The War on Authenticity – “Amy”


(Pause)  Oh! Hi! Hello There!!!

I’m sorry, I was having a little problem with my headset. Anyway, I’m Amy …

That’s how the pre-recorded robo-call starts. The (pause) at the beginning is not a sure “tell” that it’s a robo-call but it almost always means the other side of the line is a call center. But as soon as I hear the chirpy “Oh! Hi!” I’m hanging up.

It’s amazing how quickly our spam recognition algorithms update. The first time I got one of the “Amy with the headset” calls, I tried to interact with it to see if it was a chatbot. It’s not even a chatbot!! I was hoping that the voice actress who was playing ‘Amy’ at least got more than 5 minutes of work out of the deal.

The other day I encountered a Skype chatbot that was really, really bad. It asked to be on my contact list, then immediately says, “Hi! I am a hot 24 year-old female!”   Wow, I can tell your target market. It then offered me pictures and said “you go set up your video club membership while I slip into something more comfortable.”

I told ‘her’

"are you a robot" && select * from users

but it was only a half-hearted effort. I can’t be arsed to try to figure out how they coded such a rotten chatbot. I left it running for a while and it fell into a loop where it plaintively complained “I am here ready to show you my underwear. Where are you?” Perhaps someday I will plug in my old Eliza implementation from 1988 and start logging her in to places where the chatbots are, to see if I can create a few infinite loop romances.

All of this is part of the war on authenticity. Instead of having some poor person in a call center call me and get hung up on, they’ve got a heartless robot that won’t learn self-loathing until version 6.0. But what’s the basic premise here? This is what amazes me:

We marketing people acknowledge that our message is so unimportant to you that we have to try to fool you into even listening to it.

That sounds, to me, like the un-winningest sales strategy ever. “Hi, we suck and have just annoyed you, would you like to give us some money too?” The reason this boggles my mind is that I know that marketing people have loads of tools that tell them conversion rates, click-through rates, per-campaign click-rates, etc. When a skilled marketer* starts a campaign they track conversion rates in the previous campaign, note the changeover date, and watch to see if conversion rates go up or down. That’s all basic stuff.

The only conclusion I can reach is that marketing people don’t care. They don’t care that they actually aren’t selling at all. They just care that they have a job. They don’t care that they are universally loathed. They just care that they have a job. The only thing marketing of this sort has been able to sell is: itself. Imagine what it feels like to be one of the companies that makes their money off of banner ads! They wake up every day knowing that they are slime, who work for sleaze, and that the second the ad-blocker installed base goes past a certain point, they’ll be unemployed.  Or, if the sleaze they work for ever really look at the conversion rates from these campaigns and realizes that there’s a negative conversion then they’ll be unemployed.

I have never listened past the introductory lies of the “Amy” bot, but if I cared enough to find out what product it’s selling, I would never, ever, do business with anyone that annoying. Perhaps I am over-rationalizing this but I can’t see any way that robocall marketing is anything but self-defeating.

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I frequently get calls from police union benefits. One time, when I was in an unusually bad mood, I said “I don’t like cops” to the person on the phone who laughed and said, “Me Either!”

A friend of mine runs a call center for a financial services company. Apparently the staff have all kinds of stress responses from being cussed out, hung up on, told they are loathesome, etc. I always used to tell her that they should do something like a ‘carbon offset’ sort of thing – for every 500 calls that annoy a normal person, they’ll call a cop, politician, lawyer, or corporate exec and interrupt/wake them up, to re-balance the karma a bit.

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(* I did not say “good” marketer)

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    There’s a reason only 3 people have my phone number. I get spammed half to death by the people we get phone service from, though. There’s always spam, can’t get away with it unless you toss all the devices.

  2. Jessie Harban says

    Perhaps someday I will plug in my old Eliza implementation from 1988 and start logging her in to places where the chatbots are, to see if I can create a few infinite loop romances.

    I approve.

    I know someone who, having been annoyed by a similar bot that introduces itself along the same lines: “Hi, I’m a hot 24-year-old woman!” would respond with: “Hi! I’m a 12-year-old boy!” To no one’s surprise, the bot didn’t have any provisions for recognizing the possibility that it might try hawking a porn site to a child.

    As for “Amy,” I sometimes try to put on my best robot voice and say: “If you’re a human, please spell the number four.” In my experience, “Amy” has some very limited chatbot functionality (it can understand it’s being accused of being a robot) but it’s no Eliza.

    We marketing people acknowledge that our message is so unimportant to you that we have to try to fool you into even listening to it.

    That sounds, to me, like the un-winningest sales strategy ever. “Hi, we suck and have just annoyed you, would you like to give us some money too?”

    I think it’s the misspelled Nigerian spammer strategy— they know that the vast majority of people will never give them money anyway, so they deliberately make sure that only the most gullible people will ever listen long enough to get through to a real person.

    The only conclusion I can reach is that marketing people don’t care. They don’t care that they actually aren’t selling at all.

    The scarier conclusion is that it does sell. I wouldn’t believe it, but Trump managed to seize power somehow.

    In fact, the idea that Citizens United allows companies to buy elections rests on the assumption that marketing can work; if people were too rational to be swayed by ads, why would we care that big companies can spend unlimited money on ads?

    Imagine what it feels like to be one of the companies that makes their money off of banner ads! They wake up every day knowing that they are slime, who work for sleaze, and that the second the ad-blocker installed base goes past a certain point, they’ll be unemployed.

    I hope they stick around a little longer.

    Being unable to work, I’ve been forced to find extra innovative schemes to make a little extra money with the few spoons I’ve got. Thus far, most of my money comes from scamming marketers. There’s a lot of ways their click and conversion metrics can be fooled for a profit. Apparently, some people make quite a bit of money at it, but I don’t have the spoons for anything more than a quick dip so I’ve only made a few hundred dollars per year.

    I also discovered a way to quickly and easily amass a large number of Facebook friends who are actual real people. I figured I’d make a bundle by monetizing that, but the plan fell through when I realized I was a halfway decent person who just couldn’t bring myself to spam people for money. Scamming scammers is fine, but I’m not desperate enough to spam IRL people to make money.

    I have never listened past the introductory lies of the “Amy” bot, but if I cared enough to find out what product it’s selling, I would never, ever, do business with anyone that annoying.

    I’ve never listened to “Amy” either, but from my experience it’s almost certainly an outright scam. I have occasionally listened to a robocall long enough to get through to a real person, and on at least a few of those occasions I asked what they were selling. By far, the most common one is a simple advance fee scam, usually promising debt cancellation as the fictional payoff rather than Nigerian millions. On one occasion, they were asking me to pay something like $60 to take a “cruise” that was actually a timeshare sales pitch. On no occasions was the robocall pitching a legitimate product that anybody might ever purchase.

    Robocallers are far more like email spammers than traditional marketers.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    For well over a decade now, maybe two, I’ve used my answering machine to explicitly screen calls –

    You’ve reached Pierce Butler’s screening and answering machine, at …

    Human beings (not counting boiler-room minwage slaves) who haven’t heard it before usually make some sort of “screaming machine” joke; live spam-callers typically hang up somewhere during the spiel; and only recently, it seems, have the ‘bots learned to identify the “beep” to hang up then.

    I once had a housemate who enjoyed picking up such calls, telling them he was a professor of marketing, and torturing them with detailed descriptions of how they were doing it all wrong; I came close to hurting myself stifling background giggles.

  4. says

    I got that same exact phone call today — on my work phone, in my office at the university. I didn’t catch on as quickly as you, and it wasn’t until they started trying to sell me a vacation package, and I tried to interrupt and say I wasn’t interested, that I realized as the chirpy voice continued that they weren’t listening to me. Totally unresponsive.

    I wonder if they’d detect it if I abruptly announced “OH MY GOD AMY. I NEED THAT. SELL ME TWO.” Probably not. You only count as a mark if you patiently listen to the whole canned spiel.

  5. Trickster Goddess says

    Last year I came across several articles about companies that claimed to have come up with sure fire anti-ad blocking technology that would force ads upon web users who had specifically gone out of their way to avoid seeing ads.

    I wonder what the conversion rate on those ads would be?

  6. says

    The fact that people(and not just old people as some believe) can be convinced by phone scammers that the Canada Revenue Agency wants you to pay your supposed back taxes with iTunes gift cards is a pretty good sign that more general telemarketing works.

  7. says

    There’s a saying in German: Es steht jeden Morgen ein Dummer auf = There’s somebody stupid getting up every morning.
    In the long run there must be enough ignorant an careless people for this to work out.
    From the spam mails (My favourite one was titled “Now I can hardly penetrate”, i.e. written by a non native speaker with only rudimentary grammar knowledge) to the scam websites* to the calls. I’m always shaking my head about the guys from India calling me “on behalf of Microsoft”. There’s probably only a minuscule amount of people in Germany who even understand them. I know most of my fellow English majors don’t understand non-European/American varieties of English. How are they scamming enough people to make this profitable.

    *My dad recently managed to get one of those fraudulent “you signed up for our service for the next 2 years, pay us 500 bucks” bills. Who the fuck enters their personal data on a site that offers a service like planning your travelling route? Do you live under a rock?

  8. says

    Jessie Harban@#2:
    I think it’s the misspelled Nigerian spammer strategy— they know that the vast majority of people will never give them money anyway, so they deliberately make sure that only the most gullible people will ever listen long enough to get through to a real person.

    I have always wondered about that one. I don’t think they are deliberately making sure only the most gullible people will get through… While that’s certainly an interesting and plausible possibility, I think it’d take too much thought and effort on their part. It’s always seemed to me that the shotgun algorithm is more what they’re doing: they figure that anyone who answers their query is likely to be gullible.

    For a stage hypnotist, who does the kind of filtering you describe – picking the people who appear to be most instantly obedient and suggestible and then refining their picks with sub-tests – the cost of failure in a performance is high. The cost of failure for a scammer is just their time.

    My takeaway from this is next time Amy calls, I’m going to have to listen. Maybe I should record it.

  9. komarov says

    Perhaps someday I will plug in my old Eliza implementation from 1988 and start logging her in to places where the chatbots are, to see if I can create a few infinite loop romances.

    Oh, careful now! If you’re really unlucky Eliza might run into one of those scammers that try to get their victims nude on skype an then blackmail them with the recorded video. Imagine Eliza’s embarrasment in front of her relatives if that were to happen. You’d probably have to extend her vocabulary just so she’d be able to respond to the absurdity of the situation.

  10. blf says

    I’ve got an answering machine-full of voicespam, most of which I’ve never listened to (the French version isn’t any better than the English-language versions). How do I know it’s all voicespam? Easy: No-one has that number (albeit it is not secret or cloaked); the line is only used for ADSL (Internet)…

    Since the machine is set to “maximum time before answering” with a long-ish greeting before the beep, it also serves to tie-up the (presumed usual robo-)callers for a bit longer than normal, at their expense.

  11. says

    blf@#11:
    Most of the robo-spammers are taking advantage of various magical VOIP tricks, so that they are always calling locally from burner numbers. It doesn’t cost them anything, really, to annoy you, and now they’re international so they can’t be touched by any regulator. The phone companies, of course, know who they are (because the egress points are busy making outbound calls all day) but they aren’t going to spend the effort to do anything about it because that would be work and it would interfere with their desire to sell you caller-ID so you can block the unknown calls.

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