CATHERINE BLYTH ON THE YEAR OF THE NOSY PARKER
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.