Caveat Emptor, Venditor Sleazy

I have a pile of friends who work in the real estate, time-share, and online industries, and very few of them would I refer to as sleazy. But the idea of sleazy is one that comes to mind whenever the topic of real-estate or car sales in particular arises in casual conversation. I know that in casual conversation, we use words casually, approximating meanings and judging loosely.

So I wondered: why does sleazy appear to be a casual association I have with real-estate, time-share, and car sales as well as in some online experiences and television sales? Maybe it isn’t so much casual as causal. That’s what I’m wondering about.

I love Google’s “DEFINE” feature: type in “define: [your word]”, and it presents you with a list of definition snippets drawn from a variety of sources. “Define: sleazy” produced a list of definitions that shared a lot of the same nodes, namely dishonorable, low quality, low moral standards or morally degraded, seamy. At least, these were the nodes that popped out at me as being relevant to what I think of as sleazy. Oddly, there was one node that I was expecting but didn’t explicitly see, and that was lack of honesty. Maybe lack of honesty is an implied behavior resulting from acting with low moral standards.

So, what is the sleaze and how is it generated?

One of the complaints I hear most frequently with the salesmen of certain industries is that they employ shady pressure tactics and spin the truth to varying degrees, sometimes innocently equivocal, other times surpassing the bounds of its definition entirely. Can honest people do this? Or maybe it’s a characteristic of an industry or an accepted modus operandi within its domain.

The reason I expected to see honesty in the definitional nodes of sleazy is because the pressure tactics typically rely on fantastic situations that have no substance in reality and the spins boast benefits that are equally as tenuous. In other words, the tactics are not above board, which to me means the salesmen are not presenting facts and benefits that are free from deceit or fraud. They are not behaving honestly.

I worked for an online company one time that was heavily staffed by people of the predominant and virtuous religion of the region. The people of this company were genuinely trying to do their jobs well, but “well” seemed to include employing slight-of-hand and morally questionable practices for attracting and tricking people into parting with their cash and stashing that parting into unrecognized renewing autopilot.

I questioned one of the elders of the company who had an equal status in his church why their religious strictures did not apply in business. His answer was astonishing: they were unrelated. Personal life was personal; business was business.  I would have thought — nay, I do think — that honesty is honesty, whether in conducting personal or business matters. Selling honesty honestly is to me more honorable than selling fiction through falsehood; and I have more faith in the product because I was able to make decisions that were right for me.

This VP/Elder had compartmentalized morality away from the practice of dealing with humans in a just way because the practice was thought of as an amoral (neither moral nor immoral), mechanical business operation, not a reflection of the righteousness of the people behind the operation. (He was the same guy to whom we could not teach that a company’s Brand is actually its perceived personality; and like any personality, you know it by how it behaves, ethically and otherwise.)

Some of the same pressure tactics used by this company are the same as those used by other online companies, such as I wrote to once to explain how trust and honesty were built in web experiences, which don’t include bait-&-switch, cruelly dangling premium possibilities, obscuring payment repercussions, etc.

I guess they think the way this other company thought: they can hook revenue these ways because they’re accepted practices for the morally compartmentalized. Instead of tricking people into ongoing subscriptions they don’t use using chicanery, ruse, and ploy, why can’t they sell the value of the product in open negotiation and make mutually beneficial contracts?

Does honesty simply not sell?

Of course it does. I’ve seen it. At the offline level (moving from online examples), my best friend employs brutal honesty in his proposals and dealings; and I have other friends such as my good friend and translator in Seattle whose product never requires artifice to close a deal. So why do so many — not all! — people in real-estate and car sales employ tactics that are less than above-board to sell their products?

I can only surmise that it is a mindset compounded with the pressure or desire to sell, as in, make money…the supposed “root of all evil.” I also believe it is reflective of upper management. In one situation I know of, the Sales Director is working to control the amount of dubious or untruthful spin on the sales floor, while management above her is passing down materials for these same salespeople to use, which materials are designed to raise the specter of a situation that does not exist in order to generate an urgency within the prospect to buy now rather than wait later.

At what point do you draw the line between vice and virtue; and can you have it both ways? It is difficult for me to conceive of a person who is at the same time virtuous and knowingly using deceitful practices. My brain is small that way.

But wait! There’s more! My Patrick can never hold back his disdain at the commercials that say, “But if you act now, within the next 20 minutes” … you’ll get this special deal, when in reality, the advertisement time slot is not controlled by the seller of the product, which means that the 20-minute timeframe is a sham. Accepted, common business practice — but sleazy none the less.

We also question the claim that a gold-plated product “valued at $20.95 can be yours for only $1 (plus $9.95 shipping & handling).” Really — you can sell gold-plated stuff at 4.77% of its value? Credibility has been stretched probably as thin as the alleged “gold plating,” and the quality of the “gold” is as valuable as the quality of the claim.

I think that a good product sells itself when its benefits can be artfully matched to the needs of the prospect buyer; and that “urgency” (supply-demand, timing, prime rates, etc.) can be generated from reality. I think sleaze, the noun, comprises behaviors and materials designed to deliberately mislead, distort, confuse, and trick. I think sleaze, the person, is a person who employs the noun. I think sleazy is an operation that houses both such nouns and persons. And I think sad that the buyer must most always beware.

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