Junk mail

It's more honest about your family's finances than you are

Introduction by Camille Peri
October 29, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

"The Secret Family" is a page-turner, a fascinating and often disgusting account of a day inside the minds and bodies of a typical American family. Author David Bodanis dissects every nuance, finds reams of meaning in the most "mindless" routines of family life, from blinking (which families synchronize) to the physiological aura that encompasses a couple before they argue. Bodanis will tell you why in spring men are worse lovers but better at scavenging through the refrigerator; why the pupils of both husband and wife dilate when they see a photo of an attractive member of the opposite sex, but only men's bulge just upon seeing the word "nude." He'll tell you what causes your daughter's acne (approximately half a bucket worth of a "sludgy butterlike sebum" a year), why it does no good to air your dry cleaning. In fact, he'll gleefully tell you a lot more than you probably want to know about your daily life. After reading this book, you may never again want to eat a danish (which contains latex paint) or wake up with a glass of orange juice (which contains varnish solvent and formaldehyde). You may be seized by a desire to replace that ratty scrub pad in the kitchen during one of those nights that you are lying awake thinking about the hundreds of thousands of mites living in the pillow under your head. But you are likely to forget it all sooner or later: As Bodanis would point out, the book contains too much knowledge for your brain to process anyway.

On the subject of money, he has more quirky observations. No wonder, for example, that money is a bigger issue between couples than even what to watch on television: Most can't even agree on whether they keep a budget and who is responsible for it. He also points out, in the following excerpt, why you should be insulted, not just irked, by the junk mail you receive -- it didn't just come to you at random. Junk mail reveals your politics, ethnicity -- and, most irksome, what many families go to so much trouble to hide: your financial status.


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Excerpt from "The Secret Family" by David Bodanis:Junk mail.

The parents groan and turn back to watching the microwave; even the baby, seeing their dismissal, tries to squeak out a matching groan in imitation. But to the ten-year-old boy this isn't junk mail: this is something addressed to the family c/o his dad, and that means them all, which includes him, and -- who knows? -- maybe it's important. The envelope announces a VALUABLE PRIZE to be won, so he and his friend start dragging their graphite-leaking pencils over the forms to fill out. The pencils' wood is liable to be much older than the boys, and probably older even than this house: to make pencils easy to sharpen, it's common to use wood from trees 150 to 200 years old.


The actual text and glossy pictures that fall from the envelope are left behind, ignored by everyone in the family. This is a shame, for the analyses worked out by direct mailers -- the little electronic shadows of corporate information on us -- can be so accurate as to surpass what a couple acknowledges about themselves. In many Protestant families, especially in the South, market analysts found that it's husbands who write the checks or sign the credit forms for buying the family car, despite what the women assert about being involved. The car mailings they receive, accordingly, show the men talking to the car salesman. Jewish couples turn out to be more likely to share car buying, so the car brochures that are mailed to Jewish neighborhoods or families with Jewish-sounding names have a better chance of including a paragraph on what fun it is to visit a showroom together. International variations also exist. In America, women usually purchase kitchen goods, however much their men try to proclaim that they care, they really do, about what goes on in the family kitchen. One big multinational has pictures of women thoughtfully choosing the appliances in the American mailings. But in the Netherlands, where the same brochure is used (with the text translated into Dutch), there are photographs of a man standing pensively before his appliances.
Everyone is analyzed. African-Americans are especially likely to receive letters offering encyclopedias, as from a history of efforts at self-improvement they buy more encyclopedias and educational reference books than virtually anyone else. Hispanics are likely to receive mailings offering patio furniture -- even if they don't have a big yard -- because the mailers know Hispanics feel obligated to spend above their income levels on such family-grouping items, however little they might actually want visits from all those relatives. And Chinese-Americans are unlikely to get insurance mailings mentioning old age and death, but instead they will more often receive solicitations emphasizing how insurance could help the next generation.

Often of course the mailings are misdirected or ignored, which produces an awe-inspiring amount of waste. An estimated half trillion items have been sent out during this century in America alone, with perhaps 500 pieces on average to each family in recent years. A suburb of 10,000 people would attract enough junk mail to build Noah's ark each month if all the paper were converted back into the wood from which it came; an American city of 1 million would attract enough to fill one ark every three days.

Rich people get more junk mail than anyone else, though here regional and ethnic differences break down. The effect is well known. ("You ever been black?" Larry Holmes, the champion boxer, asked. "I was once, when I was poor.") One sign you're at the top is getting packages with pictures of cars that look best with a chbteau beside them, and what's on sale is the chbteau, not the car. Another, and it's good to be prepared for these things, is getting unsolicited furniture promotions through your door that show pieces in forest green or burgundy. For some reason, these are the colors which the richest 3 percent of Americans are judged to select most. Do not, under any circumstances, feel complimented if you start getting furniture offerings in sky blue or grass green. The companies must know something from your financial records that you don't, for those are the colors which only the poorest 10 percent of Americans preferentially buy. And to be honest, if you're getting furniture promotions at all, you're not quite there. One British cabinet minister remarked with disgust upon a particular opponent of his, a mere millionaire, who was so deprived that he actually bought furniture. The slur would be lost on many Americans: a true aristocrat is someone who inherits all he needs.


The mailings can even tell you whether you're going up or down. "First-time buyers of investment devices" are likely to have been tracked by their types of cars or their neighborhood history; you and the other readers of that brochure are probably all going up. A mailing announcing "Consolidate those irksome bills through cash!" is a warning sign that the grass green furniture brochure is coming next.

Introduction by Camille Peri

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