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Hogarth judge

February 2018



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February 12th, 2018

Hogarth judge

The Salesman as Social Pirate

Wrote this back in 2002 for a long dead website called Kuro5hin. Worth saving, I think.


Sales cold calls --- calling on strangers and proposing that they buy something --- are in every case immoral. They break the Golden Rule, every time. More importantly, they are parasites on our willingness to read email, answer the telephone, or open our doors to strangers. Salesmen1 rely on offensive personality and manipulation of their marks, seeking to create a situation where the mark feels that more face would be lost by backing out of the "deal" than by buying, and where he must justify his refusal to buy to the salesman.

Perhaps as a defence against their social offences, salesmen have generated a large body of literature, seeking to bolster their faltering self-esteem. The leitmotif of these texts, translated into plain English, is that if they hope to successfully deceive others, they must first deceive themselves. In these texts, we are also instructed in the art of never taking 'no' for an answer.


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 moral philosophy.

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 avenue.

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.
Theologia Moralis 2-2, q. 77, art. 1.

[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.]

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.

What 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 when plucked.

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 fellow man.

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 teaches:

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.

Mr. 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 'closers':

"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. 98

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.

If the 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
How are you supposed to get rid of this asshole?

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 oath.

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:

"You're trying to make me justify why I don't want this, rather than the other way around. I don't owe you an explanation."
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 convincing response.
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