For Sale

Carolyn Roberts

I was in a shop last week looking for a sympathy card for my dad’s friend, whose wife had passed away. As I browsed, I thought about her and how she used to let me run around her garden when I was little, many years ago. I smiled at the memory, and thought about the gap she has left in her family’s lives.

Suddenly, a skinny man with yellowish skin appeared at my side. “‘Scuse me, can I ask you how much your phone bill is?”, he asked chirpily.

My train of thought skipped slightly before juddering to a halt. I didn’t bother asking why he imagined that it was okay to quiz me about my finances in a public place. I knew it wouldn’t get me anywhere. The man danced about by my side for several minutes, repeating his questions and ignoring my polite statements that I wasn’t interested. Eventually I walked away, my moment of peaceful reflection utterly disrupted by an advertising onslaught I hadn’t been ready for.

Advertising is, of course, necessary. People who run businesses need to tell potential customers about their services. Advertising money supports newspapers, magazines and websites which wouldn’t otherwise survive. So I don’t mind seeing adverts in print or down the side of a web page. But I object to marketers’ constant attempts to tweeze details of their products into every fold of my life.

Organisations now recruit people they think are cool to talk up their products to their pals. (Presumably a marketers’ definition of “cool” is, “Craven greedy lying toad who’s about to lose all their friends when they get found out”.) Although when you think about it, people tend to be friends with like-minded people, so maybe all their mates are doing the same thing. Perhaps there are entire social circles of covert commercialists, whose conversations consist entirely of product endorsements. It must be like living in a Bond movie. Thank goodness I’m not cool enough to know any of these people.

Marketing becomes more aggressive as the volume of competitors increases. My town’s main street is always dotted with people wielding clipboards and brandishing branded brollies, trying to ensnare me. Sometimes I feel like Batfink as I dodge and dart between them, deflecting their verbal bullets with my trusty shield of not-interestedness.

I can’t avoid all adverts though. Sometimes I do need something from a company, and they will inevitably take the opportunity to get more from me than I want to give. I recently phoned an estate agent because I was interested in a flat they were selling. The conversation went thus:

Me: “Hi, I’d like to view one of your properties please”.

Estate agent: “Would you like us to come round and value your current property?”

Me: “No thanks.”

Estate agent: “Would you like to make an appointment to see our financial advisor?”

Me” “No thanks, I’d just like to view the flat.”

Estate agent: “Okay, I’ll just sort that out for you.” (Pause.) “Would you like me to add you to our mailing list?”

I hate this. I switched from a high street to an online bank because I was so fed up with being interrogated about my personal finances by an insouciant teenager every time I entered my branch. But it is now the norm to use every human contact as an opportunity to sell. The notion of private space is becoming obsolete as advertisers constantly find new methods of burrowing, insect-like, into our minds. Ad agencies’ open plan offices are stuffed with earnest graduates, furrowing their brows as they come up with new ways to reach people. There are few surfaces that haven’t at some point had a slogan slapped on them. From eggs to the night sky, marketers use every medium they can think of in their permanent quest to get more of our cash. Sometimes their attempts to get attention backfire. Like those dynamic web adverts that hover directly over the text you’re trying to read. Dear Mr Advertiser: this does not make me want to buy your product. It makes me want to smack you firmly round the head.

Here in the UK, there are preference services where you can register phone numbers and addresses. Advertisers are then not allowed to contact you, on pain of a very big fine. But why is the onus on us to opt out? Why can’t the advertising industry create a giant opt-in database for anyone who enjoys adverts? We could have appropriate lists for different types of marketing - like the “Please Knock On My Door When I’m Trying to Work” preference list and the “I’d Like You to Call my Mobile When I’m Mid-Snog On A Hot Date” list. For those cool people who are paid to verbally spam their friends, there could be a ”Feel Free To Punctuate Every Sentence With a Sales Pitch” list. It would be fairer, and those of us who still value peace and privacy could be left alone.

I wonder why no advertiser has thought of this?