat to us, we probably looked the same to the young women of the pool, who were exactly as far from us in age as we were from “Rupert.”

Finally, one of my friends related to me his take on private equity and hedge fund conferences.  At these conferences, potential LPs such as family office managers, travel to Las Vegas, Miami, or some other vacation destination to meet with fund managers, who send their investment professionals (who are largely older men) and marketing directors (who are largely younger, attractive, well-educated women).  As my friend put it to me, “Fat, balding family office guys are allocating 10% to alternative assets anyways.  It doesn’t really matter who they give it too, especially if they have a good brand.  They just want a pretty woman to take them out to dinner and pretend to flirt with them.”

What all these stories have in common is a simple theme: Men are willing to pay money to be around attractive women who wouldn’t otherwise spend the time.  This isn’t prostitution; none of these examples include sex (at least in the case of our bachelor party).  In fact, I suspect that the men who are a party to this transaction would never consider patronizing a brothel or paying a sex worker.  They would see it as either immoral or reputationally disastrous (think of Eliot Spitzer AKA the “Luv Guv”).  Yet social hotspots and business meetings are seen as perfectly acceptable (or at least acceptable enough to admit to patronizing, while still trying to hide the receipts from their wives).

Needless to say, this is sexist, atavistic business model, whose only virtue is that it is voluntarily entered into and viewed as attractive employment.  I believe in freedom of choice, and that people should be able to pursue business options as long as they aren’t illegal.  Yet I can’t help but feel that the world would be better off with fewer such transactions. 

Back when I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and literature, we often discussed the problematic way in which works and institutions tend to objectify women.  The business model I describe above objectifies women by using their physical attractiveness as the coin of the realm in what is essentially a financial transaction, aided and abetted by environments that are carefully designed to reduce the participants options until all they can do is participate in those (lucrative) transactions.  But the irony is that the same thing is happening to the men that provide the money that fuels this model.  They too are being objectified, reduced to a disembodied wallet with no intrinsic non-financial value.

If you’re currently a man who participates in this economy, you might want to consider how the rest of the economy sees you.  I know that I wasn’t very comfortable with how it looked on me.

P.S. This criticism doesn’t mean that didn’t enjoy the weekend.  Our fearless leader and the various hospitality professionals we worked with got the weekend to run like a well-oiled machine (the grease, by the way, was copious amounts of money).  I had a great time catching up with old friends over fine meals and while enjoying the Miami sun.  I even enjoyed the various cab rides, because they gave us more chances to talk.  I also had a number of interesting conversations with the women we met, including one far-ranging talk about what we thought of different philosophers.  We touched on Socrates, Plato, Kant, Mill, Locke, and many others.  I dwelt on my concerns above because they made for a more interesting and important intellectual discussion.

P.P.S. I’m also not criticizing the individual participants.  As I noted, the environments are carefully designed to reduce their freedom of action.  I just want to help them be more aware of the implications of their activities.

P.P.P.S. If you think it’s inappropriate for married guys to go to clubs or pool parties, might I recommend that you read Mark Twain’s story, “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg”.  If you’re short on patience, skip to the end for the punchline.

UPDATE: This Reddit AMA from a Miami nightclub doorman gives you good insights into the mindset of the club:
"If a well dressed fat woman and an equally proportioned well dressed fat man go into a club, which one do you think is going to make the club more money? The woman, who is probably expecting someone to buy her drinks and will likely be disappointed, or the man who will be buying drinks like they're bringing back Prohibition next week in an attempt to blunt a physical shortcoming during his social interactions?"