Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Punched Monkey

I know someone who punched the monkey.

My coworkers are good people, but they're not too complicated. Code Red, Pepsi Blue, GoGurt, Liquid Ice, they'll try anything if it has enough buzz behind it. They’re a marketer's wet dream.

Mary is a coworker of mine who is particularly naive, a big fan of taking people at their word and acting without considering the consequences. One time she ended up homeless for a few weeks because she was promised that a gutted apartment would be totally refurnished in less than a month, and ready for her to live in. She had to move out of her old place at the end of its lease, and was supposed to move into the refurnished apartment the very next day. Strangely, when her move-in date arrived and the apartment still wasn’t ready, the realtor wouldn't return her calls and was never in the office when she stopped by. Imagine that.

Back in November, there was a bit of a gadget binge. MP3 players were the New Hip Thing. (hey, I never said that they were current with the trends, I just said that they followed them, which makes their behavior more touchingly tragic). At the same time that their eyes had been opened to the possibility of portable music without tapes or CDs, the Nano was causing a stir, and it was time to start thinking about Christmas presents. Maybe they wanted one of their own. Maybe they would be the perfect gifts for significant others. Maybe this time, after so many hollow promises and false hopes, an iPod would be the one thing that they had been searching for after all these years to make their empty lives complete.

That's when Mary got it into her head that she needed an iPod. I'll tell you right now that she needed an one like Bruce Campbell needs twenty pairs of sequined pink ballet slippers. This woman had no idea how an iPod worked. I don’t know if she thought that they magically picked up songs from the radio, or if you put songs on the iPod by rubbing it against a CD really hard, but she didn’t realize that you need to connect it to a computer to add a playlist. She barely grasped the idea that songs can be stored as MP3’s, and was stunned to find out that the iPod stored those MP3’s on a tiny hard drive. It's also worth noting that she never wore headphones, a walkman, or a portable CD player into work, but by god her life wouldn't be complete unless she had an iPod of her very own. And then she saw the link.

I don't know what it said. Probably something like "PUNCH THE LOW MORTGATE RATE TO GET HERBAL VIAGRAS FOR LESS! ALSO, IPODS!1!" Whatever it was, it said "free iPod," and that meant that she was going to get one.

My coworkers aren't complete idiots. And most of them knew that any company giving away iPods to everyone on the internet was going to end up bankrupt in five minutes. They knew it was a scam, and they all tried to talk Mary out of it. But Mary thought she was smarter than that. After all, they had to give out some iPods, right? They wouldn’t be allowed to put out false advertising, would they? Sure, they might not be giving out millions of them, but they had to give away at least one, or they’d be telling a lie. And if they did give one out, she was going to be the person who got it. Like some modern-day David, she'd take on this marketing Goliath, and wrest an iPod from them with her cunning wiles. She probably wouldn't even have to take her clothes off to do it.

Once she began her quest, she spent the rest of the afternoon handing over all of her personal information. Other people might have thought that it was risky, but she was going to beat the system. Name, age, address, date of birth, phone number, mother's maiden name, first pet’s name, number of felony convictions, favorite brand of peanut butter, there was nothing she wouldn't tell them in pursuit of her iPod. She applied for a credit card. She completed two marketing surveys. And she subscribed to three magazines. That’s when we told her that she was never going to see that iPod, but she didn't want to hear it.

The next day she came rushing in to work all excited. "Guess what, guys! I just got an e-mail confirming my order, and they're going to ship out my iPod! It should arrive in 4 weeks!" We used that opportunity to tell her again that she was never going to see that iPod.

A week or so after that, she brought in one of those massive packages from a CD club. The ones where they can’t just list the CDs for sale, they have to include tiny little pictures of the albums in case you shopped for music based on the pretty colors. She was supposed to pick her free CDs now, and sign up to buy additional CDs every month. It turned out that joining their club was part of the iPod application process. Hey, she'd need a bigger music collection since she was going to be able to listen to it anywhere, right? A few people had fun helping her pick out CDs, but most of us were asking when she was going to see that iPod.

"I'm serious guys, it's going to be here in 4 weeks," she insisted. As though repeating it often enough would make it true.

Eventually, I heard her spending another afternoon in pursuit of her iPod. This time she was on the phone. I guess that in addition to the magazines, and the CD’s, she had been enrolled in a few of those credit card programs.

They’re the programs where they charge you a monthly fee to watch your credit report, or to send you coupons for disounts, or to ensure that you'd be "protected" if you couldn't make your monthly credit card payments. They come up with new ways to scare you with tales of the Terrible Things that can happen to Unprepared People, and then they promise you that their program will be your one true light and salvation in these dark and turbulent times. Then they pretend that they’re making your life better while they keep charging you a substantial monthly fee. Mary was on the phone trying to cancel the programs before their free trial periods expired.

Have you ever tried to do that? It's like trying to win knife fight against a lawnmower. You can't just cancel, you have to tell them why you want to cancel. Then they tell you why the reason you just gave them was a bad one, and how you don't really want to cancel the excellent service that they're providing you. If you insist on cancelling without giving them a reason, they “have” to make you listen to a prolonged marketing pitch so that you'll find out about "all of the great features you'll be missing." But don’t blame them for it, it’s their civic duty. After all, they can't just let you cancel without considering all the useless crap that they're forcing on you, because letting you pass up such magnificent bargains would be like ripping you off! They think that if they talk long enough, you'll get so bored or confused that you hang up.

"When's the iPod getting here?" we asked Mary.

"Any day now. I'm serious, it's due to arrive sometime this week or next week! And I'll bring it in, and you'll all be jealous," she insisted.

Finally, she admitted that she had received one last e-mail regarding her iPod. It turned out that the credit card application she had filled out at the beginning of the whole ordeal had been rejected. As a result, she was no longer eligible to receive the free iPod, and her "order" had been cancelled. But thank god that all those things she had signed up for in the meantime had required an active credit card to enroll. Since she had put them onto one of her other cards while she waited for the new card's approval, they had a ready source of funding. She may not have gotten an iPod, but if she hadn't punched the monkey, she wouldn't have gotten such an up close and personal view of all the different customer service companies that were now charging her monthly fees.

I'd like to think that her experience made Mary a little more skeptical, a little less willing to expect something for nothing. Even if she is going on a "vacation" this weekend to listen to some company pitch her a timeshare.

But that's what happens when you punch the monkey.