Why you should care

No fans? No problem. Just rent them.

At midnight, the international airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is dark and lifeless under the monsoon rain — that is, until you spot the swarm of soaked groupies at the arrival gate. For three hours now, the squealing group of mostly girls in their early 20s has been causing a riot — swooning, hollering and even fainting in anticipation of the arrival of 44-year-old singer Đàm Vĩnh Hưng, formerly known as Vietnam’s King of Pop.

What makes the late-night racket even more obnoxious? This starstruck mob has been handpicked and paid for by companies whose sole purpose is to manufacture fandom for moments like these. This is guerrilla marketing at its fakest. It turns out, while money can’t buy you love, it can buy you a bit of Asian fame, and it’s not just C-list celebrities who are turning to rah-rah recruits to boost their status in the public eye. Game shows in Vietnam use fake fans to create near hysteria at screenings. North Korea allegedly packs soccer stadiums with phonies when its team plays abroad. Because for $2 to $3 a head per hour, it’s a small price to pay for adulation at your beck and call.

Be warned, however, that fainting on cue and throwing flowers will cost you extra — 200 yuan in China ($30), to be exact.

Not everyone can sign up to be a fawning groupie, of course. Certain key requirements must first be met: college-aged, good acting skills, physically fit (standing on your feet and cheering for hours is no small feat) and the ability to perform “synchronized applauses” on cue, according to advertisements from Fans Việt, a company in Vietnam that provides fake fans on demand. The bulk of those who make the cut are “enthusiastic” millennials looking for a quick buck, says Tiến Đặng, a Fans Việt recruiter in Da Nang, Vietnam. They’re typically culled from social media networks and bustling college campuses, lured by the promise of meeting someone famous or getting a free pass into a big event. Although pay is low, sometimes shuttle buses are provided or transportation is subsidized.

“It’s an interesting job,” says Thu Hiền, a 20-something college student who screamed her little lungs out during a taping of Giọng Hát Việt, or The Voice of Vietnam. In China, more “professional fans” who make a living from cheering at reality TV shows and music concerts can earn up to $300 to $460 a month, says Zhang Huifang, a young fake fan based in Shanghai. Wadded tissues and eye drops not included.

Renting affection en masse is hardly a new concept, nor is it exclusively Asian. Around the world, crying women are hired to perform grief at funerals, celebrants are paid to dance at weddings and wannabe Big Cheese buy followers and likes on Twitter. OZY’s own Sanjena Sathian discovered what it was like to hire an entourage in Hollywood last year (it cost $1,500 for an afternoon). What is perhaps more remarkable is that even in our digital era, where so much of life appears to be lived and assessed online, those old-fashioned groupies, the IRL kind, can connote such value.

Of course, not everyone is a fan — for lack of a better word — of these Beatlemania marketing tactics. From politics to entertainment, the concept of renting affection has been scorned in the West, both offline and online. In 2013, Justin Bieber was chided for allegedly buying fake Twitter followers. Others cried foul in 2015, when Donald Trump reportedly hired actors at $50 a pop to bulk up one of his rallies. (Neither responded to requests for comment.)

Even if you’re not caught, the fake-fan strategy can backfire, warns Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding expert based in Los Angeles. Western millennials have increasingly rejected the herd mentality: the act of jumping on the bandwagon of some one-hit-wonder pop star or the latest flavor of the month is over, he says. When it comes to cultivating a fan base, it’s far better to be authentic through and through. “Now, people are marching to their own drum beat,” he adds. Moreover, an army of phony fans can water down the experience for true fans as well as risk, rather than raise, the reputation of your brand.

The stakes are different, if not higher, in parts of Asia where “saving face” and “building face” help you climb up the social ladder, says Đặng. He’s referring to the role of honor versus shame in his culture, in which one’s public appearance goes hand in hand with status and success. That’s why he often works behind the scenes, carefully grooming and manicuring audiences for glitzy game shows, or fake entourages for aspiring singers. In fact, he drills them with specific instructions, as they must “perform under our supervision or direction to ensure the job is done successfully,” he says. “It’s all very civilized.” In his mind’s eye, good crowd control will hit the sweet spot between genuine enthusiasm and utter chaos. Pop star Đàm, after all, was “very moved by the enthusiasm” when he was greeted by his flock of so-called followers at the airport, even though he knew they were paid for: “Upon arriving at the airport, I didn’t expect there to be so many fans waiting for me so late at night.”

And for those who are true fans, there’s no harm in getting paid to whoop and holler anyway, right?

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