Friday, October 12, 2012

What Really Happened at the eBay Event

eBay hosted a press event earlier this week. I attended. I wrote my little summary news story about how eBay is redesigning its site, adding new services, and starting to mirror a lot of what Google and Pinterest do.

What I didn't write about was my visceral reaction to the presentation.

Great press events put polished performers on swanky stages. eBay's did. It took place in New York City in this amazingly cool space in Chelsea, very close to Chelsea Markets. The space was a blank slate, and eBay built a room for the presentation, an entryway with buffet tables of coffee, juice, pastries, and tall dessert parfait glasses filled with layers of yogurt, fruit, and granola. The presentation room was rounded, with white walls in every direction acting as projection screens, where images of the speaker's eBay purchases were projected while some of them were speaking, enticing you to look at all their beautiful stuff. Even the white leather chairs for guests projected the image that eBay put a lot of thought into how this day would play out; you could spin in them and see everything projected on all the wall surfaces, even the parts behind you.

What enraged me, though, was the storytelling.

eBay has a unique marketplace. It's huge. It's 11 years old. It's international. People buy things on eBay that they can't find anywhere else. And incredible stories live in those purchases. But to me, an incredible story is someone buying medical equipment that a hospital told them they couldn't get. Or a person reunited with a lost heirloom (in eBay's defense, there was one story of a man who bought a motorcycle, which turned out to be the very same one his father used to own). eBay's chief marketing office, Richelle Parham, however, wanted to talk about cars. And mobile apps. And one of the "incredible" stories she told was about a traveler whose flight was delayed. While this man sat in an airplane on the tarmac at JFK airport, he got bored. So he took out his smartphone and started browsing on the eBay app. Then he bought a Hummer.

Parham's expression in telling this story was one of delight and awe. She loved that this guy spent $113,000 (I could be off, but I believe that's the figure she cited) on a Hummer while hanging out in a grounded airplane. And she prompted everyone in the room to clap and "represent New York" after telling this little story.

Two words come to mind: one percent.

How is that an inspiring story? It is grotesque. The concept of buying a hundred-thousand dollar vehicle on a whim because you're bored is appalling. And not clapping has nothing to do with not representing New York. If anything, not clapping represents New York. It should have told her we were not impressed with that disgusting display of wealth.

Parham also showed pictures of her own car and gushed about it. Now, I'm not an auto enthusiast, so I don't remember exactly what kind of car it was, but it was something special and vintagey. I'm going to call it the Malibu Stacey Car. The way she talked about how much she loved her Malibu Stacey Car was equally sickening because it showed she was out of touch with the people in the room.

A few of the other stories told at the eBay event went along the lines of "this guy collects records, and he was missing a record from his collection, and then he found it on eBay and bought it." And: "With the new eBay features, you can look at pictures of stuff you want to buy, even if you can't afford them, like this Chanel handbag. Isn't it great?"

I told Boyfriend, who had a great response. "The slogan should be, ' eBay: Where people spend money on stuff they kind of want.'"

I get that eBay is about shopping. I get that the company embraces shopping and makes it money when people buy and sell stuff. But for a press event, the executives who spoke had an opportunity to tell truly inspiring stories, and they didn't. Instead, they showed they are deeply out of touch with what's going on in the world today.

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