08 Dec

“Zip code, please…”

“Customers’ private data are none of business’ business” in the Philadelphia Inquirer (December 8, 2004).

When Gwyneth Paltrow walks into Babies R Us to buy her daughter, Apple, the latest LeapFrog LeapPad, I wonder if she gives out her phone number to the cashier who greets each customer with a “Phone number, please.”

I bet she doesn’t, finding it an invasion of privacy. While she may not be able to keep the paparazzi at bay (and naming her child Apple certainly didn’t help the cause), she can keep the local cashier from obtaining her phone number. Why then, would we not value our privacy as much? I, like so many others, give out my phone number and zip code to any store clerk who asks for it.

The pressure to abstain from giving in to the marketing machine is just too great. Hurried thoughts run through your mind:

This line is taking forever. Wouldn’t dare not give my phone number. It would slow down the line. People would look. Frown. Grimace. Urge me with their eyes to hurry the heck up, or “just give him your phone number and move on, buddy!” Or they would think I’m a bit loopy – that I have a serious case of “Big Brother” syndrome.

Our collective patience threshold is at an all-time low during December, and that alone puts enough pressure on us to freely pass out our personal information. No one likes confrontation – not with a cashier and not with fellow shoppers. We find it easier to suck it up and go through the motions of self-disclosure.

Having gone through this internal debate twice in the last week (Circuit City and Babies R Us), I believe I’ve stumbled upon a solution to this pressure to comply. And a confrontation isn’t even necessary! Rather, it’s a gleeful act of subversion and revolution.

When asked by a sales associate for your phone number, why not say, “Sure, it’s 123-456-7890.”

They’ll thank you, and you’ll go on your merry way. Then, when the sales data are compiled at the end of the month, marketing analysts will wonder just how to get in touch with their customers.

Likewise, when asked for a zip code, say: “99705.”

I’d like to see the look on those analysts’ faces when they try to figure out how 97 percent of their customers are from the post office serving North Pole, Alaska. Maybe they’ll even begin to believe in Santa Claus again.

Retailers would have us believe that collecting our personal information will help them serve us better. They even imply that they’re doing this for us, the consumer, insisting that our personal information helps them create the products we want. Call me the eternal skeptic, but that sounds a tad too noble to believe. Rather, I think this information helps retailers better market to us so that we believe they’ve created products we want.

If that were not enough, when we get those products home, we find a warranty registration form that asks just about every piece of personal information one can ask except for one’s medical history. Fearful of a defective product or goaded by the chance to win a free DVD player, we find it all too easy to fill out the form.

The thing is, I don’t see how product registrations really protect the consumer. We fill out a form so that a company will guarantee, for a specified period, that the purchased product will work. Shouldn’t that guarantee exist even without a warranty registration? A product’s serial number date-stamps the product, so I see the registration card as redundant. And so, apparently, do the manufacturers. Take the fine print from my new General Electric stovetop range:

“Failure to complete and return this card does not diminish your warranty rights.”

So why bother filling out the registration form, which only provides marketing analysts with yet another tidbit of information on us?

Living in a capitalistic society, we probably cannot avoid the long arm of marketing, one of the driving forces of our economy. It’s up to us, however, to decide who’s behind the wheel.