I Tried to Bribe as Many People as Possible in Five Days
An investigation into the power of a crisp €20 note.
All photos: Dominik Pichler
This article originally appeared on VICE Austria
An elderly neighbour of mine recently gave me some life-changing advice. In an alleyway near our building, representatives from three different political campaign groups have set up camp, and every morning they cling to anyone who passes them by, like those suckerfish who won't leave whales alone. Since I find it hard to deal with that kind of thing – especially early in the morning – I asked my neighbour, Mr Rupp, how he deals with our unwelcome guests.
"It's simple," he barked at me. "When they first moved in, I gave them €20 each so they'd never speak to me again. They've left me in peace ever since."
Until then, bribery had never crossed my mind. But the more I thought on it, the more logical it seemed. According to a ranking done by Transparency International, Austria is in 16th place on the index of corruption – so although we're not doing too badly, we're still pretty far from absolution.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I don't need an international study to tell me what I already know. Growing up, I watched members of my own family bribe often, and well – to gently encourage builders get the job done faster, for example, or in an attempt to get served more promptly in a restaurant.
So taking the advice of my neighbour, and following in my family's footsteps, I walked down the alley the next morning and offered €20 to any campaigner willing to accept it. It worked like a charm. Newly motivated, I decided to fully lean into the world of corruption for a few days to see how much further in life a little bribery could take me.
At about 1PM I meet my friend Dominik in a restaurant. I'm in the mood for an English breakfast, but I notice on the menu that the spot only serves breakfast until 11AM. I've never really understood why restaurants do this: it's not like some brunch ghoul storms into the kitchen and spritzes all the bacon with arsenic; they still have the supplies, so why can't they cook them?
I gather some courage and sweetly ask the server if she could please bring me some breakfast two hours past the deadline. As I prepare to slide the cash her way, she says, "No problem," and disappears into the kitchen.
Gutted. I really wanted to persuade her with some cash. Later, my breakfast is served, but it tastes disappointing, lacking the corruption-flecked mouth-feel I was hoping for.
Later, I try my luck at the post office, intent on being a bit more bold. "If I give you €20, could you perhaps get this package to its destination a little quicker?" I whisper. I have good reason to be cautious: in Austria, being caught bribing or accepting a bribe could land you five years in prison.
The postal worker responds positively, but not quite as I had hoped: "Sure – express delivery is only €15."
The following day, I head to a recording studio to narrate an audiobook I've written. After yesterday's failures, I realise there's no more time to waste, so on my way to the studio I ask the taxi driver if he'll break one of his rules by taking me to a McDonald's drive-thru and letting me eat my takeaway in the back of his car – in exchange for a €20 note. If I've learned anything so far in this life, it's that the one thing taxi drivers hate more than people throwing up in their car is people asking them to stop for fast food in their car.
The driver considers my proposition for what feels like an eternity, and then agrees. Sure, my Egg McMuffin is a lot pricier than usual this morning, but it tastes especially delicious, marinated in my first successful bribe.
After the recording session, I decide to reward myself with a new sweater from a fashion brand I discovered on Instagram recently. But it turns out the top is sold out in all stores that carried it. Drunk off my recent success, I get home, look up the brand's PR and compose the most shameful email I've ever sent: I explain that I'm a fashion influencer (false) with roughly 70,000 Instagram followers (true), and ask if there is anything that can be done to make this sweater mine. For the record: I would never have done this if I wasn't in the middle of a bribery spree.
Minutes later, I receive a response – there's a sweater waiting for me in their showroom. Not only that, but I can have it for free, provided I feature it in an Instagram post. Before long, it's mine. I feel mostly good (because of the sweater), but also very, very bad about myself and what I've just done.
Aside from the shame I'll continue to feel for the rest of my life, the influencer scam worked perfectly. Not only would I call it a form of bribery, but it didn't cost me anything. Hyped, I decide to try my luck again.
Hazel Brugger, one of my favourite stand-up comedians, has two sold-out shows in my city in November. What I now understand is that "sold out" doesn't really mean sold out. Unlike my sweater scheme, I decide not to involve the press office this time. I skip the middle man and head straight to the nearest ticket counter in person.
"Hello! I'd like two tickets for Hazel Brugger in November."
– "I'm sorry, but there are no longer any tickets available."
"I know, but I'm an influencer with 75,000 Instagram followers."
The lady behind the counter looks as me like I've thrown her dog off a bridge. "Wow, congratulations..." she responds sarcastically. "Maybe one of your many followers can sell you a ticket?" I take her answer as an invitation to leave the theatre before she bodies me even more thoroughly.
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Honestly, I'm glad to return to bribing people the traditional way; the detour of pretending to be an influencer never felt completely right to me. A unique opportunity presents itself when I meet up with my friend Laura for a coffee.
"I signed the papers to purchase a flat around here just a couple of weeks ago," she tells me. "It's being remodelled, but the building manager won't let me visit the construction site."
All I can do is laugh; I remember when I used to think that "nope" was the end of a conversation, rather than the start of a negotiation.
I explain to Laura that I can take care of it, and ask her to lead me to the construction site. There, we find dozens of builders enjoying their lunch. I pick out who I believe to be the weakest-looking link, and run him through the situation.
"It would be very helpful if my friend and I could just take a look around the apartment," I say, throwing a casual glance towards the €20 note in my left hand. The builder silently takes it and makes a welcoming gesture – like a restaurant owner taking his regular customers to their favourite table. As we head towards the apartment, Laura stares at me in astonishment, as if I've let her in on my true identity.
It's time for one final test. I have an appointment with the doctor at noon, but the waiting room is so packed you'd think they were handing out free painkillers. When I get to the reception desk, I dive in headfirst. "It wouldn't be a bad thing if I were to see my doctor a bit earlier today," I say, sliding a folded note across the desk.
"Have a seat, Mr Buchinger," says the receptionist, disapprovingly, without accepting my offer. I get the feeling I'll have to wait longer than usual to see my doctor this time around.
In the waiting room, I have ample time to reflect on my foray into bribery. Was it always pleasant? No – before every bribe, I was extremely nervous. Did I succeed? Absolutely – while my first day was a write-off, of the other six bribes I tried, four worked out.
Would I use bribery to my advantage again in the future? No, probably not. Apart from the fact that making these dodgy offers felt incredibly uncomfortable, I simply, and unfortunately, don't have access to an unlimited supply of 20s that I can hand out at will. Still, I now know that if I absolutely needed to, I could. Mr Rupp would be so proud.