The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

IHAVE a stalker. In fact, I have hun­dreds. So do you. What, do you mean you haven’t no­ticed? I be­came aware of my ad­mir­ers af­ter Christ­mas. First it was let­ters, then emails. Could I spare a mo to rate my broad­band in­stal­la­tion? What about the in­surer’s cus­tomer ser­vice? The build­ing so­ci­ety was sorry I’d closed my ac­count, but would love to hear how well they closed it. The ques­tion­naire shouldn’t take a minute.

Then came the calls. ‘‘ How did I find the help line?’’ asked my bank. Bar­clays ( not my bank) rang sev­eral times to in­vite me to par­tic­i­pate in a sur­vey. This was not, re­peat not, a sales call. Just a few min­utes of my time . . .

How, asked my mo­bile op­er­a­tor, im­prove our end-user in­ter­face? ‘‘ By leav­ing me in peace,’’ I didn’t say. Next, ha­rass­ment. One icy Satur­day I was walk­ing home with good­ies from Ot­tolenghi, a Lon­don deli that pro­vides a Prous­tian whiff of deca­dence for a mere £ 3.50 ($ 7.70) slice of cake. Three pasty men in Day-Glo yel­low jerkins ap­proached. ‘‘ Do you smoke, madam?’’ ‘‘ No,’’ I said. Down­cast, they turned and cir­cled one of the few passers-by whose cloudy breath wasn’t cold but nico­tine-rich. On their yel­low backs I read: ‘‘ NHS Anti-Smok­ing Pa­trol’’. I felt vic­timised. I felt like I was at school. I felt like hav­ing a smoke. And if th­ese in­va­sions of my pri­vacy don’t end soon, I may copy John Mor­timer and take it up again. When I get sick, I’ll know whom to sue.

To me, th­ese ap­proaches prove that ev­ery bust brings its boom. This will be the Year of the Nosy Parker, as a buyer’s mar­ket det­o­nates an ex­plo­sion of in­va­sive mar­ket­ing.

Al­though para­noia and other such knotweed of the mind flour­ish in hard times, my the­ory strikes me as en­tirely log­i­cal. Killjoys re­joice at the plight of re­tail­ers and ad­men. Re­ces­sion, they claim, her­alds an era en­tan­gled less in friv­o­lous wants than wor­thy needs. Bye-bye greed, tally-ho that Blitz spirit, they cry, their rhetoric wind­ing back the clock to a land where every­one has gar­dens to grow their own veg, but nei­ther tele­vi­sion nor McDon­ald’s, pre­sum­ably.

How­ever, far from doomed, mar­ket­ing men have sim­ply changed pitch. In­stead of sales, they’re chas­ing cus­tomers. Fair enough. What wor­ries me is how many are peer­ing in­side our heads in hope of repaving them with their in­ten­tions. I’ve been in­un­dated. I’m not alone. And it will get worse. Fit­tingly for Dar­win’s bi­cen­te­nary, a ruth­less con­test is un­der way for our dwin­dling shillings. Sur­vivors will emerge

Ican we MET my sec­ond hus­band on the night of my first wed­ding an­niver­sary. Even to me, this sounds ter­ri­bly shock­ing and some­what con­fus­ing. But un­be­known to me, my first hus­band was about to be­come my late hus­band, and my sec­ond hus­band was about to be­come the great­est thing that had hap­pened to me be­fore turn­ing 30.

My hus­band and I cel­e­brated our first wed­ding an­niver­sary at his nurs­ing home. I was quite cer­tain and quite ac­cept­ing of the fact that I was the only one who knew the sig­nif­i­cance of the day, and that we were far too young to be mark­ing the oc­ca­sion in a place such as this.

I also knew that it didn’t re­ally mat­ter that he didn’t know. We had spent the past 11 years to­gether, and of that the last year mar­ried. Any­thing could have hap­pened to this man and I would have been there and stayed with him.

It was not un­til my hus­band could no longer speak that we had so much to say to each other; it was not un­til he could not walk or sit eas­ily that we trav­elled so well to­gether. We were now on a course that we could never have fore­seen or planned for.

In many ways, he was be­com­ing my teacher. Our sit­u­a­tion, his life and health, taught me how, gen­uinely, to em­brace those things that can’t be changed: brain in­jury can’t be fixed. In sharper than ever at sink­ing in their teeth and drain­ing our last drop of added value.

Ac­cord­ing to new fig­ures, Bri­tish ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets were slashed more sav­agely in the third quar­ter of 2008 than any time in the pre­vi­ous decade. But re­search by Ad-ol­ogy found Amer­i­can small busi­nesses will in­crease in­vest­ment in two ar­eas in 2009: gen­er­at­ing leads — that is, truf­fling for custom — and ‘‘ so­cial-net­work mar­ket­ing’’. As in Face­book and wher­ever else peo­ple loi­ter, chew­ing the cud, ripe to be poked into dis­cussing your prod­uct in­stead.

Like me, you may love con­ver­sa­tion, but not to en­rich other peo­ple. You too may po­litely refuse that sur­vey. Or, like my friends, read a flyer on your wind­screen, invit­ing you to a sem­i­nar to dis­cuss cars — ‘‘ NOT A SALES PITCH!! YOU WILL BE PAID!!’’ — and im­me­di­ately click that your per­sonal de­tails would be sold on to data­bases, un­leash­ing a lava of un­so­licited sales pitches through your door, phone, email . . .

Still, such an­noy­ing in­tru­sions pay off. For a start, cus­tomers’ opin­ions are wiser, in ag­gre­gate, than costly con­sul­tants’, since crowds know more than in­di­vid­u­als. Hence we love Google, this new cir­cum­stance, only rem­nants of our pre­vi­ous life to­gether re­mained. And his state meant he didn’t share the fear that many peo­ple who knew him were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing and run­ning away from.

That night at the nurs­ing home was one of con­tra­dic­tory emo­tions. I didn’t want to leave. At the same time, I couldn’t wait to get out. I wanted to go home but didn’t want to be by my­self. I wanted to go out but didn’t want to be around any­one.

Some friends were meet­ing at a book launch, so I de­cided to join them, even though I didn’t par­tic­u­larly care for the au­thor. None of them knew it was my wed­ding an­niver­sary and, to be hon­est, I made a point of not telling them; I wouldn’t have been able to stand the pity, the awk­ward si­lence or the stupid things that that vast pop­u­lar­ity con­test for web pages, which logs all our searches, be­cause it un­der­stands what we want bet­ter than we do.

What is more, clever mar­ket re­search is flat­ter­ing. The best mar­ket­ing brains un­der­stand, just as Barack Obama un­der­stands, that when peo­ple feel pow­er­less, no il­lu­sion is so al­lur­ing as that we mat­ter.

But there’s more to it than that. Sur­vey seek­ers rob our valu­able time while feed­ing us a pow­er­ful mes­sage: that their ser­vices are tai­lored to our needs. Most do this without of­fer­ing a penny for our thoughts. They suc­ceed by ex­ploit­ing kinks in hu­man psy­chol­ogy that you might pre­fer to call good man­ners.

End­less stud­ies find we feel at­tached to those we help, and ex­pect to be paid in kind, but don’t want bla­tant re­mu­ner­a­tion: we would rather con­sider our­selves phi­lan­thropists.

A dis­con­cert­ing book, Yes! 50 Se­crets from the Sci­ence of Per­sua­sion , re­veals the ‘‘ hugely pow­er­ful sense of obli­ga­tion . . . to re­turn favours’’ cre­ates ‘‘ trust’’. Equally, if we do some­one a favour, we ra­tio­nalise this gen­eros­ity by imag­in­ing we like them. Thus wily Ben­jamin Franklin wooed a hos­tile chap in Penn­syl­va­nia’s leg­is­la­ture by ask­ing to bor­row ‘‘ a cer­tain very scarce and cu­ri­ous book’’, writ­ing ful­some thanks. Within weeks his op­po­nent was a friend. Thus, hav­ing said yes once to Bar­clays’ sur­vey, psy­cho­log­i­cal mo­men­tum in­clines me to say yes to the in­evitable sales call, if only to jus­tify the time al­ready spent on Bar­clays.

So just say no. Or the brain­wash­ers will get you. Even now, su­per­mar­kets are de­vel­op­ing spy cam­eras with soft­ware to sooth­say the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of un­de­cided shop­pers who are wa­ver­ing be­tween brands.

At least, un­like as­pi­ra­tional ads, ‘‘ co-op­er­a­tive mar­ket­ing’’ doesn’t un­der­mine us. ( Slo­gans such as ‘‘ Be­cause I’m worth it’’ im­ply you’re worth­less without said elixir.) I’d rather an­swer ques­tion­naires than suf­fer kids press-ganged into pes­ter­ing me to eat my greens. And hap­pily, if busi­nesses want us to talk, they must feign to lis­ten. When I got home that Satur­day, in­censed by the snoops, I was dis­mayed to find my lunch tasted of, well, noth­ing. So I Googled Ot­tolenghi, then emailed my gripes. Min­utes later, in pinged the of­fer of a re­fund plus con­so­la­tory cake. Yes, it takes more than tea and sym­pa­thy to pre­serve an econ­omy. Maybe Marie-An­toinette was on to some­thing.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au For This Life guide­lines, go to www. theaus­tralian. com. au/ life­style. The Spec­ta­tor Cather­ine Blyth’s The Art of Con­ver­sa­tion ( John Mur­ray, $ 24.99) was pub­lished in 2008. peo­ple say when faced with the un­speak­able. The book be­ing launched was writ­ten by a Bris­bane au­thor and the venue was packed. I spot­ted the ta­ble where my friends were sit­ting, made my way over, and was in­tro­duced to a man who was a friend of a friend.

As it turned out, he didn’t like the au­thor ei­ther, so we talked about books we did like. He seemed so lovely and good and it was such a breath of fresh air to talk to some­one who knew noth­ing about my painful cir­cum­stances.

My first hus­band died eight years ago, aged 39. So much hap­pened in the year be­fore he died and so much has hap­pened since his pass­ing, that I of­ten think of the words of one of his nurses, which at the time hurt me deeply. She said that in 10 years’ time it would be as though he was just some­one I had known in the past. He will al­ways be more than that.

Those eight years have flown by. I mar­ried my book-launch man. We have trav­elled to­gether, moved states to­gether, and had a son and daugh­ter, all the while glad that that a Bris­bane au­thor wrote books nei­ther of us liked.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Igor Saktor

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