Robert Heaton

Software Engineer /
One-track lover / Down a two-way lane

A delightful piece of spam from Xfinity

12 Jun 2016

Last week I was completely outfoxed by some quite delightful spam from Xfinity. It was a Thursday like any other. I opened the mailbox and collected my subscriptions to The New Yorker, Life and Big Jugs Monthly. I went to close the small metal door and retire to my study to peruse this new literature. But today there was also a letter. It was addressed personally to both me and my wife, the big, red, proud Xfinity logo stamped in the top left. I paused.

Like most apartment blocks, mine has its mailboxes just inside the front door. On the floor beneath the mailboxes is a cracked, browning plastic tray. I don’t know what it’s original purpose was, but nowadays my neighbors and I use it as a place to dispose of spam mail that fails to pass even a first screening. Anything for “Our San Francisco Neighbor”, “Future Customer” or “The Occupant” with an envelope that does not make sufficiently convincing promises of easy wealth is dropped directly into the tray of failure. I don’t have any statistics on false positives (who knows how many Nobel Peace Prizes I’ve turned down), but the false negative rate - the rate at which pure spam make it over the threshold of my apartment - is satisfyingly low.

As noted in studies that I think I read but won’t bother searching out the Business Insider link for, we’re getting better at tuning out advertising. But consumer spending is still rising, Superbowl half-time ads still sell for a million dollars a second, and you still use Colgate toothpaste without knowing why. So it’s hard to know who is winning. Brands are trying harder than ever to associate themselves with the parts of our lives that we still value. Cars and sex, beer and sex, prudent financial planning and sex. I’m trying to counteract these artificial associations by punching myself in the face whenever I see a Lexus, but I’m not confident that it’s working.

Back in my apartment hallway, I had a decision to make. For the last three months my wife and I have been proud, loyal Xfinity subscribers. It seemed only natural that they might wish to contact us with billing information or a service update. I went to put the letter in my pocket so that I could inspect it more closely upstairs. But, I thought, we pay our bills online and automatically. And our internet has been working fine and showing no signs of stopping. What if they are just trying to upsell us some additional bullshit? What if they have been reading business textbooks that have told them that your best customers are the ones you already have?

I looked closer. The envelope urgently informed the postal service - “DO NOT BEND”. The only things I had ever been sent that simply could not afford to be creased were my college degree certificates, and those are the only things in the entire world that I can use to prove to employers that I am halfway competent. If this missive from Xfinity was even a fraction as important then there was no way I should throw it away. Maybe it was a contract of some kind. Maybe some other important legal document. I gingerly felt the delicate envelope, and realized it contained a plastic rectangle, the exact shape and size of a credit card. I was terrified. What if it was a Customer Support Identification Number? What if I would need it to cancel my contract in 8 months when Sonic Internet might be available in the Outer Richmond?

The potential costs of a mistake were too high. I grabbed the letter, hurried upstairs, opened it and WHAM it was just spam all along. I tried to look away but it was too late, I had already been forcibly informed that I could add Streampix(R) to my Xfinity account for the low cost of $4.99 per month or get some kind of TV service thing for a 12-month introductory rate of $79.99 per month. Defeated, I tossed the ad and what turned out to be a completely vestigial piece of plastic shaped like a credit card into the kitchen recycling.

This spam mail was successful for three reasons:

  1. I knew that I was already subscribed to Xfinity. On the other hand I also know that Xfinity had no current reason to send me a letter and are prodigious distributors of spam, so this in itself would not be enough to get me to open it.
  2. DO NOT BEND. Maybe this is standard practice by now, but this is the first time I have seen this tactic used to such good effect. Not only does it sound vaguely important, it also caused me to think of the other occasions when I have received letters marked DO NOT BEND. This made tossing the letter directly from the mailbox feel like tossing specific, legitimately important documents.
  3. The completely irrelevant “credit card”. This is my favorite element of the whole effect. It’s so completely shameless and indefensible. The only possible answer to the question “why did you include the piece of plastic?” is “we wanted to trick you into thinking there was a credit card or something inside so that you would open our damn mail.”

Maillift is a company that helps you makes recipients more likely to read your spam by paying people to hand-write it. Personal touches, or convincing simulacra of personal touches, win deals. However, where Maillift wants to humanize an inhuman message, I believe that Xfinity wants to make its message as mechanical and oppressive as possible. They are resigned to their status as faceless megacorp, and know that if I receive a handwritten note from someone at Xfinity then I am going to immediately burn it and call a lawyer. Far from being discouraged, they embrace this.

Xfinity know that I will never love them and that I would prefer to forget that they exist, and this is what they prey on. They know that all I want is for my internet to work and my bank balance to decrease by an enormous but pre-agreed amount each month. They know that my greatest fears are nuclear winter, nuclear summer, and having to interact in any way with Xfinity. They know that I fully expect them to helpfully auto-renew my contract until the sun consumes the earth in its beautiful but unforgiving corona.

When I receive a letter from Xfinity, I know that there is a good chance they are trying to screw me over somehow, and that the cost of ignoring their letter could easily be a not insignificant chunk of the remaining money and free time that I have left in this mortal realm. They can use this knowledge to scare me into opening their spam and then hit me with call-to-actions before I realize what is happening and have a chance to look away. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I do know that I’ll be more careful next time. I hope you will be too.

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