Many people we now encounter are fiddling with cellphones and other devices, tackling routine activities with less-than-full focus. That makes them easier targets for our little experiments, but also more vulnerable to personal mishaps and genuine scams.
I worried briefly that people are now so tech-savvy that some of our props and fake setups wouldn’t be believed. Instead, we found that the omnipresence of technology has reached a point where people will now accept almost anything.
We showed customers at a salon an “un-tanning machine” that ostensibly sucked off dark pigment in seconds. We told residents in a Denver suburb that they would be getting mail delivery via drone. We gave patients at a dentist’s office an iPad and said they’d now have to conduct their own “online dental exam.” In each case, just about everyone bought in. At the dental office, several people were even prepared to give themselves a shot of Novocain before we intervened.
I don’t necessarily believe 21st-century Americans are more gullible, but they tend to give that impression by protesting life’s little insults without taking time to fully digest the situation.
For instance, we told shoppers in Seaside, Calif., they would be charged a “$10 in-store fee” for not buying online. We told customers at a New York food store that to pay with a credit card they would need “three forms of photo ID.” We hired a cop in Scottsdale, Ariz., to enforce a “2 m.p.h. pedestrian speed limit.”
Virtually everyone took these propositions to be true. They shot back quickly at big government, big business or any other entity that seemed to have too big a role in managing their lives.
We tried a few political experiments and the results were all too predictable. We showed New Yorkers petitions to recall state officials, but the names were all fictitious. Most people supported the effort, among them a lawyer who carefully explained that one should never sign anything without complete knowledge of the facts, and then signed anyway. In California, our actress posing as a candidate obtained dozens of campaign signatures without ever stating a position, a party or even her last name.
In Arizona, we hired two actors to portray “illegal immigrants.” One played a well-dressed gentleman from England, the other a blue-collar worker from Mexico. The British fellow got plenty of signatures to “vouch for good character,” while the Mexican guy had difficulty just getting people to stop and listen to his plea.
One thing that surprised us is the frequency with which people now whip out phones to record whatever strange situation we create. When we rigged a self-serve yogurt machine to start but never stop, one young customer took video for two full minutes. When we arranged to have a store in Arizona institute a “gays- only” policy, one startled patron conducted (and recorded) his own interview with our actor — essentially producing the “Candid Camera” show without realizing he was on it.
I don’t mind the smartphone obsession in our scenes; it’s rather funny. It is a shame, though, that so many people now interrupt real life — in effect hollering “cut” — to record what could be called Act One. In doing so they spoil their own Act Two.
Much hasn’t changed over the years. For example, I expected to encounter more profanity in everyday conversation, but it’s really not there. I also wondered whether young people would be less spontaneous and engaged when caught in our scenarios, yet there’s no hint of that whatsoever. I thought in these litigious times fewer people would sign a waiver to appear on our show, but the percentages have stayed about the same over the years.
I do note that today more people step out in public looking a bit disheveled and unkempt and are then hesitant to sign because they’re not happy with their appearance.
Fortunately for our show, people are still, for the most part, willing to engage a stranger and to smile when a little joke is revealed. That said, many folks are feeling the weight of the world’s problems, perhaps more than before.
It seems the less able we are to control the macro aspects of our lives, the more we dwell on minutiae. That might explain why strangers stood on a street corner for many minutes to help our actress select the best cellphone picture of her dog. Folks listened with surprising curiosity as our actor explained why he needed change for a dime.
Posing as a sanitation worker, I told residents in Queens, N.Y., that they would now be required to separate household trash into eight different color-coded bins. I can’t imagine someone being more passionate about any world controversy than the gentleman who was incensed about a bin devoted to “poultry waste.” “How,” he asked, “am I going to eat enough chicken in two weeks to fill that up?”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 27, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Curses, Fooled Again!