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Highlights | Mademoiselle

The Art of Asking for Change, by Gayle Forman
July 2000

Movie endings, M&M colors, President Clinton's vacation spot: these days it seems no one can make a decision or product without having all options researched and focus-grouped. L.A.-based artist Cathy Davies is taking our national test-market mania to new levels with her web site, www.NeedCom.com. There, by clicking through photos and captions, you asses six panhandlers and their pitches, just as if you were a consumer testing cola slogans. Then you show your preference by donating fake cash. Who's worthier? A graying man in a wheelchair preaching "Love each other. God bless you!"? Or a guy with a sign reading "Veteran...Trying to survive"?

Begging the Question
If the idea of critiquing panhandling strategies seems crass, well it's supposed to. Needcom (one of several sites funded by PBS, all accessible at www.pbs.org/weblab) is Davies' ironic way of getting folks to look at poverty in a different light. "The ideas was to combine these opposite ends of capitalism," says Davies, who conceived of the project after observing panhandlers on the New York subways. "At one extreme is market research, which is this expensive, effective corporate tool. At the other end is the fallout of capitalism, people in need."

How Generous Are You?
Needcom is cheeky in its tone and stealthy in its cleverness. The survey forces you to make snap judgments about the validity of a person's need—one woman lost her apartment, another guy was shot in a robbery. "the site is meant to humanize a group of people we tend to ignore," Davies says.

Helping the Homeless
Since its inception last July, Needcom has prompted hundreds of people to post comments about what inspires them to open their wallets. This summer, Davies plans to compile the best tips (such as, Don't ask for cash at night—it scares people) and send them to newspapers distributed and read by the homeless. Meanwhile, she feels her site is already a success. "I've been shocked by some knee-jerk, anti-panhandling reactions," she says, "but also amazed by people's incredible compassion."


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