Nuisance calls

Direct marketing: a euphemism for “spam” and “nuisance calls”. I had my own personal brush with “direct marketing” recently. A local company here in Hong Kong (VirtualTech Consultants, if you’re interested) got my e-mail address from somewhere (they wouldn’t tell me where) and I started receiving marketing e-mails on behalf of their customers.

(You may be receiving e-mails from VirtualTech too; the way to tell is to look at the unsubscribe link at the foot of the message; if it’s a link to a web page in the domain then it’s a VirtualTech message.)

Now, here’s why the VirtualTech e-mails started to get on my flabby man-tits. (1) They’re broadly untargeted, selling things that I am not interested in (baby supplies? magical healing herbs?); (2) they’re mostly in Chinese; and (3) the unsubscribe button only removes you from that one single e-mail campaign. Nowhere do they provide the option to have your e-mail address completely removed from their master list.

Last week I ran out of patience, and called the owner of the company on his personal mobile phone. (How did I get that number? It’s at the end of the whois record for… just in case anyone reading this also wants to give him a call; after all, his own business model shows that he’s all in favour of unsolicited communications.) He noted my e-mail address and agreed to remove it from his list. A few days later I had another e-mail from VirtualTech. I called him again. He promised to remove my address from his list. Later that same day, another e-mail, another phone call, another promise… Now, I’m happy to play this game; I will cheerfully telephone the man every time I receive an e-mail for as long as he wants to send me e-mails. Really, it’s no problem. I think he’s going to give up first.

But imagine if you don’t have this opportunity for sporting redress. A letter in today’s SCMP really spelled out the amount of cognitive dissonance and disdain for the consumer in the direct marketing industry. The letter is from a Mr Eugene R. Raitt (who claims to be the Chairman of the Hong Kong Direct Marketing Association; if you’re reading this, Mr Raitt, please click on your name for an important message). The letter is about the Octopus company selling off personal information about people who signed up for its reward scheme. But that’s not the bit that stands out. Mr Raitt says:

Additionally, Mr Cramb has the option any time he receives a call he does not want to inform the calling company that he wishes it to remove his name from its call list, and it will gladly do so.

And as I read this, my blood boiled. Here’s the reality of the situation: I receive an unwanted sales call. When I answer the phone, the caller – hearing my English – immediately hangs up. Or says, “Sorry, wrong number” and hangs up. Or asks, “Do you speak Chinese?” and when I say, “Please do not call this number again” repeats, “Do you speak Chinese?” How, Mr Raitt, am I supposed to “inform the calling company”? Any suggestions?

Mr Raitt goes on to say:

The last thing any company wants is to spend money needlessly contacting people who clearly do not wish to be contacted.

Then where is our do-not-call list, Mr Raitt? Why are the direct marketers not at the front of the queue of people lobbying for a do-not-call list? All we have right now is a list to register our objections to recorded-message sales calls. See, this is exactly the same situation as I have with the VirtualTech Consultants: even if I can get myself removed from one company’s call list, it’s not going to prevent the next company from calling me, or the one after that. I do not wish to receive unsolicited sales calls, and Mr Raitt’s disingenuous claims do not address that at all.

Contrast Mr Raitt’s cynical distortions with the nice guy who runs VirtualTech Consultants. Mr VirtualTech knows he’s in a dirty business that wins you no friends, and yet is unfailingly polite whenever I phone him up to tell him I’ve received another e-mail from his company. I almost feel bad about pestering him. Mr Raitt, on the other hand, tries to pretend that he represents fine, upstanding, honest businesses, and comes across either as someone for whom shameless lies are part of the daily round, or the only inhabitant of a happy fantasy-land populated by community-minded telemarketers.