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Location: Portland, Oregon

Otium cum Dignitatae

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Dialin' For Dollars

Some of my favorite useless pieces of advice include:
"When vandals kidnap you, look for fingerprints on or around your person. That's a crime stopper!"-Daws Butler, as Dick Tracy, from the old Stan Freberg show
"Never ride down a load on your Holly guitar."-anonymous contributor to Creem magazine
"In the cold places where Spanish is spoken, most wars end in the fall."-The Silver Jews, 'Pet Politics'
Last one's not really advice as such, just an entirely meaningless observation, but you get the point.
And here's mine: polls lie, as do studies. I speak as one who toiled in the market/political research game for long enough.
I worked for an organization owned by the head of the Oregon Republican Party, back in the late '80's. Oddly, almost everyone who worked there was a liberal. I spent my first night calling everybody in Washington state, telling them to vote for Slade Gorton. The next night we got down to real polling.
Except that it wasn't. Without paraphrasing too much, one of the questions went like this:
"Would you rather vote for (the Republican), or the guy whose best friend is the lawyer who got off the killer who made the retarded boy dig his own grave first before killing him?"
("Hmm...Well, I tend to vote GOP, but I do hate the retarded boys...")
My buddy Fil (yep, that's how he spelled it) actually mailed that one to the local paper. This was deeply illegal, as that survey was the property of the client, no matter how poorly intended or worded. There was a minor flap about it, and then the firm went right back to what it did best, whatever that was.
It could best be described as putting out the most damaging dirt to see how the voters reacted, and use that information to craft attack ads during campaigns. So maybe there the client could be said to be getting their money's worth, but with so many people like me working there, actively trying to thwart the process, I doubt it. Would their money be better spent doing impartial research? Perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Once it left the hands of people like myself, it went back to the folks in coding, who would then perform a statistical analysis on it, and as we all know, it ain't hard to manipulate statistics, either.
So if the results seemed to favor what the client already believed, no surprise: they had, after all, paid for it. Just like any study, really. Science is marred by this sort of thing, too. Every few years, some new nutritional data is unearthed, and by the time it gets to the press, it's along the lines of-"You must only consume oat bran!"
Give it a month, and another study will announce that you must never eat oat bran: only eat protein.
Another place I worked was a little better. They had better people writing their surveys, and seemed to want to find out what people really thought. But one of their biggest clients was a political pollster who primarily works with Democrats, so who knows?
We also did market research at that place. I quickly found out that even if one has no respondents whatsoever who have heard of your product, you are still required as a dialer to ask all three hundred questions or whatever, since doing less would skew the results of the survey. Case in point:
Fred Meyer supermarkets were moving into Utah. This is to say that there weren't any there at the time of the survey. The chain wanted to get a feel for the market, so they crafted this incredibly long survey filled with questions for the people of Utah to answer about how much they like various aspects of this store they'd never heard of, shopped in or seen advertising for. I'm amazed as many people stayed on the line with me as did so.
So did the client get their money's worth? No, and it's their own damn fault. That survey could easily have been one question long: "Have you heard of Fred Meyer supermarkets?", and if they had, ask additional probing questions about where they'd heard of them, and what they thought.
I saw my first fax machine at this job, and I also first heard of Ross Perot, from my respondents. The management had no idea who the guy was (by that time, I was back at the Republican joint). I heard many a wife ask hubby; "Who are we voting for?", and noticed that a lot of the time voters only wanted to vote for the guy they had heard of, regardless of their own views. I once had a man with the archetypal Dirty Old Bastard voice growl "Ain't Got No 'pinions," right before he slammed down the phone. I noticed that the phrase "Head of Household" and "Fuckin' Asshole" sound roughly the same, if repeated often enough.
I once had to screen only for respondents who had either had cancer, or had had a family member who had it/died from it. This was tough. How do you start a conversation that way?
I chose to phrase it as, "Have you or someone in your family been touched by cancer?", which unfortunately clanged resoundingly in my brain after a while. I came damn close, a couple times, to asking if they or anyone in their family had been touched by the magic of Elvis.
Voting records provide most of the raw data for call lists; apparently they're really easy to get if you claim you're doing research. Problem is, a lot of things can happen in between election cycles, including voters dying. I once was on the phone with a woman for ten minutes before she made it clear to me that no, she couldn't go get her husband because he'd been dead for three years.
"Oh ma'am!" I said, "I'm so sorry..."
"Well, me too." she said, stoically.
I worked for what I like to refer to as a Beer Money Scam for a while, too. Let's name names here, since we're talking about Crooks. The GEHL Group had set up this dummy entity in Olympia called the Washington Bureau of Fire Fighters, which was in no way connected to any fire department, anywhere.
The scam was selling tickets to a Waylon Jennings concert at the Tacoma Dome. How much did the tickets cost? Eighteen dollars. And if the respondent wanted to know how much two tickets cost, the script demanded that we said the insulting line, "That's the great part. Thirty-six dollars."
The guy who did the best with it was the fat, bearded, coffee-guzzling dude, Gary. He had the perfect deejay voice because he'd been one. He'd say things like, "Over fifty-thousand fire fighters died in America alone just last year and ma'am...(dramatic pause) We think that's a few too many." He was trying to make as much money as he could before going to prison for delivery of cocaine.
There was this other smart ass malcontent of my age working there, and on smoke breaks, he'd say things like, "I'm trying to work the phrase 'like shooting fish in a bucket' into the pitch."
I'd come back with "'Over fifty-thousand fire fighters died last year, and we think that's a few too many. Ma'am, it's just like shooting fish in a bucket.'" I'm not sure he ever tried that one.
I got more than a few angry actual fire fighters who wanted-and rightfully so-to know why they'd never heard of us. Abort. Or lie: "Well sir, I'm a regular at Humptulips (yes, there really is a Humptulips, Washington) Volunteer Fire and Emergency Response, and let me tell you..."
These days, you don't just pick a number out of the phone book and dial, as it was back then. Now, there is a centralized computer that dials for you, and sends the call to individual dialers. So you sit in a cubicle at this job, and all of a sudden, your screen lights up, and you're faced with someone who, due to electronic delay, has already said hello, and is on "Hel-lo?" by the time you get to them. This is why when you receive a call from a strange number, and when you pick up, all there is is silence at first, hang the fuck up, now.
My last job in dialing was like this. This wasn't even surveys anymore, or bullshit oppos like the GEHL Group. This was a nationwide company called TeleMark that engaged in scams as well, but was far better at covering their ass, legally. Basically, it was scamming the elderly into getting another credit card they didn't really need.
It depressed me so damn much, I discovered a little trick: if you didn't entirely hang up after a call, you'd sit in this null electronic space of peace and quiet, surrounded by mad chatter all around, from yer fellow dialers. It was nice in there.
Ultimately though, I'd return to duty, and there'd be a message on my screen: "Rich: you aren't dialing. Come see Me. Attila."
Then I'd go to the office of the smily, affable strawboss, Attila. He knew I didn't really like the job, and god knows what he thought of his chosen career path, but we got along well, and he was always in what seemed like a good mood.
When I met him, I couldn't help it. "Attila the Supervisor?", I said.
"Well, lots of people from Armenia are named that," he said, and smiled some more.
During the 2000 elections cycle, I answered a poll from a place much like that Republican joint (Moore Information, in case you're curious) I used to work at. The woman was no good with the script, was nervous, had no public relations savvy whatsoever. I suspect that the outfit she was whoring for had taken on some church-going volunteers, as Moore often did.
She gave me the same battery of questions, with hypothetical candidates (they didn't even just come out and say Bush and Gore) who represented various things. The questions were worded in such a way as to make it clear that one stood for Good, and one for Evil And Worse. There was no choice given really, unless you already knew the game.
"Well, so you've given me a choice between a Liar and a Zealot, here." I said. "I'll take the Liar."
This flustered her more than a little, but li'l trooper, she just keeps on into the questions, and I keep on piercing through the shit screen she's setting up by saying things like, "The hypothetical candidate you're talking about there is Bush, and I've already pointed out that I don't intend to vote for him."
Eventually, she just got personal, especially after another one where I'd been presented with a choice between a liar and a zealot. I chose the liar again, and she broke script: "But why?"
"Because the Liar will, occasionally, help someone out. The Zealot is a danger to us all."
"But then nothing gets done!" she said, sounding desperate.
"Nothing does anyway."
Needless to say, the Zealot ended up President.



Blogger Jacq said...

There are more appropriate words that can be used. "Zealot" is being polite...

10:43 AM  
Blogger the blood monk said...

I did my time as a market researcher. no push polling, just mall harassment. I had moppish hair and an evil goatee (no one wanted anything to do with me on Sundays). we did a lot of things with frozen foods and pain relievers. also, our numbers were always fudged to make the clients happy (I worked for Ruth Nelson Market Research).

I eventually got fired. I liked to hide on the wrong side of the mall and smoke and slide down the escalators and approach potential respondents with my lungs full of helium--good times

4:28 PM  
Blogger carrier said...

I said buster because I was thinking that when you were quite young you would use your hand as a makeshift pistol and say "stickem' up buster." Or was it getem' up? Something like that.

I'm always polite but firm when telemarketers invade my home phone. If I have nothing better to do I will listen to their scripted lines. If I don't have the time or I'm just not in the mood I tell them that it isn't a good time and thank you for calling.

Folks just doing their job. God bless Amerika.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Jacq said...

I once worked as a telemarketer, only we received IN-COMING calls. We received calls from people trying to navigate our website, whether it was online banking or people calling about their Verizon accounts.

Since I use a cell phone as my primary, I don't get solicitors. When I used my landline for computer purposes AND regular phone usage, they'd call, and I'd politely tell them to take me off their calllist, as I was not interested. It worked. Because let's face it, they WILL keep calling.

5:50 AM  

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