What Fools We Mortals Be

Why are we so easily baited with freebies?

Topics

Consumerism

One early weekday morning six years ago, I was steering my enormous shopping cart in narrow Walmart aisles when I heard this announcement: “Welcome, lucky Walmart shoppers. We have an exciting giveaway this morning at the orange desk in the Housewares section. You must be there in the next two minutes to receive a free gift, offered only at this store.”

I’m old enough to know there’s no free lunch. Might this be different? I was interested to see if I would succumb to the sales pitch of a special live demo.

Usually my shopping is minimal and brief, which is normal for most single men. Though my cart seemed to be begging for more articles to fill it, I’d finished shopping. Maybe it was good luck. I was standing exactly where I should be, next to the orange desk. So I stayed put, not having to dash elsewhere for that free gift.

A diverse crew quickly gathered around me, young and old, fat and skinny, male and female, while I gawked in amazement at how attractive that word Free is. I’d nibble at the baited hook. I’d grab the gift and leave, so as not to be reeled in.

A Filipino youth seemed to surface from nowhere with a small microphone attached to his lapel. He was a good-looking lad with sleek black hair. An orange plastic cloth covered the table in front of him. He had all the props prepped for his “song and dance.”

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you all to place your right hand palm down on this table.” At his request, thirty or so human paws varying in size, shape, and color were laid palm down upon it. Those at our group’s outer edge struggled to reach the table, including me. That was the first of several hypnotic suggestions conditioning the curious audience to do as he wished.

“Very good. Now you can take your hand back and stand close, making room for others,” he said as his second suggestion. “I know you’re eager to learn about the free gift waiting for you.”

He reached under the table top and retrieved two items: a green apple and a circle slicer. He displayed these as a magician would an empty hat before pulling a white rabbit from it. His practiced hands did a spiral garnish of the apple in mere seconds.

“This stainless steel device, worth at least $7 retail, is yours free, just for listening.”

So far, I was not hooked but nibbling. At that point, however, he began a series of positive questions in rapid succession about vegetable slicers that all of us have seen on TV kitchenware ads or at county fairs.

“How many have seen something like this advertised?” he asked, lifting a slicer and waiting for raised hands. “You’ll note this slicer is different and works so much better. When you’re fixing a lunch, wouldn’t you love to have this handy?” He waited for the nods, then proceeded to quarter a cabbage and then shred it into coleslaw.

The audience responses to his entrancing questions induced compliance to do as he asked. No doubt polished from doing many demos like this, he spoke with a glib fluency that inspired trust in whatever he said.

I backed away, suspicious of the stupefying effect it was having on me, letting others take my place up front. I could see what was happening to those around me—their unblinking eyes fixed on his every move to the exclusion of everything around them. I wasn’t going to let myself be seduced and swallow that hook… not me!

I worried that I’d be snookered like I once was for two San Clemente Inn timeshares. I made that expensive, impulsive purchase, lured by the cheap gift of a Kodak camera. I had recently landed a well-paid engineering job and was puffed up with pride.

“You can afford this, can’t you?” a charming female sales agent asked with a smile, while handing me a burnished gold pen to sign papers. I swaggered out of that fancy resort, thousands of dollars poorer, wondering what had just happened, awakened as from a sleepwalk. I’ve regretted that dumb, vain purchase ever since.

On and on, the Filipino fellow demonstrated slice-and-dice wonders that were truly impressive. I foolishly lingered to see the finale. By the time he asked, “How many recognize its $39.97 value, with the stainless steel scissors, peeler, and shredder included free,” all hands shot up again… all except mine which I kept deep in my pockets.

“How many would like to take this home, to garnish your next party tray, maybe buy it for a Christmas or a wedding gift?”

I shook my head because so many hands shot up. He started piling small gift boxes on the table, reminding everyone that this handy lifetime-warranty item will not be for sale in Walmart ever again. “It’s now or never, ” he said, playing the urgency card. Then he handed out free spiral slicers to those who remained there.

Opening the gift box, I felt the slicer’s sharp edge nick me. To my surprise, I decided to buy, overruling every frugal impulse I’d carefully cultivated for the last 34 of my 72 years. Was it the sense of fair play that moved me—you gave to me, so I have to pay back? Then came the rationalization that I could shred my own coleslaw, wondering how I’d ever managed to function without such gadgetry in my kitchen.

Most of the audience had bought one and departed — all except me, on the verge of buying.

He was dumping his veggie victims into a small casket and wiping down his operating table, prepping things for his next gig.

I approached his table and — yes, swallowing hook, line, and sinker — I bought one. A cheap freebie had seduced me once again, against my will. This was serious.

How did he do it? Wanting to know his background training, I asked, “You’re really good at this. Do you work at this full time?

“I’m an actor and playwright from LA. I just finished a show at the Globe, and I’m working this gig for part-time income.”

“Why not full-time acting?” I asked, curious why he’d go fallow.

“There aren’t many roles for Filipinos. That’s why I’m writing plays that include us.”

“Well, I don’t know much about the stage, but what I saw here today was amazing… evidence of your exceptional sales talent.”

“Thanks. An actor has to sell a make-believe stage role to his audience. A dramatist has to make theatergoers believe they’re somewhere else. I practice my spellbinding here, selling slicers.”

“Good for you. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get me to buy something like this, which I really don’t need?”

“It’s happened to all of us… even me. I’ve bought stuff that just sits in my garage. But thanks for the compliment,” he chuckled.

I walked away wondering if I’d ever learn to avoid being baited with freebies. I later spotted the same slicer contraption at Amazon, forever available for only two cents more. “What fools we mortals be!” wrote Shakespeare. My folly can vouch for that.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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