Tuesday, December 30, 2008


On a flight to New York, my wife Liina and I killed time reading the Skymall catalog. The Skymall is most wonderfully American: Even in a time of crisis, it sells what absolutely no one needs at prices almost everyone can afford. Such as:

Gravity Defyer Shoes which “propel you forward” ($129.95).
The Indoor Dog Restroom ($64.95).
The Marshmallow Shooter ($24.95, but $49.95 gets you one which shoots twice as far—40 feet).
The Digital Camera Swim Mask ($99.95).
The Ultrasonic Eyeglasses Cleaner ($69.95).
The Germ-eliminating Knife Block ($89.95).
The Instant Doorway Puppet Theatre ($69.95).
The Animatronic Singing & Talking Elvis ($199.95).

Americans are so used to products like these that they don’t find them unusual. It’s said the average North American is bombarded by over five thousand advertising brand messages each day, so you might think we’d grow immune to Skymallesque stupidity.

Not my family.

A few years ago my mother gave me a Big Mouth Billy Bass, which is a battery-powered, rubber trophy fish mounted on a wooden plaque. It has a motion sensor, and when someone walks by, the fish thrashes about and sings a Bobby McFerrin tune ($19.99). The first time you see it you find it cute and clever. After the third time, you want to smash it to pieces with a baseball bat.

Liina likes to laugh at North America’s out-of-control consumer culture, and she used to frequently remark about how gullible we are. She argued that Estonians were immune to such appeals. But later she had to eat her words.

When we lived in the United States, the first thing she fell for was the “12 CDs for a penny” mail-order offer: Get 12 for one cent in exchange for buying ten more over the next two years at “regular club prices.” Liina pored over the catalog, selected the work of twelve artists, and taped her penny inside the envelope. Six weeks later the CDs arrived—along with a bill for 25 dollars for “shipping and handling.” When she canceled her membership she was obligated to return the CDs, and the return postage amounted to around three dollars. That’s a hell of a lot of handling.

Lately, I’ve noticed that America’s aggressive sales culture has gained ground in Estonia. The movement began quietly on the language front: before I knew it, Estonia had the verb shoppama. Soon after came Amway and a salesforce trained in the invasion of private homes.

A company called Lux has been making the rounds selling vacuum cleaners, and their fast-talking sales rep left Liina no room to refuse what would turn out to be a one-and-a-half-hour long in-home sales pitch. But Liina, hardened in the USA, had a secret agenda to get our filthy couch cleaned for free.

I found a convenient excuse to be absent during the demonstration so that my credit card and bank information would be safe. Given how skeptical Estonians claim to be, I feared Estonian door-to-door salesmen would possess powers far beyond their western counterparts. I imagined the Lux rep as a middle-aged, thick-boned woman, a Guantanamo-trained, jackboot-wearing, Olivier-as-evil-dentist type who smiled but was at all times ready to deliver an electrical charge to your gonads in the name of clean floors. (She was probably an attractive twenty-something, but you can’t be too careful.)

“Well, did you buy it?” I asked Liina when I returned home that evening.

“I don’t have any money,” she said. “But someday I’m going to buy it.” After conning the sales rep into cleaning our sofa and two rugs, Liina was wowed by the product and its magical vibrasuck technology.

I tried to argue that it was cheaper to rent such a vacuum, or even hire a professional cleaner, than it was to pay 25,000 kroons, but Liina wasn’t having any of it. She had concluded it was a superior product which could clean faster better. And maybe it could. I had to admit she does most of our vacuuming.

Friends tell me the Lux company is doing quite well in Estonia, especially selling to pensioners who don’t have experience chasing away hard-driving salesmen. I’m told some buy two vacuums (one as a gift for the kids) and pay for them with leasing contracts. I don’t know what business Estonian pensioners have buying a vacuum that expensive, but who am I to tell them what to do? I’ve still got Big Mouth Billy Bass on my wall.

In recent years, the same company who makes Billy Bass has developed a deer—named Buck, of course—a life-sized wiggling deer head which sings “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Low Rider,” and then farts loudly at the end of its performance ($150). Every time I visit my mother, I pray that she hasn’t seen it in stores.