Snake oil salesmen ruin it for everyone

Audrey Down is a political scientist and a freelance business writer in Toronto.P.T. Barnum died more than 100 years ago, yet one segment of the marketing fraternity remains devoted to his sales philosophy that 'there is a sucker born every minute.'Sales...

Audrey Down is a political scientist and a freelance business writer in Toronto.

P.T. Barnum died more than 100 years ago, yet one segment of the marketing fraternity remains devoted to his sales philosophy that ‘there is a sucker born every minute.’

Sales strategists

I suppose the only thing new is that hustlers are now known as sales strategists.

Whatever they are called, these perfidious pedlars are a problem for the greater marketing fraternity because they breed scepticism among consumers.

They leave the impression salespeople are liars and caveat emptor should rule every transaction.

Let me tell how I lost my innocence when I returned to Canada after 17 years living in Australia.

Sydney, a city of nearly four million people, has its hustlers, but they could take lessons from those in Toronto.

Before I could memorize my new address, the house was under seige.

Encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner salespeople, remnants of a bygone era, arrived on the doorstep.

No encyclopedia salesperson sent the ‘free gift’ promised whether I bought. One vacuum cleaner salesman snatched back his ‘gift’ of three household sponges when I did not buy, freely admitting he needed them to con his way into the next house.

‘Amazing offers’

The postperson grew bowlegged delivered ‘amazing offers.’

Among them were courses in creating miracles, llama-trekking in the Himalayas, and how to set up an escort service.

Mail order catalogue offers ranged from an ‘air scrubber with no moving parts,’ to a ‘revolutionary discovery to avoid ingrown toenails.’

I worried about the rotary nose-clipper for $5.95. It seemed a dangerous alternative to the plastic surgeon. Turned out to be for cutting hair inside nostrils or ears. Just insert, and clip away.

Then came the Lucky Barbells, a scratch-and-win card.

All three squares came up matching, so I had won a year’s membership in a health club nearby, plus a ‘Caribbean Cruise and a holiday on an island.’

Couldn’t afford my win

I only had to pay a service charge of $9 a week for 52 weeks and my plane fare to Florida. The holiday was really an eight-hour boat ride to Freeport and three nights in a fleabag hotel. I couldn’t afford my win.

Telemarketers ringing constantly to sell subscriptions or travel to faraway places were bad enough. Then, the worst happened.

A robot tried to sell me something.

I don’t know what it was because as soon as I heard two four-letter words, I slammed the receiver down. The suggestion was that if I performed certain acts, I would get a ‘free gift.’

I knew the acts would be the same ones I had been asked to perform non-stop since I got here: ‘Buy this,’ ‘Buy that,’ ‘Buy the other.’

The tautology has special meaning: if someone bestows a gift on you, it is free, but if someone offers you a ‘free gift,’ it will cost you money.

Gullibility and greed were plumbed to depths I didn’t know I had when the cheques came rolling in.

The first, made out in my name, came with a letter that began, ‘This is your $5,000 cheque guarantee Audrey Down. Please refer to claim #HAL160857.’

Still good odds

Pretty definite. Except for a further statement: ‘One of the lucky people listed below has won.’ My name was there between two others. One out of three was still pretty good odds.

Further down, I learned that Irene Hyson, whose name was above mine, won last year. Uh-oh. Now the odds were wide open.

Finally, the truth was there to decipher: ‘Return the pre-selected winning claim number…and you’ll be $5,000 richer.’

The key was ‘pre-selected.’ The winner was chosen. All I had to do was sign up to buy ‘test merchandise’ and find out who.

Greed glands blew up with the notification in big print: ‘Audrey Down has just been confirmed as the winner of $10 million.’

Small print

At the top in small print, it said: ‘If you return the winning number by Oct. 18, we will release the following statement: (Which was, ‘Audrey Down has justÉ’)

The mock cheque for $10 million was meant to dazzle any doubts away so I would sign up to buy the goodies on offer.

Many people probably regard these carefully worded deceptions as a minor hazard of living, the apple offered by a jaded serpent in hustler’s paradise – after first being bitten a few times.

If so, their buyers’ resistance has been raised. This boosts selling costs.

Advertising, designed to overcome resistance, is governed by rules of accuracy, so why not selling?