A nation united against telemarketers: Readers respond to Farhad Manjoo's "The Day The Dinnertime Phone Calls Stopped."

By Salon Staff

Published July 18, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

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The notion that the economic activity currently generated by telemarketing will just disappear in a puff of government-regulated smoke is preposterous. If I need to have a crack in my windshield repaired, I'm going to get it repaired whether or not a telemarketer calls to offer me the service. The net impact to the economy is merely the lack of the telemarketing firm's profits.

The loss of telemarketing jobs will hurt, but no more so than the millions of other jobs that have been lost in the last couple of years. If telemarketers go the way of cobblers, haberdashers and tobacco farmers, so be it. At least we'll all dine in peace.

-- Patrick Solomon

I assume all the money generated by phone sales will now just spontaneously combust in the wallets and purses of people all across the nation.

Imagine, all that money just gone, because some phone-monkey can't call me during dinner, or a DVD, or when I've decided to sleep in on my day off.

If the end of telemarketing means the end of civilization as we know it, bring it, to quote our commander in chief, on.

Please tell me where they plan the grave for the telemarketing industry; these shoes need to dance.

-- Sean Hyde-Moyer

I can place a "No Soliciting" or "No Trespassing" sign on my property to avoid door-to-door salespeople. I can turn off the TV (or better yet, use TiVo) to avoid television advertising. And I can play CDs or buy satellite music to avoid radio advertising. Farhad Manjoo seems to think that we have no right to "turn off" obnoxious telephone solicitors.

Perhaps we should all be able to "refer" our calls to the people, like Farhad, who want them. I'm happy to send my calls, my 87-year-old mother's calls, and my airline pilot neighbor's calls (he likes to nap in the daytime so he's ready for late-night departures) to Farhad. I'm sure with a little time, I could come up with hundreds of other referrals, and those wonderful telemarketing jobs can be saved.

-- Monica Harrington

Doubtless quite a bit of revenue would be generated and many more people employed if marketers were allowed to camp under my kitchen window, shouting their inane slogans in at me as I eat my dinner; but I don't want them there, and I don't want them calling me on my private telephone line half-a-dozen times a day as I attempt to get work done, either. So I signed up for the do-not-call list, "under the impression that (I) do not want to buy things over the phone" -- and I wasn't lying, as Farhad Manjoo's exceptionally silly article asserts. I really don't want to buy things over the phone; and when and if I do, I'll call the people I want to buy them from.

As for the remarkable assertion that any attempt to regulate e-commerce would lead to a horrible "hue and cry" -- has Manjoo been paying any attention at all to the analogous controversy over unsolicited e-mail?

-- Bill Anderson

So jobs will be lost if telemarketing lists are severely limited. So what! Not all jobs are worth saving.

I am sure that some people lost their only source of income after the crackdown on window-squeegeeing outside the Lincoln Tunnel. That was harassment, not commerce. So are incessant phone pitches and hang-ups from these "workers" who insist on disturbing the peace at home. Aspire to better things!

-- Kathryn Kuchenbrod

I think Manjoo is perhaps a little out of touch when it comes to the reality of being bombarded night and day by telemarketers. Even with an unpublished number that I give to no one except family and friends, I get a minimum of seven to eight calls a day here at home from someone wanting to sell me something. It's gotten to the point where I won't even answer my phone anymore -- I let the machine do it and pick up if it isn't a marketing call.

At work, with 10 lines in rotation, I'm swamped with telemarketing calls all day long. So basically, all of my waking hours are about fending off unwanted, uninvited and patently invasive calls. It feels more like harassment than it does an annoyance.

This legislation comes as a welcome relief, regardless of the consequences to the telemarketing industry.

Let them find another way to get at my dollars that doesn't involve hounding me 16 hours a day with phone calls. And for the record, I've never in my life bought a single thing as a result of a telemarketing call.

-- Tom Clark

Farhad Manjoo tries hard to whip up sympathy for the telemarketers, but I'm sorry, I just don't feel it. These folks steal our most precious commodity, time, as well as the ease of mind of home life. Those intangibles have value, and if saving home life means higher unemployment, so be it.

-- Marc Valdez

I have only one thing to say to Farhad Manjoo: nice try. Telemarketing is an conscienceless evil that erodes our sense of civil society in favor of the most invasive tactics of the "free market." Regulating telemarketing is less an attempt to "legislate annoyances" (as the telemarketing consultant claims) as it is a bold statement by our polity that certain parts of our publicly stewarded communications infrastructure are off limits to private commercial interests.

-- Paul Agostinelli

For all the boo-hooing I've heard lately about all the telemarketers that will be losing their jobs, I'd like to add that even if the Do Not Call act hadn't been passed, human beings are already being phased out of the industry. I can't even remember the last time I got a call from a real, live telemarketer. Shortly after I finished the article, I received a call (listed as "unavailable" on my caller ID box, of course) from a recorded voice pitching a trip to Disney World. Eventually, I suspect that most of those struggling single moms and physically disabled folks would have been replaced by machines, and I for one am very happy that as of Oct. 1, I'll be able to prevent them from calling me.

-- Sue Trowbridge

While I appreciate Farhad Manjoo's balanced assessment of the effect of the Do Not Call List on the telemarketing industry, it hasn't caused me to have any second thoughts about my decision to register for the list the minute I knew it was active. I regret that many jobs will be lost, but what industry in this country has ever been given a guarantee that it will thrive, or even survive?

I know this: Telemarketing costs me money. Why? The sole reason I added Caller ID to my phone service was to screen out calls from telemarketers. I certainly do not expect the government to "take care of all life's little annoyances." When a polite but firm "not interested" is regularly ignored, I feel I do have the right to protect my privacy. In my experience there were few telemarketers who would respect my wishes and promptly end the call. How is it that "no thanks" does not mean "no thanks" in this setting?

I believe this issue serves to highlight the unsustainability of an almost purely consumer driven economy. So many of us are reliant upon jobs that force us to prey on each other. (I work at a company that relies on the advertising industry for about two-thirds of its business.) Obviously, I'm not against sales or advertising but I want to choose when I'll exercise my freedom to watch, read or listen. I would not walk into a car dealership and expect to have an afternoon free of sales pitches. But when I enter my own home, I have every right to expect that my time there should be free of unwanted phone calls from salespeople.

-- Maria Tauro

It's always good to be the devil's advocate and test the conventional wisdom, and Farhad Manjoo does so eloquently and fairly. But I reject several premises in his defense of telemarketers.

He says that millions of dollars in services that are contracted over the phone will not happen because of the new national Do Not Call List, further damaging the national economy. There is no reason to think that a person who ceases to conduct business with telemarketers won't simply spend more money elsewhere, such as a retail store.

Secondly, the suggestion -- touted by the telehucksters of course -- that people who put themselves on the list really do want to be called and just don't know it is, frankly, condescending, if not ludicrous. What makes the law so great is that it invites consumer choice. Few will put themselves on a list out of some crazy whim -- certainly not millions of people.

Sure the telemarketers have been demonized, so has the tobacco industry. But that is largely their own doing. In both cases, in the name of profits they pushed ethical boundaries so far that they created a giant backlash. And now they're are suffering dearly for it. Karma's a bitch.

-- M. Tye Wolfe

Yes, some people adding their names to the Do Not Call list have purchased from telemarketers in the past. I am one. You know what? We were hustled. We were caught off-guard while in our pajamas at home by sleazy salesmen. And we didn't feel good about the purchase afterward, no matter how good a deal we got.

-- Christopher Taylor

What a load of crap. Most of these telemarketing calls are designed to trick people into buying something. They'll tell you you're getting something free, or some unbelievable deal, messages particularly alluring to the poor and aged. The argument that the Americans really want this stuff, that they are voting with their pocketbooks, ignores this predatory aspect of the business.

The argument that telemarketers are providing valuable employment opportunities to hard-to-employ workers is similarly disingenuous. The telemarketing industry exploits these people with low wages, few benefits and abysmal working conditions. The turnover rate in the industry reflects this, and suggest that if there truly is unmet consumer demand being served by these people, the workers would benefit by being shifted to more conventional types of retailing.

The bottom line is, telemarketing is invasive, exploitive, and violates the one of the primary rights of this democracy -- the right to privacy.

-- Michael Hardt

I'm sorry, I just don't buy it. In my view, the telemarketing industry dug its own grave. While there was a time when telemarketers were merely annoying, that time has long passed. If they had shown even the littlest sign of self-restraint, they could perhaps have avoided this disaster. But through the aggressive use of predictive dialers, tape-recorded sales pitches, and their hiding from caller ID, they placed on display their utter contempt for the public they claim to serve -- it became impossible in most cases to even ask them to stop calling.

The argument that people want this because they keep buying stuff this way is as insulting as it is disingenuous. They know full well that they are taking advantage of people who are simply not very good at saying no. Putting aside the genuine fraud that goes on, I speculate that for every long-distance customer who gets a better deal this way, there must be a dozen people who were suckered into spending money they couldn't afford to lose on worthless crap that they didn't need. This country is drowning in credit card debt -- what percentage of that debt is incurred as a result of telemarketers hard-selling people into buying something they would otherwise have never even considered? And how much of people's credit is fueled by telemarketers pushing credit cards on people who don't really need and/or can't really afford them? And why, exactly, is this good for the economy? Are the jobs of the 4 million-strong telemarketing army really so important that the weak-willed among us need to be shorn for their salaries? (And what proportion of telemarketing revenues go to those call-center drones anyway?) Is this really a better way to keep those people afloat than taxing everyone to fund their welfare checks?

Before I signed up for call intercept, my phone routinely rang from six to 12 times per day, the vast majority of which were from predictive dialers and carried no caller ID. In fact, it became clear that almost the only calls I received without caller ID were from telemarketers, so I stopped answering such calls -- if it was important, I figured, they could leave a message. But it was still highly disruptive, especially to my daughter, who is home-schooled. Call intercept -- which intercepts calls without caller ID and forces them to identify themselves before my phone rings -- has resulted in blissful silence most of the day, while still allowing through calls from people we want to hear from. There are a few telemarketers that do have caller ID, and in general they almost never use predictive dialers so there's someone on the other line we can tell not to call us anymore. And there are a few callers -- usually at under-funded government agencies -- who don't present caller ID and thus have more trouble than usual getting through to us. But on the whole it has given us back a significant portions of our lives that had for some time been lost. I hope the new do-not-call registry will begin to do the same for those for whom call intercept is not an option.

-- Bob Drzyzgula

The difference between telemarketing and other forms of marketing is whether or not you choose to accept the intrusion. If I turn on the TV or go to a Web site and see a commercial, it was ultimately my choice to bring that into my living room. But until now, I have had no control over whether a telemarketing solicitation occurs. To make matters worse, I have even received calls on my cellphone -- calls that cost me money.

The "everyone needs a living" line has been used to justify every industry out there, including whaling, weapons production and drug dealing. The real issues plaguing telemarketing workers are the unemployment rate, the cost of basic housing and transportation, and the lack of universal healthcare in America, all of which conspire to make it difficult to earn a living on an entry-level salary, assuming one can even find such work.

Last week, not only did I sign myself up on the national do not call list, I signed up my parents. After 13 weeks in the hospital, my father can barely get out of bed. My mother, recently diagnosed with heart disease and emphysema, can barely make it up the stairs. Is someone's worst nightmare that these intelligent people don't have to squander their limited energies dealing with a completely unnecessary phone call? Too bad.

-- Sally Hawkridge

As I read this article I found myself feeling very much as if I were being sold something over the phone. I was told that I really did want telemarketers calling my house. I was given guilt trips by saying I wanted to destroy the economy and raise the already pathetic unemployment (as if that is my fault), and somehow I got to the pitch and here I am saying NO!

The truth is that telemarketing has brought this on itself 100 percent and while I pity the working mothers and students who are losing their jobs, the blame falls squarely on those short-sighted, greed-driven, callous pendejos who made those executive decisions to drive their employees to be so manipulative and relentless on the phones and who implemented such invasive technology to shove their product in our faces. (Good or bad product ... it is irrelevant.)

They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The politicians who enacted the bill are just poor dopes who got scared enough (for once) of losing their jobs that they disobeyed their corporate masters.

I say "bully" to that vast majority of 60,000,000 citizens who took action against the telemarketers.

Let it be a lesson to all corporations (RIAA especially). If you try to ram a bad sales model down the mouth of Americans you may just lose your hand.

-- Jim Young

The most basic fact about the do not call list is it will have no real impact. I get 20 calls a day at home, minimum, and they all start "this is not a sales call." Why? So they don't have to check whether I am on the do not call list. Whether this affords them real protection, given that they are all trying to sell me something, I do not know. But I know how to bet.

-- David Stewart Zink

Computerized dialing multiplied telemarketing calls by an order of magnitude, and telemarketing firms were eager to take advantage of whatever additional revenue the increased call volume could provide. A few telemarketing calls per month vs. a few per night? They have no one to blame but themselves for crossing our pain threshold.

-- Brian Neuhauser

The telemarketing industry is based on a false economy. It preys on the weak-willed and the elderly with convoluted scripts designed to illicit a certain response rather than engaging the customer as a potential customer. It claims to give life-supporting jobs to all manner of down-on-their-luck types without mentioning that their job is to sell to those who don't want to be sold to in a way that is very misleading. Leads are so few and far between that making one purchase over the phone is guaranteed to increase your daily volume of telemarketing calls by more than twofold. Asking to be removed from a database can take weeks.

What the national do not call list has done is to eliminate those that do not want to be sold to over the phone from the databases of those selling. And contrary to the article, I will submit that people know exactly how they like to be approached with a sales pitch, and nobody will admit that telemarketing is one of those ways. This will mean layoffs, but it should make the telemarketing industry more lean and should have the effect of raising their success rate. It empowers the consumer to have some control over their own contact information and how it's used and it eliminates the false economy that the telemarketing industry has founded itself upon. What's so wrong with that?

-- Ben Snyder

What Farhad Manjoo conveniently omits is any mention of the fact that many people who buy products over the phone do so because they are susceptible to aggressive sales tactics and not because they actually want the products they buy. This kind of pressure can be deliberate and predatory on the part of the telemarketer, or it can be an unintended consequence of the mixture of pushy sales pitch and flustered consumer, but either way it leads to ill-advised purchases made by people who can't afford them.

This country survived the death of door-to-door salesmen and it will survive the death of telemarketing. No one seems too upset about the "No Soliciting" sign I have on my front door, and I see the do-not-call list as the same thing: I'm merely asserting my right not to be bothered in my own home. An industry seemingly designed to circumvent my "No Soliciting" sign denies me my chosen lifestyle: one in which the phone almost never rings.

Now if only the politicians can surrender their claim to my phone line, I can spend all of my evenings in peace.

-- Tom Beverly

Realistically speaking, the Do Not Call list is not all that likely to have a significant impact on the industry. The success rate of telemarketing is below 10 percent at best. How likely is it that the 10 percent who are likely to respond positively to a telemarketing call are going to sign up for the DNC list? People who sign up for it are people who aren't going to be customers anyway. Frankly, it will probably make the industry more efficient, as they won't waste time calling people who are actively hostile to telemarketing.

-- Matt Yarbrough

So receiving a telemarketers call is no more annoying than TV ads, pamphleteers, or religious nuts at the airport? Does someone handing me a takeout menu demand I stop on the sidewalk till I've heard the first sentences of his pitch? If a Hare Krishna called out your name, approached you, stood there in silence for a few seconds before walking away, would it not make you feel uncomfortable not to mention unwelcome? Do many Americans purchase the products telemarketers pitch? Obviously, because if they didn't there wouldn't be a telemarketing industry. But what does that have to do with a solitary citizen who doesn't want his/her day constantly interrupted with high-pressure sales pitches. And as for the jobs this industry creates, most of a paycheck is made up of commissions. I've never heard such an impassioned defense of white-collar sweatshops.

-- Kenichi Serino

Interesting article. I really do feel sorry for anyone who will lose a job over this. But no-call lists aren't about protecting the sanctity of our phones but about protecting the sanctity of our homes. I can't imagine many people would feel kindly to others who were allowed to walk into our living rooms and try to sell us something. We wouldn't put up with salespeople interrupting our dinner at a restaurant. If a company was allowed to send someone to knock on our door and come back and knock again and again if we refused to answer, we could probably call the police. Why should it be any different because all of this is done via phone instead of in person? It's still just as disruptive.

I shouldn't have to put my 4-month-old down for a nap just to have her wake to the phone two minutes later and I shouldn't have to miss important phone calls by turning off the phone to get her to sleep. I shouldn't have to miss that phone call, either, if my schedule happens to require me to sleep during the legal telemarketing hours because I work nights.

I do agree, however, that it's pretty hypocritical for politicians and pollsters not to be required to use the lists. But at least they have to take you off their own lists when you ask them.

-- Suzanne Lander

Telemarketing calls are more than an annoyance and a waste of time. I can't tell you how many times my attention was diverted from my children when they were infants or very young. Food might burn on the stove, my little boy might climb up something and fall, my daughter tear across the tile floor in slippery leotards.

These phone calls are a genuine safety hazard and an unreasonable invasion of privacy. We have noise ordinances to preserve the peace and maintain our quality of life. The do-not-call list is nothing different. For the most part, telemarketers are pushing useless and unneeded items of poor value, or preying on consumers who were vulnerable to making lousy choices.

When marketers are forced to choose marketing methods that aren't as cheap and easy, they will target their markets more discriminately and ultimately reach just as many consumers. Just as much money will be made in marketing -- probably providing more jobs in the process -- and consumers will end up spending this nation's resources on products of higher value and quality. And when I pick up the phone it'll probably be one of the nonprofits we support, which will probably be inconvenient, but at least will be making the world a better place to live in.

"Good riddance" to telemarketers and "thank you" to lawmakers. This legislation was long overdue.

-- Michael Ransom

I hadn't considered the plight of the industry front lines until now, and I have to say I do feel something for the employees of the industry. Just like I do for a lot of airline employees, ex-Enron grunts, and every downsized IT lifer. I sure wish there was something I could do.

And in the end, it's the same story: the joes and janes at the bottom pay for the idiocy and greed of the owners. If the business had even an inkling of what was going on, if they'd thought of the customers as customers instead of a strip mine, maybe the anger wouldn't have gone this far.

They don't like being called at dinnertime -- maybe we can shift the times a little. They don't like the long wait while we find a free rep -- maybe we can make fewer automatic calls so we'll always have a sales rep ready and waiting, or at least more often. Maybe we can shift our sales pitch so it's not quite so annoying and shallow. Maybe we could spend a little money to see how we might at least look like we're trying to better our image. Ya think?

Pause. Nah. Full speed ahead till we hit the rocks. Oh, who could have foreseen this devastating turn of events?

It's not the employees who screwed up, it's the owners. The employees are paying for it, but then that's the way it's been going for years. And I don't think it's the last time we'll see it happen this decade. Maybe I'll be next. Makes it a little tough to worry about everybody else.

-- Dan Cash

I have zero sympathy for telemarketing company executives. They have only themselves to blame. If they had not abused the public so egregiously, there would be no state and national "do not call" lists. Americans grumbled about telemarketing but tolerated it as long as it remained a low-level annoyance. But when technology caused an explosion in telemarketing calls, public frustration rose to the point where legislatures felt compelled to act despite the bribes ... er, campaign contributions from telemarketing trade associations.

I do feel sorry for the employees of telemarketing companies who may be laid off when the "do not call" lists go into effect. They are just ordinary people trying to make a living. But instead of blaming the public for being fed up with telemarketing, they should blame the CEOs of telemarketing companies for killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

I don't think the national "do not call" list spells the end of telemarketing, though. Those who do not register will still be telemarket-able. And with commercial telemarketing much reduced, charities, pollsters and politicians are going to expand their telemarketing to fill the vacuum. I'm registered on both the Direct Marketing Association and Pennsylvania state "do not call" lists, so I happily get almost no commercial telemarketing calls. But I have been getting more calls from charities, arts organizations, surveys and politicians recently. A sign of things to come?

-- Nancy Ott

I'm glad someone took a look at the flip side of the do-not-call list. And while I do dislike those irritating phone calls, I'm not sure the cost of the list to the telemarketing workers is really worth it. Thanks to Mr. Manjoo for bringing out this information. I know when my caller ID says "out of area" that whoever's on the line is not really a friend, so I can choose not to answer it.

I do think Mr. Manjoo should be careful about his use of the first person plural pronoun. Not all of us would be lying when we say we really don't want products pitched to us in our homes. Believe it or not, there are people in this country who have never -- never -- purchased products or services from telemarketers.

-- Gil Gallagher

Those telemarketing flacks raising the specter of mass unemployment are being disingenuous.

It is a matter of time before the telemarketing jobs all go overseas, on the heels of those toll-free number call center jobs that are now so often handled in India and Ireland.

-- Michael Glass

I just want to say thank you to Farhad Manjoo for pointing out some of the downsides to the recent implementation of the national do not call list. I live in Omaha, Neb., and telemarketing is huge here. Telemarketing is crutch employment for college students, people who have been laid off, single mothers, and a host of others. It is possibly the only industry in America that will literally hire just about anyone. College grads who are "overqualified" for other jobs and high school students who are generally "underqualified." Yes, they can be annoying, and yes, they always seem to call at just the wrong time. Americans should have asked themselves if they would rather be disturbed during supper or see an increase on the welfare rolls and unemployment lines. I guess we made our choice and know we will have to deal with the fallout.

-- Lachelle Rankins

I've had a woman ask me "How are you today?" six hours after my dog died. I told her, at length, and didn't let her get a word in edgewise until she understood she should not ask such questions unless she wanted to get an answer. I receive daily calls from people trying to refinance my mortgage, despite the fact that I do not own a home. Likewise people trying to sell me windows for nonexistent houses or investment tips for stocks I don't have. And none of this compares to a friend of mine who received a phone offer for free cigarettes the day after his father -- a lifetime customer -- died of lung cancer.

The occasional thing I might want to hear about, such as the new season at the theater or opera, becomes so lost in the din that it's a small price to pay to not hear any of it.

If my kitchen were swarming with mosquitoes and wasps, I'd whip out the bug spray and not worry about offing the occasional ladybug. Same thing with the telemarketers, and if the new legislation solves all my bug woes save politicians, at least that's better than what we have now. Besides which, politicians tend to be a seasonal infestation anyway, like locusts, not a year-round pest.

-- Kevin Andrew Murphy

Mr. Manjoo's analysis is deeply flawed. Catholic priests and airlines do not have an image problem because of what they do legitimately. If priests only said Mass and consoled the faithful, they would have no image problem. If airlines only transported people around the country, they would have no image problem. It is when they fail in or deviate from their missions that they have an image problem.

In contrast, telemarketers create a bad image when they do precisely what they intend to do -- sell junk.

The do-not-call list is one of the few times in recent years the government has actually done something most people want. Congress certainly has the power to regulate this interstate commerce. The people, through Congress, have decided they do not want this interstate commerce.

-- Steven Appelget

Salon Staff

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