Is it Advertising, or Information?

For the past fifteen years, six magic words have eliminated almost all telemarketing calls from my life:

“Please take me off your list.”

phoneclipBecause there’s a potentially stiff ($10K) fine from the FCC for repeat calls, most companies do as I’ve requested. But recently I had to resort to more severe methods when regular calls from a script reader with accented English offered a “free listing” in something that sounded vaguely like the Yellow Pages. After the fourth daily call when I started to lose my temper, the guy even asked me why I wasn’t interested. It’s a free listing, he insisted, “not a sales call.”

I finally asked for a supervisor who agreed to “erase” me from their list. Which makes me wonder how I made it onto said list in the first place, when my number is on the Do Not Call registry.

Telemarketing must work, because companies are still using it. And it is refreshingly clear: no matter what line they give as an opening, someone is definitely trying to sell you something. But now our worlds are being invaded by something much more subtle: a crossover from advertising into “information.” We sales avoiders are a victim of our collective success, in a way; so many of us now tune out or Tivo around ads and sales pitches that companies have switched to product placement and infomercials instead.

And now that those same companies have set their sights on social media, the line will blur further, into a whitewash of soft sell. Customers who are too savvy or too jaded to look at a regular ad might just be coerced to buy through a Facebook posting from a friend who has “just discovered a great new product.” Perhaps that’s why Facebook keeps “updating” its privacy settings, requiring us all to keep modifying our preferences if we want to avoid such postings?

There’s nothing new about companies struggling to find new ways to reach consumers. What is new is this: The very tools they struggle with make it possible for us to listen in, and to participate in the discussion in a way that has never been possible before. Access to those who control the companies that are trying to shape our buying habits is only a Tweet away.

As the lines blur, it is up to each of us to answer this question for ourselves: Is it advertising if my friend is promoting it?