On autopilot with the autodial.

Not too long ago I came home and found a message on my answering machine from Jessica at Limited Too. I no longer recall precisely why Jessica was phoning because my memory is a spaghetti colander. But I tried to return the call by phoning a nearby Limited Too and asking for Jessica.
The salesperson was a nice young woman, and she informed me politely that I had the wrong number.
“Oh, no,” I explained, “I had a call on my answering machine from Jessica telling me about a sale.”
And so the salesperson patiently explained to me, “She’s just this girl, she’s sort of automated. She’s, like, from Ohio or something.”
Consequently, I called a Limited Too in Ohio. There are a lot of Limited Too stores in Ohio, and it was going to be a long shot if I found the correct one. Still, I tried. And I was informed by another very gracious salesperson that Jessica “is an automated voice. She’s not a real person.”
Ah, yes: The old Pretend Teenager Ploy. Gets us every time. Pretend Jessica is merely a part of the Limited Too’s marketing effort.
And yet Jessica was only one of many prerecorded voices that called me this autumn. I also heard from political candidates and lobbying groups.
Now I like Limited Too just fine — probably about as much as any balding, middle-aged guy who isn’t a transvestite — and when my daughter was younger a sizable part of her extremely fashionable wardrobe came from there.
And I like most of the candidates and lobbying groups who called me. Not all. But most. They have my home phone number, I presume, because at some point I have given it to them or to a similarly minded organization. The technical term for this sort of phone call is an “autodial,” and in theory the Federal Communications Commission prohibits a company, an organization, or, well, Jessica, from dialing a residential phone unless the owner of the phone has given the company, the organization, or Jessica permission.
Nonprofits have the right to do it, too, because we all know there is no better way to encourage us to open our hearts and our wallets than by having a prerecorded voice call us during dinnertime.
That’s the thing: Are any of us really happy when we race like madmen to the telephone, only to discover that it’s a prerecorded voice awaiting us? Of course not. Most of us, I imagine, hate the prerecorded voice on the phone even more than we loathe the 700 Viagra spams we all receive daily or the multiple copies we are mailed of the very same catalog.
A college pal of mine, Adam Turteltaub, is writing a book called “Everything is Annoying,” and he tells me the phenomenon of the autodial might merit a page of its own. Why? Well, as my friend Amena Smith, a senior buyer with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, explains, “I rarely run to my computer or mailbox, but I often run to catch a telephone call.”
And yet companies and politicians and lobbying groups continue to raise our blood pressure needlessly. This is called “marketing.”
There is, of course, the National Do-Not-Call Registry, if you do not want to receive calls with prerecorded messages. It’s clearly not infallible, however, because my wife tells me we’re on it.
Now, make no mistake, I’m not mad at Pretend Jessica for spending so much time on the phone. I have a teenage daughter, too, and so I understand. I just wish that one of her Pretend Parents would remind her that she has some Pretend Homework to do.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 3, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.