Alternative Investment Report

Is substitution a part of our culture?


THERE are a limited number of celebrities and powerful people, even counting has-beens and wannabes. These few are sought by the many for ceremonial roles such as wedding godparents, commencement speakers, ribbon cutters for new condos, guests of honor for conventions, and webinar commentators.

Requests for their attendance are made months in advance. Thus, a commitment can be quickly given while the calendar is full of blank spaces, with little thought of possible schedule conflicts. The celebrity soon enough realizes as the once distant appointment approaches that he just isn’t in the mood, and it is too late to cancel — can he send a proxy instead?

The proxy (from the Latin word, procurare — to attend to) shows up for social events on behalf of someone more important and recognizable, usually a boss he cannot refuse. (Sir, I’ve already scheduled a trip to Boracay with the family.) Organizers of events are not expected to take offence at the absence of their important guest, whose name is on the brochure, if he sends a representative to take his place. Proxies, or substitutes, are expected to fill in the no-show gap, even if inadequately.

A proxy must still approximate the status expected by the organizer or host. If the important man cannot attend, he cannot just send a physical therapist in a suit to take his place. His substitute must be of a high enough standing, preferably considered important in his own right in another area (say, weightlifting) and properly attired.

The substitute is introduced as a “worthy representative.” (Is there ever an unworthy one?) When required to deliver a speech, which he may have ghostwritten, he prefaces it with an acceptable reason for the scheduled speaker’s absence. The proxy assures the audience of the original guest’s ardent desire to deliver his speech in person. (He had a severe depression when the doctors informed him that he could not possibly attend this event. The emergency eye bag removal could no longer be postponed.)

This riff intended to break the ice is obligatory. It excuses the no-show for his absence.

The substitute proceeds with his task, speaking confidently in the first person as if he was the absent one. He tries his own warm-up jokes at the start. (I see all of you expected to see someone important addressing you. I am his speech writer.) After a much-shortened speech, there is no need for an open forum as there are few questions anyway addressable to this proxy — what do you think of labor contracting?

The substitute surely feels uneasy with the charade. A big reception line expecting “the important one” to arrive is confronted with a grinning stranger. As revenge, the organizers release a photo of the event to media, referring to the substitute anonymously as the representative of the big shot who was absent. (Don’t invite this guy again.)

Only in the movies are unknowns accepted to stand-in for the big star. Stuntmen have this substitution strategy as part of their job description. It is routine in action movies where someone is thrown out of a speeding car that a double takes the bruises and scratches for the highly paid star. In sex scenes, a “body double” for the female lead may be used with the star taking over facial expressions and words of endearment — are you finished?

The spokesperson is another kind of proxy. The opinions he expresses are not necessarily his own. They reflect those of the person or company he represents. It is possible that the positions he publicly espouses are at odds with the ones he privately holds. Acting is a required talent when lying in wild abandon every night.

In the political setting, substitutes tend to flip the proxy rules. It is the higher-profile personality that bumps off the obscure placeholder. (Why do you say I make a mockery of the rules?) It is also possible that there are more placeholders than expected last-minute substitutes, leaving some of the former stranded in the queue — let me leave that question for now, as I get hold of the script.

In both the social and political realms, the substitute is seen as a gatecrasher not originally in the invitation list. Also, the substitution ploy loses its surprise value when it becomes too familiar… like a joke that has been told at least once before.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda