Jan/Feb 1998  •   Salon

The Evils of Direct Marketing, with some Extra Complaining Thrown In

by Tom Dooley

It's 8:00 PM, and I'm tossing fitfully in bed. I've got a throat infection, but I can't afford to go to the doctor for antibiotics. I have to get some sleep, because I can't call in sick to work tomorrow, or any day for that matter. The phone rings. I let it ring. The answering machine picks up, and whoever called hangs up. This happens three more times in the next half hour. Each time I'm about to drift off, the phone rings. Finally, on the fourth one, I spring out of bed in a rage and pound down the hall to pick it up before the machine kicks in. I pick it up, say hello, and there is a long pause. Finally, someone comes on.

"Hello, is this Mr., uhhh, Mr., mmmm, Mr. Dull-lee?"

Well, it isn't Mr. Dull-lee. My name is Dooley, pronounced "Due-lee." I don't feel much like explaining this at the moment.

"Who wants to know?"

"Mr. Dull-lee, my name is Chanikwa Smith, and I'm calling on behalf of The New York Times. For a limited time..."

"Excuse me. Miss Smith? Kindly tell The New York Times I am vehemently opposed to direct telephone marketing, and if they have an offer for me, they can send it in the mail."

"Thank you Mr. Dull-lee, I'll let them know, sir. If you have any questions about this offer, you can call 1-800..."

I hang up.

On my way back down the hall, I think to myself that Dennis Miller was right. People generally are stupid. Even the ones who are competent enough to rise to positions of power within august organizations such as The New York Times. These individuals, competent though they may be, actually think by harassing complete strangers over the telephone, they will convince enough of them to buy subscriptions or whatever it is they're selling, that these sales will offset the expense of all those calls and of paying Chanikwa Smith a "competitive" wage. They're going to get me out of bed, or make me stop washing dishes and dry my hands, or interrupt my dinner, or make me switch over from a long distance call, or run me up the steps with a full load of laundry to answer the phone, just so they can mispronounce my name, rattle off a minute-long canned sales pitch, and ultimately try to talk me out of my hard-earned cash, which, in a capitalist society, is a form of assault.

The bastards block caller ID, so there's no way of knowing who is calling unless you pick up. They won't leave messages on the machine. The long pause is because they're making multiple calls at the same time, and they don't bother to actually pick up a line they've dialed unless they get a "live" one. They can call you; they know your number. You don't know their number, and there's no way to call them.

Once, as an experiment, I cooperated with one of these telemarketers, just to see what would happen. By that I mean I didn't interrupt him until he was finished. He went on for about a minute and a half, and finished up with, "Mr. Doiley, this protection will begin immediately, and if you aren't completely satisfied at the end of four months, you will receive a full refund." In other words, by not saying anything and not hanging up on this guy, I had tacitly agreed to what he was selling. Of course I hadn't, but the script he was reading was meant to make me think I had, and therefore put the onus on me to correct him. I did so with gusto, but I can imagine an elderly or less assertive person giving in and going along with it.

Which brings me to another thing that really frosts my ass: Credit Card Protection Plans. They want you to pay extra so you'll be protected from credit card fraud. But gee, are they trying to say it isn't safe to own one of their cards? Well, no, not exactly. Are they trying to say if you are the victim of credit card fraud, they will hold you accountable for the fraudulent charges if you don't have this protection plan? Well, not really. So then, why the hell are we supposed to pay all this extra money for protection then, when it's protection we should and already do receive!?

And they'll get you up out of a sound sleep to tell you about it, too.

Speaking of corporate greed, let's talk about the medical profession. They've come a long way since the days of witchdoctors and leeches. What I mean is, now they've got specialists and lawyers, which is kind of the same thing but better because it allows for a third party known as Insurance Agencies to get into the action. Insurance is really a pseudonym for wealth redistribution from the many to the few. Without the wonders of insurance, hospitals wouldn't be able to rack up $900,000 bills for people who haven't had that much money ever.

Insurance companies practically rule our lives. Between auto, home, health, and life insurance, the average person spends far more paying for misfortunes that might happen than they do to the IRS. Small businesses don't need tax breaks so much as they need insurance breaks. Liability and workman's comp and employee health insurance benefits drive many small businesses into the ground. How do the large companies get around this? They employ part-time workers without benefits! Which means a significant number of people in this country are stuck working several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and even though they may put in over 40 hours a week, they aren't eligible for health insurance unless they buy their own, at a cost almost no one can afford.

With any luck, I'll feel better in the morning.