I’ve been pre-approved, and that’s just the peace of mind I deserve. It’s a unique opportunity offered to me, Timothy J. McArty, because I’ve earned it. As a student of low culture and the written word, I’ve been collecting credit card solicitation letters for the past year, and by my calculation I have $1.2 million in available funds. As humbling as it is to admit, I know I’m not the only one who’s been uniquely selected! Being inundated with credit card solicitations has become as much a part of the American way of life as polluted air and aggressive drivers. Because we take these letters for granted, I took a closer look, and I’ve discovered that when this genrepart of the bedrock of our economyis subjected to minor deconstruction, it crumbles like a house of, well, cards.
The opening assumes a You have arrived attitude: At last and special invitation figure prominently. Examples include: Not everyone deserves a card like the Chase Platinum Visa and Congratulations! You are among the select few PRE-APPROVED for our most prestigious credit cardVISA Platinum. Pre-approved, pre-selected and deserve are mainstays of the genre. The idea, summed up in a sentence like You’ve worked hard to establish an outstanding credit record, and it’s time you were rewarded with one card that recognizes your level of achievement, is that you have arrived. The question is, Where? In this and every other respect, the fine print proves instructive. It informs me that pre-approved means only that I have been pre-approved to receive this offer.
The whole relationshipbetween those who send the letter and its recipient, between creditor and debtor, between consumer and credit cardis based on a simultaneous presence and absence: a generous personal offer from someone who can’t spell your name, the alluring possession of something conspicuously not yours. The card is already yours! And yet it’s not. Have all the things you want! At a hefty interest rate. I’m assured in each letter that the card will confer on me the status befitting me. It’s problematic enough to live in a culture that puts buying and being on a par, but what does it say about being when the buying is unreal?
Like all advertising, these letters attempt to perform a sleight of hand, touching your heartstrings with one hand while reaching into your pocket with the other. They couch themselves in personal, emotional and psychological warm fuzzies, when in fact they’re just another form of junk mail. Larded with phrases such as peace of mind, financial freedom and no more worrying, the letters are a sales pitch in the guise of a personally signed encomium from the bank president. Another way they deceive is by declaring that this is a limited-time offer, so act now! My research has shown that these offers never expire, though I wish they would. In several instances, I received the same offer every three months, each time with a new date after which the offer would expire. Typically the letter reminds me to reply immediately in order to start saving now. Saving? Credit cards are by definition about spending, but the letter turns logic on its headfor my benefit, of course.
Everything I might want is not only possible, it’s easy, quick and convenient. All it takes is one toll-FREE call. Working hard to provide the necessities of life doesn’t mean what it once did, and everyone feels the economic squeeze: working more hours for more years with less pay and less time for family and leisure. Understandable is the temptation, then, to take advantage of exclusive priority opportunities that seem to offer us a break, bonus or escape, albeit short-lived. But what’s missing, it has to be said, is a capacity for detachment and a healthy sense of self-denial. The seamy underbelly of a strong economy is the disproportionate rise of material expectations and the concomitant Lotto attitude: the compulsion to spend what you don’t have in order to win what you don’t need, recking not the consequences. More than anything else, what the inappropriately widespread availability of credit demonstrates is not an actual leveling of the economic playing field, but an illusory one.
Manipulation of language always occurs in direct mail and advertising, but what makes these letters so effective, and so pernicious, is that they massage the American dream, at once affirming and distorting the old-fashioned association between hard work and merit. The paradoxical subtext is, If you’re sinking in the daily grind, let us buoy you with debt. Indeed, for most of us leveraged wealth has become a way of life, a benefit we’re entitled to, not a risk we may choose or refuse to take. It’s an All-American axiom: the unleveraged life is not worth living.
Ultimately what amuses me about these letters is the pretense that the C.E.O. of a major financial institution is exhorting me in nearly sycophantic tones to imagineimagine what this can mean for you! I’m not sure who’s more responsible for the proliferation of foolish debtthe financial institutions that peddle it or the consumers taken in by it. I do know that responding to one of these offers is far from a rational act; it’s done in desperation, ignorance or sheer stupor.
Then again, maybe I’m just not giving these people enough credit.