Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

We continue to yearn for transparency

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The manipulative aspects of advertising and sales have always made me skeptical and resistant as a customer and a lousy salesperson for my own products and services as I avoid anything that sounds like a phony sales pitch.

In my 20s, I got to experience the classic sales pitch personally. My husband, Ralph, and I went out to buy our first car together, stopping at a large dealership. Ralph had some experience with the game that car salespeople played; he loved cars and he enjoyed being a player. We were very clear on what our dollar limits were, essential protection when walking into Intense Sales Pressure Territory. There was a beautiful Ford LTD on the floor that caught our attention, a much more luxurious car than we were looking for. The salesman came over and started his spiel: Isn’t she a beauty? What kind of car are you looking for? Why don’t you take it for a spin?

It was fun because I thought we were outgaming him, knowing we weren’t going to fall prey to his tricky but transparent strategies, while he probably thought we were young and naive. The sales guy, let’s call him Charlie, started following the script that seems pretty standard, at least in large car dealerships: What’s your best offer? Whoa, you’re killin’ me, but let me run in by my manager and see if there’s anything we can do. Charlie would hustle into the manager’s office, a crow’s nest of glass sitting a level above the sales floor, then come back with: I want this to work for you, but my manager says this is it …and so on through many “final offers.” When we hit our limit, Charlie said, in an attempt to embarrass and question his manhood, “Ralph, maybe you’re trying to buy too much car.” Ralph just laughed and said, “I know I am.” After more tug-of-war, we actually ended up buying that car within the limits we set, quite a coup, although I was a little embarrassed owning it, as I was more egalitarian in my tastes.

Later car purchases, when I was on my own, were much more stressful as I knew little about cars and hated negotiating. There have been attempts to move to fixed-price automobile sales, the longest-running by GM Saturn dealerships from 1990 to 2009, but a current Autotrader.com survey found that 56 percent of all car buyers (including women) actually feel they have to negotiate to get a fair price, not trusting flat-rate pricing. Used-car superstore CarMax Inc., with 165 stores in 38 states, is the largest user of no-haggle pricing, and offers a five-day return policy. “This industry has historically taken advantage of the consumer’s lack of knowledge,” says Cliff Wood, CarMax executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I have no doubt that CarMax’s no-haggle policy has contributed to our growth and popularity with customers.”

Three hundred years ago, when bargaining was the norm, Quakers introduced the one-price system. Businessmen set a fair price, rather than inflating the price and then bargaining down, for they valued being truthful in all transactions and wanted to treat everyone as equals—employees, customers, and business associates. Quaker businesses often thrived, for people valued that honesty, knowing that even children would be treated fairly if they were sent to purchase something.

In modern times, we may wistfully yearn for the small, independent businesses of earlier days—the shoe store where they actually measured both your feet and knew something about proper fit. I remember when physicians had their independent clinics with HMOs on a distant horizon. When you called you were talking to a nurse or receptionist who knew who you were. It certainly is part of the appeal for visitors and residents that Ely and other small towns still have small, unique businesses, retaining personal connections with their customers.

We live in a fast-paced culture, surrounded by information coming from all directions and advertisers trying to get our attention to buy more, more, more, while we often feel we can’t trust the companies, the products, the journalists or the news we are being fed. What we’re yearning for is honesty and transparency.

Tristan Harris gives a compelling TED talk about how just the opposite is happening with a handful of tech companies controlling billions of minds every day. He used to work at Google as a design ethicist, where he studied how to ethically steer people’s thoughts. There’s a concept to chew on. He says that technology is going in a very specific direction, pursuing the race for our attention, for every site must compete, and the best way to get people’s attention is to know how minds work. He studied at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford that taught covert ways of getting people’s attention and orchestrating their lives.

Harris gives the example of how YouTube attempts to maximize the time you spend there by autoplaying the next video. We have all experienced how seductive the internet can be, sucking up your time before you know it. This is what he’s talking about, covert manipulation. He gives the example of Snapchat, the number one way that American teenagers communicate. They invented a feature called Snapstreaks, which shows the number of days in a row that two people have communicated with each other. Teenagers build up their days, and they don’t want to lose that, taking meaningless photos of anything just to have a “contact.” Some will give their passwords to multiple friends to keep the streak going when they can’t do it. He stresses that this isn’t like the old days when kids hung out gossiping on the phone, as some people argue. Not only are there not real conversations going on, there are hundreds of engineers behind those screens who understood the teenage psychology and orchestrated the “hook.”

He proposes another direction, where technology could help us see other choices and find ways to accomplish them, to use the data and power to give us an incredible ability to focus and put our attention to what we care about, creating real connections. He stresses that our democracy needs us to use our attention individually and collectively to work on big issues like climate change.

I recommend listening to his whole talk, for he is envisioning some major shifts where technology could actually support positive goals in our lives. He affirmed for me my aversion to spending a lot of time with the gadgets and my frustration when I feel they are controlling me, my time and my attention way more than I desire. I seem to be one of the few people left on the planet who doesn’t have a smart phone, and while I see the attractive features, I’m holding out, preferring my landline with an answering machine and the $15 cell phone that I have for my convenience, to the expense and hassle of a complicated phone.

Harris says, “I think right now it’s as if all of our technology is basically only asking our lizard brain what’s the best way to just impulsively get you to do the next tiniest thing with your time, instead of asking you what would be the most well-spent time for you in your life.”

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