During the darkest days of the 1970s
recession, I was a college student desperate to find a summer
job. I answered an ad that seemed to be looking for sales
staff for water filtering systems. What I actually found
was a fraudulent operation.
We were required to get a week of
"training" before being turned loose on our friends and
neighbours. Perhaps half of the training consisted in
learning to operate a demonstration set, and mastering the patter
of the sales script. The script involved alarming people
about the amount of chlorine in their tap water by the use of
testing chemicals, familiar to anyone who has worked on a
swimming pool, that turned the water an unsightly yellow in the
presence of chlorine. We were expected to talk up the
chlorine revealed by this method as an impurity and a health
menace. This didn't work well on the local well water,
which had very slight levels of chlorine, not enough to reliably
change the colour of the water. Our water was probably more
menacingly impure than the water that made the tests work well,
but this was the script we were given.
This part of the
training, though deceptive and manipulative, at least had to do
with the product we were supposed to be trying to sell.
The rest of the training concerned absurd motivational tapes that
we were made to listen to. The entire operation was
saturated with this version of the "positive thinking" theology.
When we called back to the office after a sales call, they would
ask us how we had done. We would say we were doing
"fantastic" if no one bought it, and "super-fantastic" if we had
suc cess fully found a mark.
The most obnoxious part of the programme had to do with the
unpaid labour the scam operators reaped. We were expected
to round up ten of our friends or acquaintances and test the
spiel on them first before we could actually join the operation
and draw a paycheque. This requirement of unpaid labour as
a precondition, together with the obnoxious motivational tapes,
caused severe attrition among the applicants. Of around
fifteen applicants who showed up at the first session, only two
stuck around to something close to the finish. It seemed
obvious that nobody was ever actually going to get a paycheque,
that the "job offer" was in fact a way to recruit marks who would
try and peddle the filters to their neighbours for nothing.
I concluded that these people were running a con job and quit.
The U.S. Federal
Trade Commission urges consumers to always be sceptical
whenever they get a "cold call" from a salesperson. This
is unusual, if only because the U.S. government is, of course,
notoriously "pro-capitalist" as a matter of policy. But
sales proposed by cold calls are even now recognised by the U.S.
government as posing particular problems. It is recognised
that cold-call salespeople often sell overpriced, perhaps even
deceptive goods and services.
But why does this method
of selling raise these issues? To grasp the moral problems
raised by these techniques is to start down the path of a general
critique of the moral problems of capitalism itself.
The Golden Rule
This is a no-brainer. The Golden
Rule, often cited as "Do unto others as you would have others
do unto you" is a moral precept adopted by all of the world's
major religions. It is fundamental to Immanuel Kant's
Every sales cold call breaks the Golden Rule, period. A
person who occupies someone else's time for the purpose of
pitching a product is not treating their time and privacy with
the same respect he would have for himself.
The Salesman as Social Pirate
The fact that a cold caller is obliged to daily break the Golden
Rule underlines the fact that cold-call operations prey on human
social conventions. They take ordinary human decency into
account by imposing on people to deliver pitches. Their
collective activity imposes costs on that decency.
If all the e-mail you ever got was spam, you'd never read
it. If every time the phone rang, it was somebody pitching
insurance, lawn care, or subscriptions, you'd never answer the
phone. If everybody who ever knocked on your door wanted
to hustle a donation or sell you soap or Mormonism, you'd keep a
shotgun handy. You only read your email, answer the phone,
or open the door because of the chance that it's somebody you
want to talk to, not a cold-caller.
Cold-callers, therefore, are social pirates, preying on the
social conventions that make human intercourse possible, turning
them into opportunities to hustle their marks. They can
only exist to the extent that they do not overwhelm the
legitimate human contacts and make too many people close off that
Spam is starting to swamp email and seriously burden the
usefulness of the email network. Cold calling has
seriously undermined the usefulness of the land-line voice
telephone system. People pay extra for answering machines
and Caller ID services to defend themselves against the
cold-callers subverting voice telephony. Or they simply
use their cellular phones and ditch their land-line phones, a
waste of valuable electromagnetic spectrum. In either
case, the social costs of cold-calling goes beyond fraying the
social fabric of human courtesy: they cost you real money, just
by doing their "jobs."
Just Price and the Cold-Call Operation
The current notion that prices in a "marketplace" are set by
processes free from moral implication is a recent and deleterious
innovation. St. Thomas Aquinas would have none of it.
Aquinas specifically condemned the notion that it was morally
permissible to sell something for a higher price because the
buyer urgently needed it and would be willing to pay extra to
have it now. To charge extra in this situation was a sort
of theft in Aquinas's eyes:
Si aliquis multum juvetur ex re alterius quam accepit, ille vero
qui vendidit non damnificetur carendo re illa, non debet eam
supervendere; quia utilitas, quæ alteri accrescit, non est
ex vendente, sed ex conditione ementis: nullus autem debet
vendere quod suum non est.
[If someone would be greatly helped by something belonging to
someone else, and the seller not similarly harmed by losing it,
the seller must not sell for a higher price: because the
usefulness that goes to the buyer comes not from the seller, but
from the buyer's needy condition: no one ought to sell something
that doesn't belong to him.]
Moralis 2-2, q. 77, art. 1.
These traditional moral
principles are, of course, lost on U.S. conservatives. The
art of salesmanship is specifically that: it seeks to create
artificial needs, and to manipulate people into a social
situation in which the marks feel that they have less 'face' to
lose by buying than they do by backing out.
Aquinas's principle would do to the advertising industry, with
its endless marketing
of 'cool', its creation of new worries to create new demands,
and its eternal cycle of increasing intrusiveness as the minds of
your fellow citizens become numbed to the last outrage, is pretty
obvious. Nothing that you have to be sold on is worth
buying. The satisfactions such goods offer are the apples
of Sodom, seeming red and ripe on the tree, that crumble to dust
Any time you pay for an advertised product, you are paying for
the ad as well as the product. Any time you buy from a
cold-caller, you are paying the cold-caller's wages.
What's worse, by doing so you are giving the cold-call operation
a subsidy that enables them to continue to harass your
neighbours. Finally, if you wanted whatever they're
selling, you'd be looking for it already. Anything sold
by cold-calling is automatically overpriced because of the
cold-call operation. You paid too much, and you harmed your
Cult of the Psychic Manipulator
I have sacrificed the well-being of my immortal soul. I
have looked a book by Zig
Ziglar. May my soul's peril be turned to your profit,
however: let's examine the principles that Mr. Ziglar
Many times your very best prospect will
almost adamantly refuse an appointment because he doesn't want to
"waste your time or his time." He is often the
best prospect for the simple reason that he
knows he either wants or needs --- the product, goods, or
services you are selling. However, at this particular time
he doesn't want to be tempted by viewing the demonstration or
listening to your presentation. He gives you the excuse
that he doesn't want to waste his time or yours by looking at
something he knows he can't buy. --- Secrets
of Closing the Sale (1984), p. 16 Let's deconstruct
this a bit. How, exactly, does Mr. Ziglar propose to
distinguish those who do not want to be tempted from those who
really do not have any interest? I cannot tell from this.
What this particular bit of sophistry actually does, of course,
is justify the salesman continuing to waste the time even of
those who have told him up front they aren't interested.
Ziglar claims to be a Christian of some sort, and acts as a motivational
speaker, travelling round the country with his
positive-thinking circus of guest lecturers. His books are
full of avowals that salesmen work to serve their prospects;
this, apparently, is how. I submit, very simply, that here
we have proof that salesmen train themselves to intentionally
violate the G olden Rule. They rely on obviously
fallacious reasoning to justify their behaviour to
themselves. Here are some other brief excerpts from his
"Premiums! Man, I can't pay any more
life insurance premiums now!" You've heard it a thousand times,
"I'm already insurance-poor!" To begin with, I would say, "I've
never met a widow who felt that her husband carried too much life
insurance. . . ." --- Secrets of Closing the Sale, p.
The comment most
frequently made by the prospect is, "I'm not interested." Voice
inflection and tone will determine whether this is a mild
objection, moderate objection, or strong objection. How are you supposed to get
rid of this asshole?
objection is mild to moderate you say, "I'm a little surprised to
hear you say you're not interested, Mr. Prospect, because this
would [state your product's major benefit]. However, I'm
sure you have a good reason for your lack of interest.
Would you be willing to share that reason with me?" Once again,
the ball is back in his court.
. . .
If the prospect's tone is harsh and dogmatic when he says
Not Interested, you should adopt the policy of
the late Charlie Cullen and be a little audacious. Repeat
the words not interested in such a way you are
making a statement and asking a question. . . .
By handling it this way you effectively force your prospect to
deal with your statement. . . --- Secrets of
Closing the Sale, p. 284
Let your Nay be Nay
If there is one practical bit of advice you can take from
studying this twaddle, it's how to get rid of the cold caller as
quickly as possible. Americans habitually waffle. A
firm and decisive 'No' is heard as abrupt and rude. The
salesman takes advantage of this courtesy, and uses your waffling
'no' as an excuse to keep talking. His goal is to turn the
tables: to make you feel as if you have the burden of explaining
why you do not wish to buy. Fall for this gambit, and you
will be confronted by his glib and memorised response to most of
the objections he will challenge you to come up with.
The dreaded Alumni Association solicitor has the worst trap here:
he asks you first about your house, your job, your income. . .
and then hits you up for a donation. You of course have no
obligation to disclose any private information to this
stranger. Fall for the trap, and you have to justify to
them why you aren't giving, or if you are, why not more.
If you want to have some fun here, remember you aren't under
Your initial 'No' must therefore be conclusive, unmistakable,
airtight, and stop the conversation. "No, I'm not
interested" is perhaps good enough, but "I don't think so" offers
too much room. You do not have to explain why you're not
buying. If he challenges you anyway, turn the tables and
take the sales talker out of his patter by calling attention to
his method and "closers."
Let your refusal be unrelated to
the product, and logically airtight. Try this:
"I don't buy anything from cold callers, because
if no one bought anything from them they'd stop bothering
me. I owe this much to my neighbours and my
country." Or this:
trying to make me justify why I don't want this, rather than the
other way around. I don't owe you an
If this achieves nothing else, it will be interesting to see if
the salesman is fast on his feet enough to think of a glib and
For further reference:
You have to believe in yourself, because nobody else will.
What's Wrong with Multi-Level Marketing?
1Salesman, I know, is a word marked for gender. Words like salesperson or members of a sales staff are so undesirable from a stylistic point of view that it seems preferable to continue to use salesman. Besides, given the tenor of the article I doubt anyone will mind.