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Postal Hucksters

How marketing overlords ruined the charm of my local post office.

| by David Bollier

Photo by Nikolas Muray, via Flickr.

I used to enjoy going to my small-town post office, here in Amherst, Massachusetts, because the clerks were so friendly. They would chat amiably with other townspeople, and laugh at small talk, and point with pride at photos of their grandchildren. I never knew any of them personally, but I always enjoyed the folksy tone that they set for the post office.

Then, about a year or two ago, I noticed a distinct change. Whenever I went in to mail a large envelope, and asked for first-class postage, Fran or Carl (not their real names) would insist upon asking me: “Would you like to send that Express Mail? Priority mail?”

I would patiently say, “No, I just need first class postage. Nothing else”

And they would persist: “Certified delivery? A signature to confirm delivery? Do you need insurance?”

“No…..” I would repeat with growing irritation. “Just first class.”

As if I were a pillar of stone, they would ignore me and continue their spiel: “And what about a roll of stamps? Do you need a passport application?”

At this point, however, I was livid. ”What don’t you not understand about the words ‘Just first class?’” I spluttered.

It was as if someone had cast a spell on the once-friendly and likeable clerks of the Amherst Post Office.

I have experienced coercive advertising delivered by various machines – the ads before movies in a theater, the audio ads while waiting “on hold” on the phone, and video ads at gas pumps and in elevators. And I had experienced telemarketing, of course, which always holds the the option of hanging up. But until my post office encounters, I had not been forced to consume advertising from living, breathing human beings right in front of me.

Let me tell you, it’s repellant – certainly for me, and I suspect for the clerks as well, who used to be more relaxed and friendly. Now they have become automatons. The folksy charm had vanished.

The purpose of the postal clerks’ marketing spiel, of course, is to “nudge” us distracted postal customers to “upgrade” our preferences and send that letter to grandma using Express Mail or some premium service. This would presumably increase postal revenues.

But the scripted, relentless nature of this marketing – even when the customer interrupts and complains! – is demeaning to all concerned. The robotic message trumps any authentic human encounter while pretending to be “serving the customer.” It also crowds out any time to have a casual, sincere social encounter of the sort that builds and sustains community. That time has been seized to market postal services whether the customer wants it or not.

Once when I interrupted a clerk mid-spiel to ask her to stop, he confessed with an apologetic smile, “I have to say this.” On another occasion, steam came out of my ears when the clerk Ella (not her real name) continued to recite her marketing script after I had already made abundantly clear that I only wanted first-class postage — NOTHING MORE! She lowered her voice and explained: “There are ‘mystery shoppers’ who come by here at any time. I could get fired if I don’t say this!” Then she put her “employee mask” back on.

So there you have it: The U.S. Postal Service employs secret agents, posing as customers, to assure quality of service to customers – which is apparently defined as animatronic marketing harangues delivered by frightened postal clerks to irritated customers. Now that’s a great business model!

After enduring one too many marketing pitches at the postal counter, I finally got ahold of a postal supervisor to complain. Yes, he conceded, those were the orders from on high…..but he would be happy to convey my complaint to the district manager.

Oh great. I was suddenly reminded of the FedEx advertisement that shows a customer trudging up the steps of a massive post office, dropping a letter into the mail slot and hearing a haunting whoosh of wind. Hello in there! Anyone home?

It’s unclear who exactly is to blame for transforming the postal clerks of Amherst into marketing zombies. Perhaps the culprit is the district manager. Perhaps it’s the marketing vice president for some expensive Manhattan consulting firm. Perhaps it’s some committee of postal executives who meet in Washington, D.C. to set national policies. Like so many things these days, the responsible party is a hard-to-identify, virtually unaccountable “they” who has the power to degrade our everyday lives – in this case, the once-pleasant, social ambience of my two local post offices.

I plan to address my complaint to The Great Totalitarian Marketing Overlord of the U.S. Postal Service. And since the only thing that really makes marketing gurus quiver is the words “brand equity,” I hereby blame the U.S. Postal Service as a brand. I would like to inform the U.S. Postal Service that you are destroying your brand equity by forcing your postal clerks to be obnoxious robots.

I want you to give me my friendly postal clerks back! You must break the spell you have cast and allow them their humanity! You have made the Amherst post office an object of dark ridicule among my family and friends, as we disbelievingly trade stories about the glassy-eyed zombies who harangue us with unwanted marketing pitches when we simply want to mail a first-class envelope. On more than one occasion, I have taken my mailings to the UPS store instead because the clerks there are at least allowed to behave like genuine, spontaneous, happy human beings.

I must emphasize that I have no quarrel with the beleaguered postal clerks themselves. I feel for them. I am outraged by their captivity. I want my old, small-town, friendly post office back.

I understand that bad retail experiences are not one of the big problems in the world today. But the zombie-fication of life is. So is the corporatizing of our local institutions. So is the power of the market to eclipse our natural, social selves.

And that’s what is happening at my local post office. When I realized that a beloved local institution had been quietly taken over by banal, totalitarian marketers who spy on the postal clerks to ensure compliance, and that the clerks’ basic humanity could be so easily commandeered and stifled, all in the name of revenue enhancement, I just had to say something. I suspect that only a public outcry will break this particular spell. So the next time you encounter coercive zombie marketing, find the supervisor or the postmaster and complain.

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Posted September 2, 2010

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