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The invisible man

Is it simply impossible to escape the consumer marketing grid?

TEXT OF STORY

Tess Vigeland: The freegans are trying their best to close their eyes to our consumer culture, but just because they aren't paying attention to Procter and Gamble's most recent marketing campaign doesn't mean marketers aren't paying attention to them.

Marketing and advertising is a half-trillion dollar global industry. A lot of that money is spent collecting information about you so sales people can target their pitches to your interests.

So we sent Marketplace's Steve Henn out to try and fashion a modern day invisibility cloak. What would it take for him to hide himself and his family from the global marketing machine?


Steve Henn: Once or twice a month, I'll come home from work to find my daughters reading a toy catalogue like it is a storybook.

Faye: Can I see?

Ads aimed at my little girls are dropped into our home every other day through the mail slot.

My kids became demographic targets before they could talk. Now they make collages of their material desires.

Faye: Cut it out, Ella.

Ella: I'm going to try to cut out Dorothy.

It's enough to make me wonder if escape is even possible.

Beth Givens: If you truly wanted to escape, you are going to expend a tremendous amount of effort and it has to be on an ongoing basis.

Beth Givens, at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, says there are things you can do. The biggest is to opt-out of direct marketing at every opportunity. Refuse to allow information about you to be sold or shared from company to company.

But it's laborious. Ari Schwartz from the Center for Democracy and technology says there are different rules in different situations.

Ari Schwartz: Right now, it's kind of industry by industry.

One call gets you on the do not call list. Another can eliminate most direct mail. But other industries, you have to contact companies one by one. For example:

Givens: Financial institutions that you do business with might be selling your customer data to third parties.

So to disappear, I'll need to start dialing 800 numbers: Suntrust for my checking account, a congressional credit union for my car loan, my mortgage company, Bank of America for a credit card, TIAA-CREF, Charles Schwab, maybe Fidelity?

And we're just getting started.

Givens: Unsolicited credit card offers, did we talk about that one?

Nope. Another call...

Givens: And then don't fill out product registration forms, consumer surveys and then when you subscribe to a magazine, tell the magazine company "do not sell my name."

Your pharmacist could be part of the matrix, too. Some pharmacies have signed contracts with big drug makers to market you new drugs directly.

Givens: It deals with the relationship that you have with your doctor. To turn that into a marketing opportunity, I think is diabolical.

Even public schools sometimes make information about their students available to marketers -- information gathered through surveys, fund-raising sales and student directories. So if I am going to disappear, I'll need to opt-out at school too.

But my efforts to get off these lists can be undone in a heartbeat, just by doing something as simple as filling out a change of address form.

Givens: The post office does share all of that information with the top, I think, 20 companies that have really, really large mailing lists.

And those 800 numbers I dialed to get off the lists? Gotcha.

Givens: When you call an 800 number, the recipient of that call is able to capture your phone number. And then if they pay extra, they can actually find out the name and the address and other information about the person attached to that number.

Talk about a catch-22. And even if you don't mess up, disappearing completely is still unlikely.

Givens: Public records are a gold mine for marketers.

Remember those toy catalogues my daughters read?

Faye: Hey, where is the magazine?

Hess: Faye, what's that?

Faye: A costume I want to wear.

Well, chances are marketers found out about Faye's very existence by looking up her birth certificate. So from the day you're born, marketers may have your name.

In some cases, you can pay them to stop sending you ads, but even that's not so easy.

Schwartz: They've actually made dead people pay.

Ari Schwartz at the Center for Democracy and Technology says the Direct Marketers Association won't do much for free.

Schwartz: If someone said "I want to take my dead father's name off the list," they make them pay
$1.

Schwartz says death, taxes and junk mail are the new certainties of modern life.

Unfortunately junk mail can follow you beyond the grave.

I'm Steve Henn, for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.
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