Paid To Protest: ‘Crowds On Demand’ Stages Phony Rallies For Political Groups And PR Stunts

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As they say, all companies are in the people business, but some more literally than others.

For anyone in need of angry protesters, attentive paparazzi or adoring fans, there’s Crowds on Demand (COD), an 11-month-old California startup that says it can organize any small or large group within a week’s time. It’s an unusual concept, but one that could no doubt fill an undeniable niche at a time when motivating people outside of the digital world is becoming more and more of a challenge.

Adam Swart, COD’s founder and chief executive, said the idea first came to him on vacation in Eastern Europe, when he stepped off an airplane and saw someone being greeted by an enthusiastic crowd and a car service on the tarmac.

“I really thought they must be someone important, but I didn’t recognize them,” he said in a phone interview. “And I got to thinking: Wouldn’t people think I was important if I had those same surroundings? Why not make a company that lets everyone live the life of an A-lister?”

Founded in Sept. 2012, COD began as a service for wannabe celebrities looking for a little taste of star treatment. But it has since expanded into an all-purpose people provider, delivering enthusiastic crowds for corporate PR stunts, political protests, self-promotion or anyone who wants to experience an “It’s all about me” day.

For instance, Swart said an Internet-advertising firm recently hired COD to stage a fake rally at a business conference in New York City, where protesters gathered outside the event and pretended to rail against Website banner ads. The anti-banner ad protest lent credence to COD’s client, which specialized in alternative online advertising solutions.

“We made a whole lot of visibility for them,” Swart said. “As everyone was coming into the convention center they saw a huge protest outside. That company said this event we did for them increased their sales by 500 percent.”

Other COD-staged events are more serious in nature, like a recent fake protest to raise awareness for mental health. That raises the question: Does manufacturing outrage for the purposes of political gain cross an ethical line? Swart doesn’t think so.

“We really are getting people to think critically about issues and raising visibility in an otherwise apathetic society,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

This is not to say that COD will act as a cheering squad for any organization that pays it money. While Swart said he doesn’t let his own personal feelings about a political cause dissuade him from providing protesters, he said he won’t do business with groups that advocate hate speech or violence.

“We got a request once to do a riot -- in Los Angeles,” he said. “That was an adamant ‘no.’”

What’s more, he said COD protests are safer than real ones. The crowds consist largely of experienced actors, who are paid for their time. They don’t go off script and they don’t cause disruptions. They simply exercise their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.

“We follow the law to the letter,” he said. “We wouldn’t do anything like block off a street or break something.”

Swart calls COD crowds “peaceful but lively,” and he said a typical outside observer would never know the protest wasn’t genuine. The price of COD’s services depends on a variety of factors, such as the size of the crowd and location of the event. Swart said a typical event will cost upwards of $1,000. Like any CEO, he speaks passionately about providing a great service for his customers, and he says the vast majority of them are satisfied. In fact, he said most of COD’s business comes from word of mouth.

Headquartered in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, COD operates in Southern California and a handful of larger cities, including New York, Las Vegas and Washington. But there is a distinct, “only in L.A.” quality to the concept, one rooted its origins as a simple vanity service for would-be celebrities. Swart said the star package, whereby aspiring performers attempt to kick-start their careers by hiring a crowd of adoring fans, remains one of COD’s most popular services.

“It’s like the old term ‘Fake it till you make it,’” he said. “We assist people with that.”

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