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Dear Privileged Customer - You Are Very Special

by James Graham 

Posted: 14 August 2004
Word Count: 1001

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The other day my wife received a personal letter from somebody named André de Brett. Headed 'CONGRATULATIONS MRS GRAHAM!' it was full of compliments, calling her 'special' and 'privileged' and referring to her 'star status'. At the foot of the letter this was specified as ***** Star Status, and it was signed with a flourish by André de Brett himself.

It's good to feel special. To be privileged...well, that might give some people a lift, but people like us, still clinging to our old-fashioned, twentieth century belief in socialism, have hang-ups about that sort of thing. We wouldn't feel happy to be offered some advantage that other people don't have. We have more than enough of that already, living in one of the capitalist homelands, one of the countries that live off poorer countries. So 'privileged' backfired a little - but 'special' is fine. And 'star status' - who doesn't long to be a star? Even more so nowadays when to be a star you don't have to be really talented like Katherine Hepburn or Jack Lemmon, but instead you can be a celebrity, rich and famous without having to be good at acting or singing or indeed anything else, except maybe self-branding.

But there was more to ***** Star Status than flattery. ***** Star Status meant too that my wife was 'entitled to a valuable free gift: a LIMIT Ladies Watch'. This broke what little spell the missive had cast. It dissolved that wonderful feelgood effect that the magic word 'free' always evokes. Was this a watch for very old ladies, who could sadly make use of it for only a limited time? Or was it simply that the watch was a timekeeper of limited accuracy, or that it would keep going for a limited time and then go bust? What were the limits to this free gift?

The limit of course was that it was free if you opened an account. No doubt a couple of months' interest at a rate somewhat above the Bank of England's rate would pay for the free gift.The writers of this kind of copy are clearly not very well educated, because they use words wrongly. 'Free' doesn't mean free, 'gift' doesn't mean gift. And the word 'free' in 'free gift' ought to be redundant anyway.

Virtually all the messages received every day in our house from global capital go straight into the bin. Soon in our district we will have home recycling facilities; each household will keep separate containers for glass - and for paper, which could mean that these manipulative little intimate letters (and the rest of the junk - those begging letters with a twist, for instance, that say 'Send no money now!') stand an outside chance of being recycled and turned into anti-war leaflets.

Actually those messages which are generalised, addressed to the mass of consumers, everyone and no-one, are easier to take. If they say 'Hurry' you can decide to let somebody else hurry if they like, but you'll just carry on at your usual easy pace. But the personalised messages are different. It's like the young person at the checkout who's trained to say 'Hi there!' to everybody, all the strangers who pass through as well as those whose faces are half-familiar.* It's a corporate practice, like loss leaders or putting chocolate at kids' eye-level. It isn't personal, it's impersonal. To take it a little too seriously for a moment, it might even be a travesty of friendship. So too with the personalised junk mail - the ones with fake signatures that pretend to be personal letters.

Of course this was only one of the hundreds of snail spams (not very appetising) that everyone gets. But this seemed a good one to unpick, and to ridicule a little. Maybe this is what we should all do, if we could spare the time: sort our junk mail into funny and not funny, trash the not funny and get a little amusement out of the rest. That way we can enjoy resisting consumerism.

What intrigues me about all this is how some people seem to accept it as natural - have no sense at all that they're being manipulated. And this seems to apply to mail that's of quite a different order than Mr de Brett's harmless missive.

There was the recent Spanish Lottery scam: people got pseudo-personal letters telling them they had won five hundred or seven hundred grand in the Spanish Lottery. But in order to claim the prize, for each £100,000 they had to send £1,000 to secure 'insurance cover'. What's so hard to imagine is anyone, especially someone smart enough to have earned or made enough money to be able to afford to send off £7,000 without turning a hair - or indeed anyone at all in their right mind - actually falling for that, without even a momentary attack of scepticism, just writing the cheque. But apparently some did just that.

So there are some consumers who really do seem to have a very high level of consumer gullibility. This doesn't necessarily mean they can be made fools of by workmates, or the boss, or anyone else they come into direct contact with; but they do seem to suspend judgement when it comes to marketing language, a language that has always seemed to me, and to most people I know, curiously artificial and dishonest - even when it's spun around something much more respectable than the lottery scam.

But I don't think there can be very many of these naive souls. Lots of people decide to buy the products they are offered, but that doesn't mean they've developed such uncritical minds that they can't see through the little tricks as well. However far consumer capitalism extends itself, however much it reaches into our lives (before it is finally overthrown!) to such 'consumer-gullibility' there will always, surely, be a LIMIT.

*An unashamed piece of self-promotion: see my poem 'To Natalie, at the Checkout' in the archive.

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 08:30 on 15 August 2004  Report this post
James, a beautifully constructed piece, each thought following on smoothly from the previous one. This made me smile in spite of the fact that I hate it that they're cutting down the rainforests and putting them through my letterbox. The deeper message is communicated gently without ranting, and is all the more powerful for that. The following passage made me read again: But in order to claim the prize, for each £100,000 they had to send £1,000 to secure 'insurance cover'. What's so hard to imagine is anyone, especially someone smart enough to have earned or made enough money to be able to afford to send off £7,000 without turning a hair... Now maths is not my strong point but...


Account Closed at 21:21 on 15 August 2004  Report this post
James, I enjoyed this too. I agree with Nell that it is strong in its gentleness and I liked the way you picked up on the LIMIT issue. My dad used to be a member of the clergy and once received a letter which went something like: Imagine Rev G*** driving up to "the Vicarage" in a brand new **** Ridiculous! It reminds me of those pictures that children draw in a group where the first one draws the head, folds it over and passes it on and so on. The end result is often funny, sometimes grotesque!

James Graham at 12:01 on 16 August 2004  Report this post
Nell, and Elspeth, thanks for your positive comments. Nell, I am permanently at sea with maths, indeed lost on the ocean, but the supposed top prize that people were offered was £700,000 ('seven hundred grand'). So if they had to send £1000 for each £100,000, that would be £7000. Um...I think.

I suppose it is quite gentle. Sometimes consumerism can provoke a lot of anger, I find - almost as much as some purely political issues - but I also find that if you are too strong or polemical on the subject you can turn people off. Many people are ambivalent about the market society - understandably, because they - we - are inevitably a part of it.



Nell at 12:17 on 16 August 2004  Report this post
James, I see it now - I think it was the fact that you've used both words and numbers for the actual figures that threw me. I read again a couple of times to check but somehow the numbers in words completely passed me by.


Hamburger Yogi & PBW at 04:00 on 17 August 2004  Report this post
An intersting article that shows a lot about our society - the helplessness (for me) of a situation where gullibilty is as alarming as the deception.

Topicwise, I found some of this a bit unfocussed as if the issue were being circled rather than analysed. (This, of course, may just be my personal preferences in journalism.)

Hamburger Yogi

Richard Brown at 10:44 on 17 August 2004  Report this post
It is astonishing, is it not, that anyone falls for the 'you have already won' scams and the like? Does anybody respond to the e-mail versions about African fortunes and so forth? I suppose somebody must because they keep appearing.
Like Elspeth, I loved the way you used the 'Limit' theme. What a strange product name! It deserves ridicule. On a more serious note, I was interested in the idea of a specific 'consumer gullibility'. There are surely people who suffer from a measure of addiction to shopping - perhaps there is a general malaise relating to acquisition. Maybe the people who fall for the scams are more or less powerless, being lured by forces they cannot resist, in which case they surely need the protection of the law.

James Graham at 11:41 on 18 August 2004  Report this post
Richard, it never ceases to astonish me that people fall for these scams. Just one more to boggle the mind: the letter from the 'National Bank of Russia' (or some such name) that informs us that a Russian multi-millionaire has been killed in a road accident. He has no surviving relatives and his wealth will revert to the Russian state unless you guarantee yourself a substantial share of his estate by sending us a four-figure sum now.

HY, you're right, the article doesn't get into analysis. I think there's a place for a kind of anecdotal journalism that does little more than illustrate an issue. But this is one that seems to cry out for analysis. Why do even a few people actually respond to such ludicrous appeals? Why does the 'pull the other one' mechanism apparently not function?

Groping for in-depth analysis, I'd suggest that it's because the cumulative effect of the whole marketing discourse must be very powerful in some cases. That's not only scams but 'legitimate' advertising and promotion of all kinds. Marketing discourse aims at emotional impacts of various kinds, including the creation of new, improved anxieties. 'Having life insurance helps you sleep at night...or does it?' Or the talking Tesco trolleys: 'You never know when the wheels are going to come off.' These seem laughable and trivial by themselves, but they're part of a drip-feed, part of a web of anxiety-creation. But fear not, your anxiety can be assuaged - by the insurers, or the bankers, who are sending you this message and who have the solution. Now it may be that some people have lost the ability to distinguish between the more or less genuine offer (even though the advert is a trick) of Tesco insurance, and the bogus offer.


hsl at 12:41 on 18 August 2004  Report this post
James - I'm not sure whether unintelligible marketing jargon is to blame for this trend.I'm afraid that,although the UK possesses its fair share of the gullible and naive,the reality is that most people are drawn towards such offers by avarice and the possibility of some financial oneupmanship.

I used to work in the stockmarket many years ago and saw that the pursuit of profit was ultimately determined by two of the basest instincts - fear and greed.Fear is motivated by the sense that one might lose an opportunity that benefits others and greed...well,that rather speaks for itself.I can remember even now,some twenty years later,the Barlow Clowes fiasco whereby investors were encouraged to buy into funds holding gilts(government securities)that offered improbably high returns.There is an old investment maxim that if something sounds too good to be true,then it normally is.

The boiler room scams that glide from one jurisdiction to another will proliferate and consumers the world over will be entreated to participate in activities which,frankly,they should know better to avoid.I should mention,as a postscript,a brief article I read recently about a man who bottles water from Loch Ness which he then sells via the internet,principally to US customers.Call me an old cynic,if you like,but aside from the label and the certificate of authenticity,there is no reason to think the water hasn't been drawn from his toilet bowl.I give him eleven out of ten for entrepreneurialism but what next? Sand from the Sahara? It's surely just a matter of time before an invitation to receive the boxed set falls through your letterbox.


James Graham at 20:09 on 20 August 2004  Report this post
Howard, you're right, greed and fear are surely the prime motivations. Maybe add to that, in the more extreme cases, a compulsive need (something like an addiction - like gambling addiction more than drugs or alcohol) to grab at opportunities to get money. This isn't the poor person's need for money, since these scam 'victims' are able to come up with four-figure sums. It's a compulsion that seems to grow on some of those who have already got quite a lot but never enough. I imagine there must be a competitive element too: if I pass up this chance, somebody else will get the benefit. In the follow-up to my article I find myself banging on a bit about these scams and what causes people to fall for them. I find it quite hard to get my head round it. Even with all the explanations, recognising that of course greed is a powerful motivation, and also the fear of others getting the better of you, still how can all this produce such a failure of judgement in those who, apparently, put money on getting a share of the Russian multi-millionaire's estate? Not even the Loch Ness water would fool me for a second. That's not to say I'm exceptionally streetwise - most people wouldn't be fooled, either by this or by any of the mail scams.

Having said that, I'm convinced there are two sides to what I've called 'consumer gullibility'. Every day money is offered to us by legitimate financial organisations - loans, credit, consolidating loans etc. - always in reassuring, authoritative language. We have the solution. It's easy. In such a climate of blandishment it seems more credible that a few people fall for the bogus offers. It doesn't quite let them off the hook; they should know better. But I'd be more reluctant to blame, say, working-class people who get over their ears in debt. My first instinct would be put responsibility on to the lenders and call for stricter regulation of the promotion of credit cards and loans, and the substitution of non-profit or less-profit arrangements such as mutual societies or credit unions.

On more or less the same theme: in the case of the Loch Ness water, who's more at fault, the purchaser or the seller?


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