You've probably seen these poor suckers. They may come to your house, or they may come walking creepily in your direction in a parking lot with a look of determination in their eyes. However they manage to rope you, you're in for a long drawn-out sob story, usually something about a sales quota or a points-based competition that's only x amount of points away from completion. Often a fantastic holiday to some tropical locale is hinging on the successful sale of...what exactly? It may take them fifteen minutes to get around to actually telling you what they're selling. It's incredibly difficult to shake these people with anything short of threats of physical violence. If you tell them anything other than "yes, I'll order from you" reactions vary from pouting to straight up verbal abuse.
You have just witnessed the seedy world of traveling magazine sales.
Like most of my write-ups, this one would not be complete without an anecdote. I have been fortunate in that I have encountered these misguided fools exactly twice in my life, but both times left me contemplating homicide. Both times were when I was visiting in Buffalo, a detail that comes into play in a minute. The first time I was in a mall and a young guy, maybe late teens/early twenties, approached me and started talking my ear off immediately without giving me even a chance to say "sorry, I'm kind of in a hurry" or preferably "fuck off, I don't want any". Even if I wasn't already convinced he was trying to sell me something I would have found him insufferable, but thankfully he wasn't very good at hiding that he was a salesman, so I could let his bullshit go in one ear and out the other with confidence. I must have been in a particularly good mood that day because I humoured him for maybe ten minutes. During this time he tried every trick in the book, from flattery ("You know, you're a very attractive woman. I'm sure you could really get into some fashion magazines.") to the aforementioned sob story about a company-paid vacation ("I've just got to get 1,000 more points and then I'm going to Hawaii baby!"). Of course it was heavily implied that a sale to me would accomplish this goal.
When I finally got my chance to speak, I told him I currently had no money (a lie, of course). "Well you could write me a cheque," he suggested. I told him I did not have a bank account (also a lie). "Oh..." The enthusiasm dropped to zero in a flash. "Well, thanks anyway."
So I went on my merry way, relieved to finally be rid of the windy douchebag. And since I did in fact have cash on me I went and bought whatever it was I went to the mall to buy in the first place (he actually almost made me forget). So I was just about to walk out the door when I see him again, only this time he's storming toward me with three other guys, looking pissed beyond belief. Of course I was freaked at first, but then I could barely contain my laughter when he wailed, "How could you lie to me like that? You told me you didn't have any money on you!"
"It wasn't a lie," I explained. "I have no money for magazines. Have a good one!" I then walked outside and laughed for at least five minutes.
The second incident was much like this one, only it occurred in a supermarket parking lot and was far creepier. A middle-aged guy who could easily have gone as a hobo for Halloween, unshaven and bundled as he was in layers of shabby clothing, eyed me like a vulture staking out a wounded moose, running to catch me before I made it into the store. Unlike the first guy he spent a little more time schmoozing me to lead up to the sales pitch. He asked me where I was from, what I did for a living, teased me about "sounding Canadian", etc. Like the first guy he complimented my appearance, only he was extremely creepy about it. He kept trying to put his arm around me and repeatedly asked why "a pretty girl like me wasn't married". He smelled like stale cigars and rum. I'll give credit where credit is due, though; he was a little better at this game than the first guy. When he finally got to the subject of the magazine subscriptions he tossed in the added detail that a portion of the proceeds would go to a local charity. Nice. If I turn down this offer I'm a selfish soulless bitch. Well, I guess I'm a selfish soulless bitch because I told him I had no money on me. "Well then why are you going to the store?" he asked, clearly angry. Again I explained I had money for everything in the world except damn magazines and walked off.
Both of these incidents were only mildly irritating, the second one more so because the guy was incredibly inappropriate, but I would learn later that by fucking with these guys for my amusement I may have just put strain on structures that weren't up to code to begin with. As a bit of an armchair consumer advocate I regularly read up on employment and sales scams. There is a plethora of damning stories about these magazine sales scams, sleazy organizations that harvest high school and college students, single mothers, chronically unemployed or unemployable individuals, and other "easy marks" for an operation that is at best a nuisance and at worst incredibly illegal. They snag their victims in an insultingly idiotic manner too, with vaguely or creatively worded help wanted ads. After the second run-in I started doing searches online for questionable-looking job postings recruiting for this disaster. My favourite was worded something like this, complete with grating caps lock: "LIVE LIKE A ROCK STAR. TRAVEL AND MAKE FRIENDS! MAKE MONEY BY DAY AND PARTY ALL NITE! ROCK AND ROLL BLUE JEANS JOB AVAILABLE FOR SHARP 18-24 YEAR OLDS! WORK FOR A MAJOR MAGAZINE PUBLISHER! CALL 800-xxx-xxxx"
When I did a search for the phone number I learned it belonged to a clearing house that had gone through a number of name changes over the past couple years, according to some outdated listings. It seemed, too, that they had moved to a couple different states in the same amount of time. Which brings me back to my anecdote. I was in Buffalo. The first guy, the asshat in the mall, during the course of his nattering told me he was from Pasadena, California. The second guy didn't tell me where he was from but from the looks of him he'd also been wandering the countryside like Johnny Magazineseed, annoying people from coast to coast. According to my research a huge draw for these "jobs" is the travel aspect. It is almost always mentioned in the job postings. This is especially troubling when you remember that their target demographic for "independent contractors", as these individuals are dubbed to exonerate the clearing house from its dirty deeds (more on that later), is young teens. The very people who are likely to be enticed by the promise of travel and huge payoffs for little work, who are unlikely to complain if something goes awry, and who are also unlikely to have money for bus fare home when they wise up and realize they're being royally fucked.
I stopped feeling bad about lying to those guys when I discovered that it was likely they who set off the cycle of deception. The salespeople are instructed by their managers to out and out lie about every conceivable thing. Bonus points if it's bound to score more sales, such as the second guy's charity angle. They are told to make up stories at every opportunity, touting themselves as working to pay for college, "working to turn their lives around", and other bullshit designed to tug at the heartstrings.
Ironically, the truth in these people's stories is far more tragic than anything they could make up. In 2007 the New York Times ran a story detailing disturbing tales of abuse, violence, threats, rape, and even murder within the twisted ranks of these operations, with the bloodstains squarely on the hands of the clearing houses that contract the "managers", who in turn employ the independent contractors. Forget that these salespeople never make anywhere even close to the money promised them by fast-talking recruiters (the money stays "on the books" to be distributed later, but later never comes). Never mind that they often worked 10 to 14 hours a day, every day, only to retire to crummy motels where the lowest seller of the day was motivated to strive harder by being made to sleep on the floor. Some of these people were irreversibly damaged by what happened to them on this "dream job". One man told of having to practically beg to be allowed to return home, only to be dropped off unceremoniously at the bus station with inadequate funds for a ticket, thousands of miles from home. Men who missed their sales quota were forced to fight each other, and anyone who stepped out of line risked a beating from a manager. One woman interviewed for the article spoke of being drugged and raped by strange men who were partying with her crew at a motel, then was demanded by her manager to go back to work the following morning.
Sadly, these are far from isolated incidents, or even the worst incidents. There have been several highly-publicized accounts of fatal accidents, most of which were caused by the unsafe vehicles used by the traveling crews, but more than a few as a result of the aforementioned beatings. Drug overdoses are fairly common. Still others have been abducted and murdered after being dropped off to sell in sketchy areas.
All of these are steep prices to pay for money that is rarely ever seen, or if it is it is in abysmal amounts, nowhere near anything that is ever promised. According to the New York Times article, the clearing houses get about 40 percent of the subscription money and the publishers about 10. The crew leaders get the remaining 50 percent, out of which they pay all expenses on the road, including the sales crew’s commission. Depending on just how profitable the group is this seems entirely workable...in theory. The crew members could receive several hundred dollars a week and still not have to sleep in scummy cheap motels where being robbed, beaten, or raped is sometimes not a question of if, but when. Instead, most crew members received only their daily allowance of 15 dollars. The rest of the money, even for successful sellers, was kept in a bank account "for expenses" and never seen again.
Labour protection is out of the question as well. Due to the creative branding by the clearing houses of the crews as independent contractors, or more specifically, outdoor sellers, they are exempt from most regulations on overtime and minimum wage while simultaneously absolving the clearing houses of most liability, since the crews are not technically their employees. Just to err on the side of caution, especially since their antics have become more publicized in recent years, these organizations started taking extra measures to make it difficult to track any misdoings back to them. Remember how I mentioned the one clearing house I researched having changed their name and moved across several states? That happens a lot. It becomes even more prudent for them to do this when one considers the consumer's end of this debacle. Many people who have felt sorry for the poor souls peddling these publications and actually bought a subscription never saw the magazines. Good luck finding a customer care department for a company that technically no longer exists because it moved and changed its name.
Fortunately, not all of them were swift enough to evade justice, and that is why so many former teen magazine sales crew members have been able to tell their stories. Even the ones who say, "That's not what it was like at all. Those were the bad ones ruining it for everyone else." or extol the impressive pay they hauled in every week could admit that more often than not they wondered if it was all worth it. Even though the industry has cleaned up considerably in recent years (most operations now require background checks and regular drug testing for both crew and management) the industry has a past that will haunt it forever. The fact that traveling youth sales crews topped the National Consumers League's list of the five worst jobs for teens in the U.S. in 2010 says it all.