"There's one born every minute." That's what they say about the pushovers and poor saps who fall for bait-and-switch deals. It's what they say about folks who believe they're being treated fairly by strangers who promise them amazing offers.
American showman P.T. Barnum said that there was "one born every minute." That person was a sucker. Or a customer.
My question is this: As far as major corporations are concerned, have the terms "sucker" and "customer" become synonymous?
For those working in the higher echelons of business, have "customer" and "sucker" become so entirely and inextricably linked, so conflated into one giant blob of a dithering, blithering, ignorant, unworthy client mass, that they can be treated with the kind of contempt historically held by snake-oil salesmen for the family just off the boat, or the ignorant poor, or the hayseed or the woman traveling alone?
It might explain why many of us now believe the phrase "customer service" is as much an oxymoron as the phrase "jumbo shrimp."
OK, so the minute I was born for happened yesterday. I did a version of buying oceanfront property in Utah: I believed I could get a decent room at a reasonable price in New York City over a holiday weekend.
I know, right?
But I received an email ad from this big hotel chain where I'm a "preferred in-touch guest." The promo said it was time sensitive and so I stopped what I was doing, called our friends and made plans to take up an offer that looked too good to be true.
I was a sucker.
Naturally the hotel told me over the phone "Oh, sorry, the rates don't apply to those dates." I explained "But your splashy campaign says 'Join Us For Our Unprecedented Holiday Celebration!''' They said, "I am sorry you are disappointed, but those dates are not available." I politely drew their attention to what was on my screen: "Your ad is entirely focused on those dates. You even mention the parade." My voice was starting to sound like Marge Simpson's, both childish and wheedling.
And then I heard: "You didn't read the fine print."
Ignore the graphics, the bold and italicized print, the date-specific photographs and the paragraph-long descriptions. The fine print says, in effect, "We were only kidding. C'mon, it's New York. You can't get a night here for under $468 even if you agree to sleep on top of the ice machine."
That's what makes me madder than P.T. Barnum seeing a two-headed sheep that wasn't for sale.
I'm originally from Brooklyn. I grew up around shady deals and fixed card games. But I thought that in legitimate corporate life, a person could escape con artists and jive smoke-and-mirror promises.
Look, I try never to lose sight of how privileged I am; I can get another room, away from the ice machine. Yet I remember all those years when I never would have even dared try. I was afraid to confront somebody about deceptive marketing or promotional sleight-of-hand.
I was intimidated.
Now I'm not.
I can write the vice president of special promotions, the head of marketing and the CEO; their names are on corporate rosters. After all, it's not the poor soul answering my call who created the copy; somebody on a "team" was paid big bucks to entice me to click through the ad.
When I make a point of letting the big shots know that I was treated shabbily, I'm doing for my younger self, the girl who was too nervous to speak up. I'm doing it for foreign-born mother, just off the boat and a woman traveling alone; I'm doing it for my hard-working students who don't yet realize they can challenge someone who treats them as if they don't matter even though their hard-earned cash certainly does; and I'm doing it for my sweeter friends who are too shy to make a stand when they're made to feel like fools by the simple act of believing what they were told and requesting what they were promised.
Even P.T. Barnum was in favor of giving value for money. There's nothing shameful in expecting it — and holding those who profit from misleading or poor business practices accountable.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and a feminist scholar who has written eight books. She can be reached through her website at http://www.ginabarreca.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun