August 17, 2003

Telemarketing & Free-Market Freedom

Telemarketing, Capitalism and Freedom
Canadian Dimension. Winnipeg: Nov/Dec 2003.Vol.37, Iss. 6; pg. 20

Copyright Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2003

After two exuberant days and sleepless nights of train -hopping and hitchhiking to demand the impossible at Montreal s anarchist book fare, I didn't t expect to find myself pitching my credentials to a human resources director at a downtown telemarketing firm. I suppose this is the nature of freedom in the free-market. One day you re immersed in the euphoria of a well organized celebration of anarchist thought, the next you re stuck in a cubical, making 150 phone calls per day.

Like the other seventy or so employees at Datacom marketing, I was non-coercively forced into the gray high-rise by a lack of cash and the subsequent promise of eleven bucks an hour.

"As a child, I never aspired to be a telemarketer," said Chris, our greasy haired, pseudo-slick-suit wearing boss, during training day. Good call handsome. The mid twenty-something supervisor existed on a diet of highly caffeinated soda and cigarettes. He claimed that he didn't t eat, which showed through his pale face and moodiness, but seemed less believable when looking at his ever-growing belly.

We work on a policy of assumed sales, he said, to the nine of us sitting around a boardroom table. This meant we were to shyster stunned employees into buying a copy of The US Construction Directory or other oversized business-to-business phone listings, by implying they had bought the $379 dollar book before.

Datacom, he said, was proud to be recognized by the Better Business Bureau. Strange, I thought. A company whose only source of income is ripping off other business with books our boss described as glorified paper weights, was considered a better business. I shutter to think what a Worser business would look like.

The sleaze- savvy telemarketers and their lawyers had concocted perfectly worded scams to keep their pitch within just legal boundaries. When a customer asked, have I ordered this thing before? us marketers had a perfect word-for-word answer.

"Well, I assume so as I've been giving your listing to update, but I can t be sure." Now that's better business.

When the supervisor showed me to my desk, the guy beside asked, "What happened to Ahmed" (the fellow who had previously occupied the spot)?

"Who?" Responded the smirking supervisor. The guy beside me repeated the question.

Again, the supervisor said, "who?" more irritated the second time round. The guy beside me caught the Orwellian drift and shut up. For Datacom's purposes Ahmed had never existed.

Life on the floor was a dizzying barrage of constant phone calls, mechanically repetitive pitches, bad radio tunes and a robotic cow which mooed whenever anyone made a sale.

We had two fifteen-minute breaks where employees would smoke and converse about a couple of shared experiences: American idol and the overall suckiness of the job.

Thankfully, there were glimmers of humanity in this First World sweatshop. Alexi, who wrote her name as a-sexi, and her well-tattooed boyfriend constantly stole kisses and threw pens at each other when the boss wasn't looking.

On my second day, one employee started yelling "break" way before break time. The rest of us joined in on the chant. Our supervisor, obviously flustered by the temporary breakdown in his authority said "okay fine, but be back in fifteen minutes -- sharp."

I couldn't decide if the whole place was an obvious negation of humanity, due to the monotonous and useless toil or if the ability for people to laugh, live and endure such mind numbingness was in fact a testament to human spirit. Either way, by the third day I couldn't t take it anymore.

I began calling people to solicit members for the Communist part of Canada. No one wanted to join.

It seemed as though old Karl Marx wasn't so popular these days, so I put down the phone and glared out the window. The supervisor asked why I was grumpy, informing me that people on the other end of the phone line would be able to tell if I wasn't t smiling.

"You want to know what would make me happy"? I asked him.

"Sure", he said, a little confused.

"I Quit"! I yelled and threw several pages of phone numbers up in the air.

I grabbed my plastic lunch bag and walked out. One of the other employees yelled, "onward young man!" as I closed the door amid substantial commotion.

While waiting for James, my traveling buddy, who was still inside, I was sitting atop a tree, contemplating the macro-economics of the whole endeavor. Datacom was an entire business devoted to wasting people's time and selling products no-one will ever use. Long live the unquestionable efficiency of the free market.

In the U.S. 300 000 telemarketers call (irritate) more than 18 million people a day. Imagine the net gain to humanity if all telemarketers took care of kids, built houses for the homeless, made music or tried to figure out the meaning of life? Even if they all just sat around and smoked pot, society would be better off.

According to the Direct Marketing Association, a lobby group for the telemarketing industry, marketers in the U.S. spent $80.3 billion on telemarketing in 2002. If this economic potential was harnessed for positive uses, it has the potential to -- oh I don t know -- allow every child in the world to attend free primary school, a 9.1 billion dollar investment according to UNICEF.

Moreover, the telemarketing industry is small potatoes compared with larger talent, time and resource wasters like: the global advertising industry or the US military industrial complex- spending 400 billion or so dollars a year on killing people.

What if the global economy was just slightly reorganized to shift productive capability away from useless or destructive industries? Would it be that difficult to create universal water access, housing for all, and three square meals a day for every human being? Think of how much more efficient society would be, if copious amounts of human talent, natural resources and individuality weren't t wasted on annoying or destructive undertakings?

After our little stint at Datacom, James and I decided to get back on the road. We were 200 or so dollars better off than we were 3 days prior. I wonder how much those 200 bucks cost society?

Chris Arsenault's first contribution to CD, on a squat in Halifax, appeared in vol.37 #1 (January/February, 2003).

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