Householders' revenge: how to turn the tables on annoying cold callers

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It is one of the most loathed marketing techniques of the modern age. All too often the call comes just as dinner is served or as the plot of a drama reaches its climax. Now householders irritated by intrusive cold calls can finally have the last word.

A new script has been devised that allows a customer who has received the unwanted telephonic attention of big business to seize control of the conversation.

Instead of allowing themselves to be guided through a script of questions aimed at making a sale, householders use the "counterscript" to route the sales person through a set of questions that lead to a dead end.

After asking the caller questions such as whether telemarketing is their full-time job or inquiring how much they earn, the chat ends by asking them about their teeth.

"Do you get time off for the dentist" sets up the non-sequitur: "Is it important to have good teeth for your job?". And - the ultimate red herring - "which toothpaste would you recommend?"

If the telemarketer gets annoyed or keeps asking questions, there are stock replies such as: "I am sorry, the information you ask for it not available for you" or the faux hurt: "Don't you like talking to me?"

The script is the brainchild of Martjin Engelbregt, a Dutch conceptual artist whose script becomes more popular each year as public awareness of it spreads.

Since his Dutch site first appeared in 1998, his counterscript has been translated into nine languages including French, German, Italian, Hebrew and even Estonian, and one million copies have been downloaded from the web.

Mr Engelbregt said he thought of the idea for the project when he was phoned by a telemarketer one Sunday and wondered how his number had been obtained.

He said: "In the news people were complaining about this telemarketing and I couldn't understand, so many people were complaining they didn't want to be phoned and at the same time the whole telemarketing is getting bigger.

"I thought it can only get bigger if they get results and I thought it would be nice to make the conversation last as long as possible and so the costs for the telemarketers would rise."

He added: "I found that telemarketers work to a script and people would say: 'I don't have time at the moment' and the telemarketer could come back with a question and would say: 'OK, when can we call you back?'.

"I thought it would be nice if the consumers could prepare themselves for a conversation with a telemarketer and restore some of the imbalance.

"Instead of being annoyed, you can make a funny game of the conversation."

The joke has not exactly had marketing executives splitting their sides. Mr Engelbregt found that his personal details were being circulated between telemarketing companies and he was receiving between 10 and 20 marketing calls a day at one stage.

Mr Engelbregt, whose speciality is art involving privacy and personal data, still receives at least one cold call a day.

The popularity of his counterscript goes in phases, and at present it is attracting particular interest in Australia.

At the end of the counterscript, householders are asked to score the hapless telemarketer on such criteria as accent, word choice, tempo, and enthusiasm.

Completed scripts can then be sent to an archive in Amsterdam - a room in Mr Engelbregt's house, which contains more than 15,000 forms.