Popularity Is Not Always Good


Gimmicks boost popularity. This is what everyone seems to think these days. That is why businesses to government establishments are tumbling head over heels to set something up that will make them unique, differentiate them from their competitors and attract customers. 

And, many times, these gimmicks work. They catch people’s attention and increase visitor numbers. But what if they work too well? Can places handle the large number of people they seek to attract? Gimmicks boosted popularity, okay. What should that entail and what responsibilities should that bring? For answers to these questions, it might serve us well to recall the ‘Umbrella Street’ set up in Tebahal in 2020 and the results – or rather consequences – it brought.

The story starts in December 2020. COVID-19 was still spreading. There were some restrictions on public gatherings and movement and business was down. And this worried the traders of Tebahal. They had not been able to make a profit since March of that year and they desperately needed a way to entice prospective buyers. 

This is when local Ashish Man Singh, whose story this daily covered two years ago, suggested that the community members turn the New Road-Sankata alley into an umbrella street. Singh had seen such streets in other countries and believed that it would drum up commerce. The locality residents seemed to agree and together they put up more than 400 colour umbrellas over 150 metres of the street connecting New Road Gate to Dharahara.

As mentioned, the initial aim was to attract visitors, who would, hopefully, also buy from local shops, eat at local restaurants and contribute to the local economy. But in less than a week, it grew to humongous proportions and took a life of its own, out of the hands of the people who set it up.

It took no time for people to start flocking to the umbrella street, driven by photos and videos on social media. In fact, one day, the less than 200-metre asphalt alley recorded nearly 10,000 visitors.

Encouraged by these numbers, Tebahal residents put up lights and flower vases to further increase the lane’s appeal. The ward office of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City also chipped in and provided administrative support to maintain sanitation.

The umbrellas successfully lured people and boosted business but, after a week, the very people who built the umbrella street started complaining about the problems it caused. The tens of thousands of people there began blocking traffic and disturbing the residents. They did not maintain proper physical distance or wear masks which, because the coronavirus pandemic was still at full strength at the time, brought criticisms and warnings from health authorities. After the initial seven days, the need to manage such large numbers began to outweigh the commercial benefits.

So, the community removed the decorative canopy after the New Year celebrations of January 1, 2021. 

The moral of this Tebahal story is that gimmicks can make establishments too successful. They may end up bringing more people than places and institutions can handle. Also, if an entity wants to have a gimmick, it better spends time and resources building up its infrastructure too. Because the former without the latter can actually put people off. 

For this, again, we can take Tebahal as an example. There is a reason no one mourned the passing of the umbrella street. It had become a nightmare. There was not enough space for parking, it was noisy all the time and the businesses could not cater to the increased number of customers. The area was starting to get a bad rep and even if the locals had not taken down the umbrellas, the ‘fad’ would have died out on its own. This brings us to our next point – gimmicks have an expiration date.

New things do not stay new for long. If something becomes popular, others start copying it and people get used to the idea. So, those relying on gimmicks need to constantly innovate and update themselves and keep introducing fresh and original elements. This costs money and after a while, gimmicks lose their worth in comparison to the business they bring. 

It needs to be clarified that this article does not argue against gimmicks or marketing stunts. It only presents a caveat. They are not reliable and can bring headaches if not planned properly. Popularity is not always good and if you are not prepared to fulfil the responsibilities fame brings, perhaps it would be good to not aspire for fame at all.

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