Wednesday, 11 January 2012

We Would Like To Complain That You Are Insufficiently Consumerist

I am used to advertising coming at me absolutely every way it possibly can.  Of course there are the old fashioned methods such as posters, newspaper and magazine advertisements, radio and television commercials that have been around for decades and longer.  I would imagine that more content on the internet and certainly the bulk of email traffic is actually trying to sell you something quite often spurious products connected to sexual performance that the vast bulk of users do not even want advertised to them let alone to buy.  It almost seems that advertising has become a kind of end in itself rather than a way to increase sales of a company's particular product.  The fact that there are awards for television commercials and I assume hidden within the industries themselves for all other kinds of advertising suggests that they have gone beyond simply being a tool to having become a form of art.

Keen-eyed readers or those listening very astutely to their screen reader will notice I have, as yet, not mentioned telephone advertising.  Of course, you can now sign up to a service that removes you from the lists of permissible numbers to call.  This saved us a lot of time and effort in our house, not only from calls from people but also from calls from machinery.  It seemed particularly invidious that the company could not even bother to employ a person to bother us and left it to a machine; even the ten-year old boy who lives in my house, younger then, knew immediately when he answered the phone if it was about to play out some recorded message and would slam the receiver down with a curse.  He was well trained in this as some scammers played on children answering phones to get them to call back premium lines.  Perhaps a child should not answer a telephone but given he moved much faster than the other residents of the house and could get down the stairs fast enough to reach the phone before it rang off and without injuring himself as I tended to do, it was often down to him to answer it, especially as the answering service supposedly provided by BT proved so unreliable.

On mobile phones it is even worse because phones have two ways of getting messages to you, either by calling you up or texting you.  I have owned a mobile phone since 1999 when one I was incredibly lucky to have one given to me as a present as I was living at the time in a house without a landline.  It cost the phenomenal sum of £199 (equivalent to about £296 at today's values).  I have only owned three handsets.  One I left in a taxi and one broke down.  From the initial gift I have stayed with O2 (or BT Wireless as it was up until 2001) and so have simply had the handset replaced.  Currently I do not have a smartphone so I imagine I am missing out on third and fourth ways to advertise to me through my phone, i.e. by sending me the equivalent of television and internet advertisements to me over it.  If I want to take photographs I use a camera; if I want to surf the internet, I use a computer.  I have no desire to use a second rate device as phones tend to still be in these respects to do those activities.  I realise that makes me an eccentric.  Typically I immediately delete any advertising texts but one company I cannot stop advertising to me directly is O2 itself.  I suppose as my long-time provider they have a right to contact me.  However, what alarms me about their advertising, as the title of this posting suggests, is not that they try to sell me things but they go further and try to tell me how to live my life.

It is a recognised advertising technique that you encourage potential customers to feel they are buying into a certain lifestyle or even into a kind of elite through purchasing their products.  Companies develop sub-brands to appeal to different sectors of their customer base separating them out by age or income, always by gender and sometimes by location.  Advertising often sells a story, that if you have the item somehow you will be a different person.  This is semi-spoofed/semi-replicated in the long-running campaign for Lynx deodorant and shower gel (interestingly the product is called Axe in continental Europe) which suggests one spray or dollop will make a man irresistable to women.  In fact, buying a handbag will not make you any more popular or beautiful or successful, despite the advertising.  It may signal to other people that you are of a certain wealth or taste and that may, in some rare circumstances, open up some social contact that you might not have previous garnered.  The main benefit is that it makes you feel a part of a set of people that you want to associate with, even if the feeling is not mutual or at least to show you share common taste/attitudes/aspirations with those people.

Some advertising goes beyond the change being brought about by purchasing the product to saying that some people do not deserve the product unless they already lead a certain lifestyle.  There are a couple of memorable ones of this style.  One was the 2009 campaign from Phones 4 U which only offered particular deals to people who had 50 friends or more, see:  There was another one which I think was for Audi cars, but I might be mistaken as this was probably a decade ago.  It showed a flash, brash stock broker type taking a test drive and then turning down the car saying it was not the car for him and the salesman agreeing, implying it was for customers with far greater taste.  I feel I am facing the same kind of pressure from O2.

Just after Christmas I was telephoned by O2 to ask if I was happy with the service they provided.  I said I was.  However, that was not enough for them.  They asked me why I was not using my phone more than I did.  The man on the other end of the line said 'I can't believe you're not using the 10% discounts' and then asked me why I did not want additional texts or calls or a whole string of offers that they regularly text and also email me about.  I then had to spend five minutes telling him that generally my phone is either switched off or without charge in it.  I probably receive one to two calls per month on it and make even fewer.  I probably send one text per month to my mother, one to the woman who lives in my house and one to my landlord generally when he has offered to cook me a curry.  Thus, if I was suddenly offered 100 free texts it would most likely take me until 2015 to use them all.  A lot of the calls and texts I receive are advertising.  I do not have an active social life and have lost contact with almost all of the friends I had ten years ago.  The ones I have prefer to email or even send postcards.  I had to keep repeatedly saying that my mobile phone was far more a safety device for when my car breaks down or to confirm with my mother or my co-resident that I have arrived safely.  Last time my car broke down the charge in my mobile was exhausted and I was compelled to use a phone box, something I have not done in probably a decade and was alarmed to find how much it cost.

What irritated me was that not only did I have to keep repeating myself, even though O2 knows how much I use my telephone from how much credit I put into it around £30 every 4-5 months.  I was resentful that they were trying to get me to live some kind of different life in which I have many more friends and I call them regularly rather than struggling home exhausted to spend the weekend on domestic chores and sleeping.  I half expected the caller to say I no longer deserved the phone I had because I was not living the appropriate life that their customers are supposed to have.  I felt that I had to fight for the right to live the dull life that I have been dealt.  Imagine the impact of such targeted advertising on someone like a teenager far less confident of their lifestyle or unable to see that actually in the UK in 2012 we have very little control over our lives.  The woman who lives in my house who lives pretty much the same sort of life as me though she runs a company and has local friends, was similarly called by her provider and questioned about using her phone more.  I guess the fact as an entrepreneur and yet has little need of the phone in this age of email and Skype, in order to do business may suggest why the companies are so tenacious and have no embarrassment in trying to press us to live what they feel is an expected lifestyle. 

I am reminded a little of an episode of 'Doctor Who' in an alternate version of 2000s Britain in which everyone wears blue tooth kinds of ear pieces and consequently become programmed to behave in much the same way as their fellow citizens and are steadily being turned into cyber(wo)men.  A mobile phone is useful, but I feel no compunction to live the way the company that provides it expects.  I could not do so without a sudden injection of lots of friends.  I do feel that I should not be rung up at regular intervals and have to defend my lifestyle choices so vigorously.  I guess this is another element of the shift in service provision that I have noticed.  It is no longer the case that 'the customer is always right' now it is clearly, 'the company is always right' in how they take and hold your money and how they tell you that you should be living your life.  Hands off my personality!

No comments: