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Dear Privileged Customer - You Are Very Special

by  James Graham

Posted: Saturday, August 14, 2004
Word Count: 1001

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.