The cattle were lowing: Thoughts on an a cappella date auction

Credit: Christa Hester/Forum Editor Credit: Christa Hester/Forum Editor
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

This weekend I went to what’s known as a “date auction”: Attendees bid on a guy or girl, and the proceeds go to charity. In this case, two of Carnegie Mellon’s great a cappella groups, Counterpoint and the Originals, auctioned off select members to the highest bidder. Out of the five guys and five girls auctioned, I don't think a single date will occur, so it obviously wasn’t done in all seriousness. And the people seemed really nice — it’s nothing about them. I just think that date auctions are an unwise way to raise money.

Let me set the scene. We met in The Underground, which coincidentally makes me think of a holding tank for slaves, but at least the singers looked dapper in their outfits. Of the 50-ish people there, most seemed to be unintentionally present — playing pool, eating with friends — although many were attentive. I was creepily off to the side taking notes. Several gaggles of girls were there to cheer on their friends. I think one girl’s dad was even there with a video camera, so now she can remember her auction forever.

The performances were captivating, so to speak. I don’t think the songs were intentionally self-referential, but when the girls sang about how there was a “Shark in the Water” and the guys sang (a fantastic rendition of) “Teenage Dream,” I did wonder. Pitches were full of innuendo and domination (“our next item up for bid”), and the bidding was about what you would expect from college budgets: a pretty consistent $25 per person price, except when one bidding war over a girl with a ring on her finger forced her significant other into valuing his girl at an awkwardly specific $38.

Now you may say to me, “Will, why ask someone on a consensual date when you can just pay for it at a date auction?”

And I admit, now that Craigslist took down its “Erotic Services” section, there is more demand. But for one thing, think of the children! No, really, if the relationship worked out, it would be like the end of a bad MasterCard commercial: “Falling in love with my wife: priceless.... Well, actually it was $46.” If date auctions are harmless because they’re so slightly attended that they’re not really able to auction dates, then it seems silly to justify an event by its ineffectiveness.

At some point, I realized that there’s another comparison that can be made besides slavery and prostitution. Date auctions don’t only have you paying for sexual attention, they also have you paying for sexual attention. It’s like the ads on Google. (Now I see the Carnegie Mellon nods.) Companies bid for their favorite keywords. Even if they win, all they get is to show off to people who already see a lot of ads.

In connection with that, I will say that there was a lot of click fraud at the auction. Most people had arranged for their friends to buy them. One cute girl who actually tried to bid on a few guys kept getting shut down by artificially high prices. I thought about walking up to a girl at the end and saying, “Your AdWords were too pricey for me,” but I thought that even in my suavest tone it wouldn't land me a date.

There are alternative fundraisers to date auctions. Carnegie Mellon’s Donut Dash looks inventive and awesome, for instance. Even that entrepreneurship group that sold Indian food to win a class contest was working off of a cool idea. But date auctions encourage lighthearted enactments of human ownership, Facebook comments like “buyyyyy meeeeeeeeee (two people liked this).” One poor girl actually wrote that, and it reminded me of Gandalf the Grey’s cry as he fell down that chasm fighting the Balrog, never to be seen again. Except she would do it in perfect C. Next time we see that girl, she'll probably be like, “I’m Gandalf the White, suckers!”

Now that would make a great fundraiser.