TV Gives Telemarketing a Bum Rap

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If you happened to catch two of TV's most popular shows this past week, you saw the typical representation of direct marketing: it's evil. First up, the April 4 episode of CBS' "Touched by an Angel" had down-and-out Melina sent by an employment agency to do telemarketing for an insurance company because she had no job qualifications.

The show's script writer did no research on the subject (telemarketers even dialed numbers by hand instead of using automatic dialers) and included every cliché he could think of. "You know those phone calls everybody gets and nobody wants," head angel Tess (Della Reese) told case worker Monica (Roma Downey), and "No, sir, I didn't mean to interrupt your dinner," apologized Melina. On a call, Melina got defensive: "The truth is I would rather slit my wrists than continue this conversation." At that point, her supervisor came over to explain, "We don't harass the prospects. They can yell, scream, curse, threaten, whatever. You just take it. He was a potential customer. Now he's not. You were an employee. Now you're not."

Did viewers care that the supervisor was only doing her job by firing Melina? No, it was just a setup for the rest of the show, which had her join a cult that was headed for a Guyana-like tragedy.

A night later, Ally (Calista Flockhart) told off a telerep on Fox's "Ally McBeal." You see, Ally rushed to answer her phone hoping it was this guy she had been waiting for days to get a call from. Instead, it was telemarketer Shirley, who requested a minute of Ally's time. Perturbed, Ally said no. "Well, when would be a good time?" asked Shirley. In surreal "McBeal" style, Ally reached into the phone and pulled Shirley's head out of the receiver and yelled, "How about never!?"

The irony here is that two shows -- on opposite ends of the demographic spectrum -- both took pot shots at telemarketing in just two days. Portrayals like this only reinforce the bad feelings for an industry that's already an easy target. It'd be nice if they could get beyond the stereotypes.
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