I created the Carnie Awards ten years ago to honor the nation’s carnival-style hucksters, barkers and bull artists. Identifying the best has been a daunting task, as there is never a shortage of noted Americans whose activities in politics, show business and commerce make them strong candidates for the award.
This year’s winner is Donald Trump, who has relevant achievements in all three categories cited above.
Considering he was up against the likes of Dr. Oz, the Kardashians, the founders of Fitbit and Rachel Dolezal, that’s a stunning victory.
A bit of background: I was a carnival con artist in my late teens and early twenties. Bookish and painfully shy, I was an unlikely candidate. But a friend’s dad owned a carnival ride manufacturing business and a traveling midway. I fell under the spell of the latter. I continued to earn straight A’s. But duplicity became my extracurricular activity. Under the guidance of my talented friend, I rose through the ranks. I moved quickly from cadging small change from children on the Balloon Toss to winning sizable sums of paper money from adults on games too complicated to describe here.
I confessed my sins in a book Eyeing the Flash: The Making of a Carnival Con Artist (Simon & Schuster) and long ago abandoned my evil ways.
But I continued to be fascinated by midway hucksterism and how it had gone mainstream. The carnies are less obvious now, but their methods are unchanged.
Some may say that today’s media-savvy Americans are too hip to be conned by cheap carnival-like come-ons.
I disagree. Millions of people are just as gullible today as they were back when housewives bought snake oil from fast-talking hucksters while their husbands gawked at strippers in dimly-lit tents. While the sales pitch may arrive via cable TV or social media, it may still be laden with bull.
Past notables to be honored with Carnie Awards include Paris Hilton, Steve Jobs, Homer Simpson and Honey Boo-Boo.
Below are the top five 2015 recipients, along with my brief rationale for their inclusion:
Donald Trump is P.T. Barnum with a significant difference. The 19th century ballyhoo artist featured dozens of attractions at Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan, including General Tom Thumb, a dwarf, and famed Siamese twins Chang and Eng. On the other hand, Trump has a single exhibit on display: himself.
Another difference: P.T. Barnum was a twice-elected Connecticut state legislator. Donald Trump leads the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The Republican establishment is less than impressed, but the yahoos are buying his trash talk. And even if Mr. Trump—a self-proclaimed deca-billionaire-- fails to win, supporters of more modest means can memorialize his valiant attempt by purchasing one of the Trump tchotchkes highlighted on his web site.
In the 21st Century a snake oil salesman no longer needs to hawk his elixir from the back of a horse-drawn wagon or moth-eaten tent. TV and the internet now provide the platform, insulating the pitchman from the irate suckers when his miracle remedy doesn’t work.
Afternoon television is now home to a pair of medical shows: The Doctors and Dr. Oz. A recent study found that approximately half of the recommendations made on the shows lack evidence to back them up or are contradicted by the best available evidence. And that potential conflicts of interest are rarely addressed.
Dr. Oz is the more prominent of the two. Since 2009, Mehmet Oz, an actual real live M.D. has used his show to pump a host of remedies—most famously, a weight loss potion made of green coffee extract that was later found to have no weight loss benefits.
The scandal led to a Senate grilling and a call for Oz to be removed as a Columbia University faculty member. But Dr. Oz talked his way out of that jam--surviving to pitch for another day.
I was ten when I sent away for a pedometer. Measuring my steps seemed pretty cool at the time and the cost was only a few cereal box tops. Ages later—actually four to six weeks—the pedometer arrived. Crushed beyond repair inside the flimsy mailer.
That horrifying experience may color my take on Fitbit. After all, the whole line is digital. And the devices do more than count steps. Depending on the model, they track stairs climbed, calories burned, distance walked, elevation, heart rate, active minutes and how long and how well you sleep. All the stuff of a kid’s dreams. For $250 and under and no box tops.
But unless we’re a nation of stair-counting obsessive-compulsives. I suspect that future yard sales will be featuring trays of Fitbits alongside the VHS tapes and CDs.
That aside, Wall Street now values Fitbit at just under $10 billion, making founders James Park and Eric Friedman very rich men.
More traveling sideshow than family, Kardashians have succeeded in monetizing every commonplace aspect of life, including sex, marriage, birth, getting dressed, getting undressed, putting makeup on, taking makeup off, exiting a car, exiting a restaurant, exiting a gym, exiting a nightclub, talking to a sibling, refusing to speak to a sibling, crying, making someone else cry, hiding a baby bump, showing off a baby bump, sleeping, eating, smiling, frowning, waking up, going to sleep and having a horribly bad hair day.
It’s hard to put a finger on just how many reality shows the Kardashians have, as each one seems to beget several others. At any rate, the Kardashian media empire continues to metastasize, without any sentient being knowing quite why.
The blonde Caucasian who identifies as black has yet to cash in on her notoriety. But there’s the sense that the attention Rachel has received is reward enough. She’s been given the star treatment in Vanity Fair, with flattering photographs of her at home. And that’s a big deal for a former part-time instructor at Eastern Washington University. Rachel wants to write a book, so it’s likely we’ll be subjected to further enlightenment from the serious activist/sideshow attraction.