OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

There's an old saying in the US, usually meant as a putdown, derived from the dismissive remark made by a hard-headed, maybe hard-hearted, nightclub owner after an eager young talent performs but fails to impress: "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Now, for the first time, the federal government is trying to put those words into the mouths of put-upon consumers in the form of a national telemarketing "do not call registry, which could have profound implications for Madison Avenue.

The registry is the idea of the Federal Trade Commission, which held hearings last month on a proposed rule change that would enable consumers to apply for what essentially would be a "do not disturb" notice affixed to their phone numbers. Telemarketers - the compressed word for those who sell by phone - would be required to bypass those consumers registered on the list, or risk stiff fines of $11,000 per call.

The FTC is the agency that regulates advertising and marketing, to the extent it is regulated in the US - which is to say not very much at all.

There are already FTC rules that govern when telemarketers may call and others that seek to end deceptive sales practices. So many who had sought further regulatory relief were convinced they would not get much more from the federal government, especially with a Republican in the White House.

But, wonder of wonders, the chairman of the FTC, Timothy Muris, identified as "a keep-government-out-of-the-economy conservative by The Wall Street Journal, which knows one when it sees one, is gung-ho for the list. "Unwanted phone calls disrupt our dinner, he complained in a speech, giving voice to the most commonly offered gripe about telemarketers next to their calling while one is in the bathroom. The annoyance requires redress, he believes, even if it might involve - gasp, shudder! - additional regulation.

Even a writer for the National Review, the weekly magazine founded by the notable conservative William F Buckley Jr, has come out for the registry.

"This isn't the nanny state's latest pet cause, John J Miller, a self-described "right-winger", wrote in a guest column in The New York Times, "but a smart and practical idea that will help preserve domestic tranquillity in homes across the land."

So it should not be surprising that when the hearings were held, according to the trade publication Advertising Age, the questions from the FTC commissioners were not "on whether the list should be adopted", but "on how it should be adopted".

All of which is infuriating the companies and agencies that depend on selling directly to consumers, which through the Direct Marketing Association have mounted an aggressive counter-attack on the registry.

The list would, the organisation charges, harm charities, because it would hinder fund raising; cost women, students, entry-level workers and minorities their jobs, because many telemarketers employ roomfuls of such staff to make calls; and jeopardise an estimated $661 billion in goods and services bought over the phone at a time when the economy - not to mention the advertising industry - is trying desperately to avoid regressing into recession.

There is one sop to the telemarketers. To be placed on the list, a consumer would have to, yes, make a phone call. No word yet on whether FTC ads will borrow the industry catchphrase and promise: "Operators are standing by."


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus