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illustrated image of a stock image reaching forward to shake hands

Artwork by Laura Paeng

Creative Briefs #6: Fake Friends

Written By Bill Reagan | Nov 19, 2018

Haley stared at the woman who wasn’t quite smiling, at least not yet. Instead, she looked like a wave of happiness had just left her heart and was about to splash across her face and flood the train with joy. You could see it in her eyes, a glint of excitement accentuated by the pale blue shirt she always wore. Haley had seen her countless times before, and she never tired of it.

Lois had once asked what made the woman compelling. Everyone’s answers were accurate — attractive yet still approachable, friendly but not fawning for attention — but it was the way that wave was perpetually about to break on her lips that held Haley’s attention. She’d even used the word genuine to describe her, an odd adjective considering the context.

When she first saw her, Haley immediately imagined they could be friends. Maybe they’d meet at adjacent sinks in the restroom during happy hour, one of them cracking a joke and the other doubling down, back and forth in a comfortable cadence. Haley would replay their exchange as she navigated back to her work crew, wishing she’d lingered a little longer in front of the mirror. Maybe she’d get to her table and everyone would be talking shop, so she’d sneak up to the bar and the woman would be there. They’d both glow as they resumed their clever conversation, and then they’d be friends forever.

This was a very specific fiction to attach to anyone, let alone someone in a stock photo, but that was the feeling Haley had when she saw all fourteen options at the impromptu focus group. The other thirteen options had perfectly fine faces, but only one had Haley imagining a life that breached the edges of the photograph. She even noted a strange satisfaction when the woman was chosen as the hero image for the website, like she’d just heard that a friend had gotten a new job.

She always felt an urgency to write engaging copy for Karen’s about-to-burst smile. She didn’t want to send her radiant friend out into the world with a lackluster headline.

They called the woman Karen, though that wasn’t her real name. Shutterstock called her “cheerful woman casual outdoors sunshine,” but Lois like to name all of their stock photos to make it easier to refer to them. “She’d probably want a sexier name,” Lois said as she stared at the mockup of the page before it launched. “But I’m stuck on Karen.”

Karen became a familiar fixture in the Marketing department, her role as the online face of the brand quickly expanding after the website launched. Karen starred in a direct mail campaign, made regular cameos on the company’s social media feeds, brightened a number of email headers, and appeared larger than life in an outdoor ad. Haley knew Karen’s face better than any of her other coworkers, and she always felt an urgency to write engaging copy for Karen’s about-to-burst smile. She didn’t want to send her radiant friend out into the world with a lackluster headline.

That’s why it was so awkward to see Karen on the train today, just on the verge of smiling, wearing her usual blue shirt, but shilling for DIY Delicious, some johnny-come-lately meal delivery service that dropped a box of raw food on your doorstep and called it convenient. It stung to see her, like running into an ex who’s out with their new flame. Haley’s first thought was to wonder what the hell Karen saw in DIY Delicious?

It was all she could think about as she walked from the train. When she got to the office, she said to the room, “I saw Karen on the train this morning.”
“Karen who?” Lois asked, swiveling in her chair in anticipation of a good story.

“Website Karen.”

“Wait, we’re doing a transit campaign?” Lois looked at Paul for an explanation. As a self-described control freak — a description that wasn’t necessary to anyone who worked with her — Lois didn’t like being left out of the loop on a project.

“No, it was an ad for one of those make-a-meal-with-kale-and-parsnips places. It was weird seeing her out in the wild, shilling for someone else. It felt almost awkward, like she wouldn’t even look at me.”

“Hale-Mary,” Lois sighed. “She has never looked at you. She’s not looking at the camera in that photo.”

“It still felt weird.” Haley couldn’t put her finger on why. She and Karen had never actually met in the happy hour restroom. Never actually snuck away from their respective tables to bond at the bar. Hell, she wasn’t even Karen, she was “cheerful woman casual outdoors sunshine.”

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this,” Lois added, “but your friend Karen is a floozy. She’ll hawk products for any company that has a few spare Shutterstock credits.”

“Yeah, I get that, Lo. Go easy on the judgement, okay — you said the same thing happened to you when you saw Carlos in a FedEx ad.” Carlos was the stock photo model on their Careers page.

“No, I said I saw Carlos in a FedEx ad. I didn’t say he broke my heart.”

Haley didn’t say anything. Was that what had happened? Had she developed a crush on a two-dimensional figment of her own imagination? Karen had always been exactly who Haley imagined her to be, and suddenly, she wasn’t. Now she was just another spokesperson, a pretty face pitching make-it-once pumpkin recipes.

After a minute of silence, Lois worried she’d been too snarky. “I’m sorry, that was insensitive of me. But we’re like folks who work at the Humane Society, kiddo. We can’t get emotionally involved.”

Haley knew this.

But she appreciated the reminder.

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