They've Got My Number


I have a confession to make. The other day, I was reading about a recently enacted New York law that, starting next spring, will prohibit telemarketers from calling phone numbers on a list maintained by the state's Consumer Protection Board. Before I had finished the article, I was visiting the board's Web site to "pre-register" my home and work numbers.

I did not pause to consider whether this was an appropriate use of government power. In fact, the idea that a telemarketer could be fined up to $2,000 for interrupting my work or my dinner made me smile.

Apparently, many New Yorkers feel the same way. More than 180,000 have already signed up for the state's "do not call" list.

But after I submitted the online form, my conscience started to bother me. I have often criticized people who assume that because they are annoyed their rights have been violated–the sort who automatically run to the government to get rid of whatever bothers them, whether it's ATM fees, strip joints, or secondhand smoke. Wasn't I guilty of the same sin?

Upon reflection, I was hard pressed to explain why I was justified in using the threat of a fine to avoid unwanted telephone solicitations. After all, I was aware of this hazard when I decided to get telephone service, so in that sense I consented to it.

Then, too, I could avoid telemarketers by screening all my calls through my answering machine. I could pay for caller ID and refuse to answer calls from unfamiliar numbers or from lines that block identification. I could buy one of those little devices that you attach to your phone and press to hang up on telemarketers after playing a message telling them not to call you again.

Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that I shouldn't have to take such measures. This is my telephone, my home, my office.

I feel similarly indignant about the wads of circulars and menus that people periodically leave on our front porch. Sure, I can throw them out, but why should I have to? I don't want them, and I didn't ask for them.

My sense of trespass is not quite as strong when it comes to junk mail, even though the principle ought to be the same. It's still trash, whether it's dropped on my doorstep by some guy on a bike or delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

These solicitations are undeniably rude, but that does not necessarily mean they should be illegal. To make the case for banning or restricting the direct marketing that irritates so many of us, you need more than a gut reaction.

Writing earlier this year in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Ross D. Petty, a professor of marketing law at Babson College, argues that "the right to be left alone should include, when feasible, the right to be free from unwanted marketing solicitations." Although that sounds like a moral claim, Petty's argument is based mainly on the premise that it's inefficient to let businesses impose direct marketing costs, such as the hassle of dealing with telephone pitches or throwing out junk mail, on consumers.

Telemarketers have to place 50 or more calls to make one sale. It's cost-effective for them, Petty argues, only because they do not have to take into account the inconvenience suffered by the 49 people who weren't interested in the product.

Petty proposes a system, administered by phone companies, in which telemarketers would have to pay you for your time. Similarly, he thinks you should be able to return junk mail to the senders, who would have to pick up the postage and would therefore have a bigger incentive to purge unreceptive addresses from their lists.

"The purpose of these recommendations is to shift property rights for soliciting…to the consumers themselves, which would thereby reduce the marketing costs imposed on consumers without their consent," Petty writes. "By reducing marketing clutter, these recommendations should make marketing communications more efficient and effective….Marketers will pay more for each consumer contact, but each contact will be an interested customer."

Whether or not Petty's economic argument holds water, there remains the question of whether this is a situation where using force to get your way is justified. I'm inclined to think it's not, but maybe that's only because I haven't heard from any telemarketers today.