I have a stalker. In fact, I have hundreds. So do you. What, do you mean you haven’t noticed?

I became aware of my admirers after Christmas. First it was letters, then emails. Could I spare a mo to rate my broadband installation? What about the insurer’s customer service? The building society was sorry I’d closed my account, but would love to hear how well they closed it. The questionnaire shouldn’t take a minute.

Then came the calls. ‘How did I find the helpline?’ asked my bank. Barclays (not my bank) rang several times to invite me to participate in a survey. This was not, repeat not, a sales call. Just a few minutes of my time… How, asked my mobile operator, can we improve our end-user interface? ‘By leaving me in peace,’ I didn’t say.

Next, harassment. One icy Saturday I was walking home with goodies from Ottolenghi, a deli which provides a Proustian whiff of decadence for a mere £3.50 slice of cake. Three pasty men in day-glo yellow jerkins approached. ‘Do you smoke, madam?’ ‘No,’ I said. Downcast, they turned and circled one of the few passersby whose cloudy breath wasn’t cold but nicotine-rich. On their yellow backs I read: ‘NHS Anti-Smoking Patrol’.

I felt victimised. I felt like I was at school. I felt like having a smoke. And if these invasions of my privacy don’t end soon, I may copy the late John Mortimer and take it up again. When I get sick, I’ll know whom to sue.

To me, these approaches prove that every bust brings its boom. 2009 shall be the Year of the Nosy Parker, as a buyer’s market detonates an explosion of invasive marketing.

Although paranoia and other such knotweed of the mind flourish in hard times, my theory strikes me as entirely logical. Killjoys rejoice at the plight of retailers and admen. Recession, they claim, heralds an era entangled less in frivolous wants than worthy needs. Bye-bye greed, tally-ho that Blitz spirit, they cry, their rhetoric winding back the clock to a land where everyone has gardens to grow their own veg, but neither television nor McDonald’s, presumably. However, far from doomed, marketing men have simply changed pitch. Instead of sales, they’re chasing customers. Fair enough. What worries me is how many are peering inside our heads, in hope of repaving them with their intentions. I’ve been inundated. I’m not alone. And it will get worse.

Fittingly for Darwin’s bicentenary, a ruthless contest is underway for our dwindling shillings. Survivors will emerge sharper than ever at sinking in their teeth and draining our last drop of added value. According to IPA figures, UK advertising budgets were slashed more savagely in the third quarter of 2008 than any time in the previous decade. But research by Ad-ology found American small businesses will increase investment in two areas in 2009: generating leads — i.e., truffling for custom — and ‘social-network marketing’. As in Facebook and wherever else people loiter, chewing the cud, ripe to be poked into discussing your product instead.

The direct marketing guru, Drayton Bird, explains why you’d bother with such flimflam in ‘51 Helpful Ideas’, posted on his website free of charge (brilliant marketing, no?). Tip one: Communicate more than your competitors and you’ll outdo them. Keep talking to your prospects until it doesn’t pay. And market research makes customers pay — in various, insidious ways.

Like me, you may love conversation, but not to enrich other people. You too may politely refuse that survey. Or, like my friends, read a flyer on your windscreen, inviting you to a seminar to discuss cars — ‘NOT A SALES PITCH!! YOU WILL BE PAID!!’ — and immediately click that your personal details would be sold on to databases, unleashing a lava of unsolicited sales pitches through your door, phone, email… Still, such annoying intrusions pay off. For a start, customers’ opinions are wiser, in aggregate, than costly consultants’, since crowds know more than individuals. Hence we love Google, that vast popularity contest for web pages, which logs all our searches, because it understands what we want better than we do. What is more, clever market research will do the selling for you.

First, it is flattering. The best marketing brains understand, just as Barack Obama understands, that when people feel powerless, no illusion is so alluring as that we matter. In this climate, the NHS may well imagine that collaring innocent smokers is welcome. But there’s more to it than that. Survey seekers rob our valuable time while feeding us a powerful message: that their services are tailored to our needs. Most do this without offering a penny for our thoughts, which seems nearly as barmy as asking customers to buy shirts advertising your business, say, with your logo stitched somewhere eye-catching, like over the nipple. In other words, it is bound to succeed.

How? By exploiting kinks in human psychology that you might prefer to call good manners. Endless studies find we feel attached to those we help, and expect to be paid in kind, but don’t want blatant remuneration: we would rather consider ourselves philanthropists. A disconcerting book, Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, reveals the ‘hugely powerful sense of obligation… to return favours’ creates ‘trust’. Equally, if we do someone a favour, we rationalise this generosity by imagining we like them. Thus wily Benjamin Franklin wooed a hostile chap in Pennsylvania’s legislature by asking to borrow ‘a certain very scarce and curious book’, writing fulsome thanks. Within weeks his opponent was a friend. Thus, having said ‘yes’ once to Barclays’ survey, psychological momentum inclines me to say ‘yes’ to the inevitable sales call, if only to justify the time already spent on Barclays.

So just say no. Or the brainwashers will get you. Even now, supermarkets are developing spy cameras with software to soothsay the facial expressions of undecided shoppers who are wavering between Typhoo and own-brand factory sweepings.

At least, unlike aspirational ads, ‘co-operative’ marketing doesn’t undermine us. (Slogans like ‘Because I’m worth it’ imply you’re worthless without said elixir.) I’d rather answer questionnaires than suffer kids press-ganged into pestering me to eat my greens. J’accuse those ubiquitous five-a-day cartoon ads, targeted at under-11s — almost as misguided as recruiting pallid bands of men to preach the gospel of health. Unless the smoking snoops are sponsored by British American Tobacco. Actually, given the fag-tax revenue the NHS slurps, I suppose they must be.

And happily, if businesses want us to talk, they must feign to listen. When I got home that Saturday, incensed by the snoops, I was dismayed to find my lunch tasted of, well, nothing. So I googled Ottolenghi, then emailed my gripes. Minutes later, in pinged the offer of a refund plus consolatory cake. Yes, it takes more than tea and sympathy to preserve an economy. Maybe Marie-Antoinette was on to something.

As seen in the Spectator


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