Written by Vix Leyton

In The News

Smile like you mean it

British airline Monarch is offering upgrades to its “nicest” customers. How does that make Vix Leyton feel? Let’s call it not-nice.

'smile' sign
Incentivising nice? Is this really what we have become?

I step in, absolutely eaten up with anxiety. Must make a good impression, but not be too keen. Be cool Vix, you’re a nice person – people tell you so, unprompted. This experience is going to be fine.

My face stops behaving like it is my face and I can feel it twist into the rictus grin reserved specifically for this very occasion. I have been doing this a year and it still feels weird and wrong. But I am not going on a date, or going to a job interview. I am in Pret. I am in Pret, painfully aware that some magical combination of niceness and hotness gets you free things. I wish I didn’t know.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I consider myself a person who’s nice more often than not, where opportunity allows. If a stranger is wearing a pretty dress, I tell them. I enjoy small talk to pass the time, even on the tube, I always have birthday candles on me in case someone needs an emergency cake. If a barista smells nice, I tell them.

I mean, I am still sorry about that last one. I was brutally hungover/slightly drunk still and it just fell out of my ridiculous mouth. Fortunately it wasn’t at a station I had to go to regularly. Oh no, wait, it was.

Anyway, I’m nice. I enjoy making people smile, and I find that niceness – as my friend Mic Wright once said – is basically a secret password for nice things to happen. It is for these reasons that the Pret thing, and now this latest promise by Monarch to reward Nice People, makes me feel dirty and wrong.

Kindness should not be a commercial commodity. Sociopaths who need an incentive to slap on a tactical smile don’t deserve the nice things.

“What is outwardly a gesture of reward for the people who aren’t tossers, is actually a very tactical, cynical play. The algorithm will remain a mystery but will ‘mysteriously’ regularly fall on people who look likely to share the experience.”

Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing nicer than getting something for free or a bit of fuss for being a good human – a drink on the bar person, a wink and a discount voucher produced at a makeup counter, a grabby handful of testers rather than the paltry one. The notion of someone making an exception for you because you have been just that tiny bit of sunshine in their day. I have no objection to this. But, don’t be fooled, that is not what this is.

I am a PR girl myself, and I concede that these campaigns, that I have occasionally been complicit in, while gently boiling my piss, are absolute gold for brands. Pret’s public statement that staff had a cheeky treat budget to use as they saw fit, effectively rocketing them to capricious coffee god status, immediately started a buzz, first on social media.

Then it inevitably spread to the newspapers, as content-hungry media outlets desperate for cutting-edge, real time content dispatched their best-looking people to tour Pret and try to crack the secret, leading to acres of coverage and commentary pieces.

I even did a massive Twitter rant about it myself. I know, part of the problem…

I could just feel the FeMail article being written as I read the first tweet about it. But these newly anointed coffee gods were not benign. They were a weapon in a war for market share. And I suspect Monarch are very much hoping for much the same thing – they are probably even putting this piece in a coverage round-up.

What is outwardly a gesture of reward for the people who aren’t tossers, is actually a very tactical, cynical play not done in good faith. The algorithm will remain a mystery but will ‘mysteriously’ regularly fall on people who look likely to share the experience. As a device it is a gift that keeps on giving, as smug people post about their little victories ad infinitum.

So, where does this leave nice people? Because nice people feel conflicted about it, and British nice people even more so. How do you carry on as normal when you are aware that you might be misconstrued as a freeloader? How do you articulate that you are not?

How do you avoid not feeling forlorn when, despite worrying about looking like you want to make the cut, you don’t make the cut? I’ll tell you where it leaves us: pulling at our clothes wearing our special rictus grins, secretly hoping that this might be the day that the good guy wins the prize.

Fuck you Monarch, and fuck you Pret, for commodifying faux niceness for profit. And to the latter can I just say: the five grain thing you call porridge is an abomination.


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Written by Vix Leyton

Vix is a financial PR and ginabler who lives and works in East London. As a result she long ago lost sight of whether riding a unicycle while wearing a monocle is par for the course on a normal day.