IT'S NICE THAT America's industries have social consciences, but do they have to strain so hard to associate their products with their altruism? And do they have to pretend that what they clearly are doing for their interest is somehow really for mine?
Take cat litter, for example. Am I the only one who sees incongruity in a "Just Say No to Drugs" logo on a bag of kitty sand? (My wife thinks they meant to print "Just Say No to Dogs.") Perhaps effort should be made to eradicate feline drug abuse, but are there really that many cats out there who are doing worm pills? Imagine what some being from another galaxy would conclude about our society and our felines if he came upon a bag of Glamour Kitty in a space capsule.
Although pictures of lost kittens ("Description: furry, nice purr, white mittens . . . likes to play in the street") might be more appropriate, at least that manufacturer seems sincere and not out for personal gain from a public problem. What I do find offensive, and not amusing, are shallow attempts by other entrepreneurs to convince us that altruism, not economics, is the motivation for a recent change (for the worse) in their product or a just-announced decrease in service. They insist on pretending to be doing you a favor when any idiot can see that there is no benefit for the consumer in the change. They must think they are dealing with kittens. Consider the following, for example:
A while ago my favorite large retailer began to centralize its checkout areas. (This is the same store that dropped my clothing line, the Johnny Miller collection, because surveys showed that people thought he was Cheryl Tiegs' live-in boyfriend rather than a celebrity golfer). These cashier hubs, in my experience, seemed to substitute long lines for the knowledgeable sales help that had been in each department. When I asked a store manager, in a whiny voice I admit, why they had done this, I was told, with a straight face, that it was for my convenience. For my convenience? Dazed, I wandered away and got back in line.
My bank recently merged with an out-of-state but just-across-the-river crony. There were vague advertisements featuring pictures of monuments and lots of handshakes in board rooms, all implying that this new partnership allowing interstate banking would be of great benefit to their customers (even if they only had $246 in their account). To date the net result for me has been that my service fees have gone up and I am now required to maintain an even higher balance in my interest-bearing checking account if I do not want it to become interest-barren. And I still have not been invited to see the board room.
A couple of months ago my son's skateboard was stolen and I filed an insurance claim. This particular set of wheels cost more than I paid for my truck ($180). Since my son had saved the receipts (the first time that has happened), the insurance company was willing to pay a third of the skateboard's original cost, a reasonable amount given the deductible. But the company insisted on making the check out jointly to me and the store where the board was originally purchased, even though my plain-English policy clearly stated that the insurance company would settle with me directly. The agents kept insisting that they had to give me a two-party check because they were "replacing" the skateboard -- until finally, after several calls and letters, they gave me a check in my name alone. The good-hands people have electric buzzers in their palms.
These illustrations are of course just the tip of the marketplace. Businesses are pretending to do nice things for their customers all over America -- from grocers savings all those trees for our children by using plastic bags (derived unfortunately from a nonrenewable resource and, coincidentally, considerably cheaper) to automobile manufacturers saving us the trouble of rotating a fifth tire by supplying a pint-sized spare.
Should consumers ignore this pretense at product or service improvement? I do not believe that is helping the American business community stay afloat, and besides, it causes heartburn. Instead of wearing a "Made in America" lapel pin, the retaliatory activity that makes me feel like I am helping America retool is a personal policy of consistent confrontation. If you let them get away with pretense, business folks, like children, start believing their own stories, losing the ability to distinguish illusion from reality, why a change was made and who will benefit (why they left their math book at school, and the reason they will give to their parents).
Do not let the cable TV company tell you their monitoring device indicated there was no service interruption in your neighborhood last night, when you distinctly recall staring at a blank screen. Express your dissatisfaction to the tool manufacturer who insists there is nothing wrong with its lawn-edger handle assembly, when neither you, two engineers nor the neighborhood building contractor can put it together. If the toy train set you bought your child (solely because it was the brand to buy when you were a kid) turns out to be junk compared to its foreign competitors, let Choo Choo Charlie know.
And, if the mood is right, go ahead and let the business community know on the rare occasions when they really do something for our convenience. But be careful. Once I wrote to a pen company extolling the virtues of one of their implements. They sent me a three-page questionnaire to fill out.
And, while you are at it, say no to drugs (but yes to cat litter).
Mark Littman is a Washington writer and a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau.