You're sitting down, about to enjoy a meal. Or maybe you've just put your feet up after a hard day. Or perhaps you've gone to sleep and have your passport ready for a trip to REM-land. The phone rings. Like the Pavlovian dog that most of us are, you answer it. On the other end is someone offering you aluminum siding, a newspaper subscription, or a chance to help some orphans. You hang up, before or after cursing the foul creature who interrupted you.
No four-dollar-an-hour telephone pitchmen are showing up at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where the Direct Marketing Association is holding a conference and exhibition. But the people who hire them, directly or indirectly, are.
This may be no ordinary conference. An antitelemarketing activist, Bob Bulmash, has promised a large demonstration against what he calls an invasion of privacy. He appeared earlier in the morning on a local radio station and a few evenings before on ABC's Day's End to further his crusade. Bulmash promises to show up at the conference with junk food (Twinkies and Ding Dongs) to protest the telemarketers' "junk calls." He particularly wants to protest a conference that he infers will inform telemarketers how to fight off unfavorable legislation.
The telemarketers have not ignored his planned demonstration. Once visitors have wound through a labyrinth of halls to enter the telemarketing conference, the first sight to greet them is a booth heaped with fresh fruit. Nearby stands a trash can, with a sign asking visitors to "Dump junk food here."
I start to ask a question of a DMA representative named Lisa Caugherty, a perky blond in her 30s, but she insists that I register before she can say anything. When I return a few minutes later, fully registered, she discusses telemarketing with all the zeal of a recent religious convert.
"I don't know what I'd do without telemarketing," says Caugherty, who directs something called the Shop-at-Home Information Center. "I belong to a ski club, and I had forgotten that my membership was running out. I got a call to renew, and not only did I get an option to renew, but I got a deal where I could include three people on my membership card.
"Blood banks find telephone marketing to be vital," Caugherty continues. "One called and had somebody reply, 'Certainly I'll volunteer. Why didn't you call me in the past?' If someone gives to MADD, they might also give to SOBER, another anti-drunk-driving group.
"The whole idea behind this conference is education," she adds, not taking any noticeable breaths between sentences. "We actively promote our services to consumers, and we are trying to educate consumers about being aware of fraudulent practices. We as a customer service are a benefit."
Caugherty denies that the telephone calls can be a nuisance. "If the customer is unhappy, we are unhappy," she says. She explains that they do not call unlisted numbers or dial at random, and that people can delete their names from a calling list by phoning the Telephone Preference Service. "It doesn't make any sense to waste a call to sombody who doesn't want to receive one."
I ask her about the fresh fruit and the sign about junk food. "Private Citizen, Inc., is supposedly going to be demonstrating, bringing junk food," says Caugherty. "We say to them, 'Come on down, drop your junk food, and have some real food for thought.'"
She offers me an apple and a pamphlet on telemarketing. Then a voice from a nearby walkie-talkie interrupts our conversation: "There's two or three people demonstrating. No Twinkies or Ding Dongs in sight. The ink on their signs is starting to run in the rain."
"Keep us posted," a middle-aged woman barks into the receiver. She is Connie Heatly, senior vice president for DMA public relations. I ask whether their conferences have been met by demonstrations before. "There may have been other demonstrations," Heatly responds. "In fact, I think there was one when we supported a bill giving the postal authority power to investigate fraud."
I ask her about the scheduled lecture titled "Ethics--Giving Teeth to Sound Restriction: How Can We Educate the Lawmakers and Regulation Makers Before It's Too Late?" Bulmash claimed on the radio that it's a lecture on how to lobby against government regulation.
Not true, not true, says Heatly. "We are not out to protect frauds. We are out to protect legitimate businesspeople."
"Connie, Fox 32 is still there," the walkie-talkie voice interrupts. "There's a reporter from Direct Magazine, too, but she doesn't want to go out in the rain to interview [the demonstrators]."
"We take this demonstration lightheartedly," says Heatly, although the walkie-talkie and her expression make me wonder. "But our first concern is to the people in the conference. We need to prepare for a worst-case scenario."
The telemarketers appear utterly safe. When I go outside, the demonstration being monitored so carefully consists of three persons--Bulmash and two women, later identified as his wife and daughter--marching back and forth in a steady drizzle. A TV cameraman shouts to Bulmash, "A little more arm, please," and the demonstrator waves with a bit more gusto a placard saying "Let my people alone."
Bulmash directs Private Citizen, Inc., an organization whose sole purpose is to sue telemarketers. "I formed Private Citizen in May of last year," he says. "Certain companies would not stop calling me. They called again and again. I finally said, 'I'm billing you for my time.' I took the case to court and I won. I figured I could do the same with other people. For a $15 yearly subscription, we send people a form which, when authorized in writing, tells telemarketers that they may use the person's private property, the telephone, for $100. We've already won dozens of settlements--some for $50, one for $100 from Sears, one recently from Smith-Barney for $92.
"The money isn't the main point," says Bulmash, a part-time paralegal for an attorney specializing in adoptions. "The point is to get [telemarketers'] attention. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis said the right to be left alone is the most basic right of civilized man."
Bulmash's crusade has generally been as lonely as it appears to be today. "Three years ago, state representative Ellis Levin introduced a bill which would limit the powers of telephone solicitors. I testified on its behalf. One legislator came up to Levin and said, 'You have to understand. I empathize, but I have to solicit a lot of campaign funds through telemarketing.'"
When told that the telemarketers claim they are trying to stop telephone fraud, Bulmash answers, "I'm all for their trying to stop fraud. But that's not the issue. The issue is invasion of privacy. They say, 'If you don't want a product, hang up, we're polite.' My dentist is polite, but he doesn't run through my house."
A man in his 20s sporting a gray three-piece suit and a brown mustache watches everything from inside the glass doors and relays Bulmash's every movement to Heatly. The hotel security man apparently takes this demonstration as lightheartedly as Heatly does. When I try to talk to him, he tells me to talk to the hotel's public-relations department.
Meanwhile a panel conducts the ethics seminar. Its subject is not, as one cynic has suggested, how to slip a grand to a legislator. If telemarketers learn such tricks at this conference, they don't learn them in this room. A curly-haired, bespectacled blond named Lorna Christie presents a slide show. Pictures of DMA pamphlets flash on the screen. "If you haven't seen these pamphlets, shame on you," she scolds.
Christie also discusses what she calls "the two major issues," privacy (which she calls "a real issue at the state level") and telephone fraud. "We must inform legislators who the real telemarketers are. If we don't tell them, they might come up with unfavorable legislation."
After the talk, I ask Christie what legislation against fraudulent marketing the DMA supports, and what upcoming legislation the group opposes. She declines to discuss those questions.
When I stop once more at the public-relations booth, the "junk food" trash can has paper plates and a discarded McDonald's bag in it but no Twinkies or Ding Dongs. I take a plum and leave, hoping to sneak one last look at the demonstration.
Too late. Bulmash, his family, the cameraman, and the security guard have disappeared without a trace.