Writing / Ken Storie:  Consumer Issues

The Right to Privacy

My mailbox bears a small sign indicating, politely I hope, that I do not want to receive unsolicited advertising material - junk mail. And for the most part, the sign works. Now I wish I had the equivalent of a “No Flyers Please” warning for my telephone.

For while the junk mail merely wastes trees and increases my trips to the recycling depot, the telemarketer’s calls are a much more insidious invasion of my privacy.

I’m sure it didn’t take long after the first “Watson, are you there “ exchange for someone to grasp the significance of the telephone as a tool for business. Given that, it is almost surprising that it took nearly a century for telemarketing to really take off. I’d like to think that it was some old-fashioned sense of decency that delayed this incredible misuse of technology.

Companies use telemarketing because it works. It works, quite simply, because it preys on people who have difficulty saying “no”. To be sure, there are some people who must appreciate the efficiency of being informed of the latest deals via the phone. Perhaps they feel that having people call them at home with offers of, insurance plans, better phone rates, or packaged frozen meat, saves them time, saves them the need to make shopping decisions on their own. Perhaps, but I don’t personally know any of these people.

I do know people who are swayed by a pleasant voice, who are lonely and eager to talk to someone, who are perhaps a bit naive and trusting. Nice people.

And it’s not just about sales. Unfortunately even reputable charity organizations nations are employing call centres to solicit donations. This is wrong on two levels. One is that it takes unfair advantage of many people who also fall prey to the sales pitches, and also that it is misleading to the donor who may not understand that a cut goes to the private corporation doing the calling.

We all know such people, and we know that they are often preyed upon by con men.  But it’s even worse when they are preyed upon legally, by “reputable” firms, who, in the name of commerce, sell them things that they simply don’t need, or even want.

I have no pity for, and no concern for, the average competent person who walks into a retail business and makes a totally unnecessary and unwise purchase. We all do it - we have a right to waste our money as we see fit.  And those nice people I spoke of earlier are equally subject to the allure of an attractive store display or a sale flyer proclaiming “40% Off”.  Even the disadvantaged have a right to make economic mistakes.

The difference between the retail hard sell and the direct marketing hard sell is that in retail the purchase is an active one while in direct marketing it is passive. The direct marketer preys on the passive, the insecure, the shy, the trusting, the eager-to-please. Not that that accounts for all of the sales. No, the deal may be a good one, the salesman at my door might just have the exact thing I happen to need, and at the right price! Could happen!  Direct sales could be a good thing if behind ever door was a customer as astute, as glib, as well trained and secure as the salesperson.

This has always been the case, but fortunately direct marketing, in the door-to- door sense is a lot of work. And although a sucker may be born every minute, he’s not always at home when you visit. And when you do find him at home he might not have enough cash on hand to be of any real value. But add some modern technology into the mix and the possibilities increase. What if instead of making calls door-to-door you reached the customer through his television set? It works pretty well, and we’ve all heard horror stories of people sending all their spare cash of to some televangelist, or being addicted to a “Home Shopping Channel”.  But even television has its limitations.  The recipient still has to take the action of turning on his T.V. and selecting the proper channel. (With cable one seems to have a one-in-five chance of randomly selecting a “Paid Commercial Broadcast.”). You just can’t reach every mark.

What if you could just call the person in his home and offer the pitch? The success rate would be lower than making door-to-door calls, but the sale pitch would be easier to make, salespeople would be easier to train. So, when long distance rates came down, modern call centres became feasible. They can live with a low success rate, they can generate enough success through volume. And they can do it without having to face rejection face-to-face.

To me these calls are merely annoying, and I answer them all with my own script. I say, “Please tell your superiors that I will never do business with a company that calls me at home.”  But not everyone can do that.  Some people are just too damn nice, but there are also people with disadvantages, people with handicaps, people who lack self-confidence. And for us to pretend that even ostensibly reputable companies and oprganizations are not regularly taking advantage of such people is just short of criminal.

What Can Be Done?

To expect our governments to act is optimistic to say the least, given that local governments often offer tax breaks to entice attract call centers. But we might be able to convince some levels of government to help discourage unwanted calls in the same way we discourage junk mail. Many jurisdictions have established “Unsolicited Commercial Call Registries - lists of phone numbers or names that don’t want junk calls. This should be revised by switching to a Do call” registry as opposed to s “Do Not Call” list and expanded to include charitable and political calls.

Many reputable companies will comply, but stiff penalties will have to be provided for those who cheat. Our other option is direct action as consumers. We should, first of all, never respond to unsolicited commercial calls, and beyond that we should stop doing business with companies that use the method. To make this really effective we should communicate that to the companies perhaps with the help of a form letter.