January 26, 2011

Abuse of the telephone, or cold calling

A reader of the Saturday Review wrote a letter to the editor in November 1937 complaining about the underhand techniques of pushy sales reps.  "Pater Filiarum" had earlier published an announcement of his daughter's engagement.  Weeks later he was bombarded with telephone calls from florists, photographers, hotels, and other businesses involved in the matrimonial 'industry', all fishing for business.  I myself have fallen prey to similar tactics.  So what's new?

He denigrates the callers for wasting his valuable time and disturbing his domestic peace.  He considers various solutions: 
  • disconnect the telephone: "not practical";
  • go ex-directory: "gives a lot of trouble to one's friends"
He hits on a novel solution in the end:
"What we do is to inform the interrupter that we have black list of all firms who employ this method of convassing, and that we do no business with firms on the black list."
Effective, don't you think?

The following week's edition prints a reply from "Sufferer" who conveniently commiserates with Pater Filiarum.  In his view, the culprit is the telephone book which lists both addresses and telephone numbers (!) making the job of the cold caller a lot easier.  Another bane of modern life is the efficient mail system which delivers "the never-ceasing flood of circulars [...] through the letter-box."  "Sufferer" has even heard of companies ringing up families when there's been a bereavement.

What doesn't fit
Both the writer and respondent remain anonymous.  Other letter writers on the same page supply name and address.  What did Pater and Sufferer have to fear?  Retribution from more cold callers? 

Is this letter something like a 'puff' - ostensibly a reader's letter but really a fix?  If so, what is the magazine trying to sell, what message is it trying to convey?  Perhaps an indirect way of advising affected readers on how to deal with unwanted callers?

Having said this, whether the letter is genuine or written by a journalist, its existence shows a concern for domestic privacy, aggressive (for the period) marketing techniques, and the utility of the telephone.

Why not write to the telephone company, complaining about the companies' misuse of technology?  Or publish (and be damned) this black list of offending companies?

1937 strikes me as a bit late to be complaining about sharp business practices.  By now I would have thought people would be used to them, even if the telephone is still not so widely diffused.

Saturday Review was a magazine with a long history but folded a year after these letters were published.  It had a controversial past (expressed anti-German sentiments), hosted distinguished contributors, had a colourful aristocratic owner (Lady Houston, who died one year before these letters appeared).  Do these elements colour one's interpretation of Pater/Sufferer's letters?

"Abuse of the Telephone."  Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art.  November 1937.

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.