If Zsa Zsa calls, it's probably just a pitch for money
Boston — ''Hello, darling, this is Zsa Zsa Gabor. (Giggle.) Are you surprised that I called?''
If your telephone rings, and you hear Zsa Zsa or some other celebrity on the other end, you'd be wise to hang up. The call is probably coming from an automatic sequential dialer - or ''black box,'' as it's called in the telemarketing game. And it undoubtedly will be followed by a pitch for money or votes.
Junk phone callers, the latter-day descendents of junk mailers, have hooked onto a new device to catch and keep your attention: prerecorded actual voices of famous celebrities.
The results from this device are not always positive. When dialing machines in Omaha were left on late at night, residents were awakened at 2 and 3 a.m. to hear the voice of a mayoral candidate cheerfully asking for their votes. Reportedly, the groggy voters were not pleased.
They are not alone.
According to direct marketing specialists, as many as 6 percent of those called by automatic recordings resent the intrusion and bear a grudge against the caller. For that reason, and because there was a great deal of public controversy surrounding their use, many national marketers abandoned the devices as a selling tool in the mid-1970s.
The resurgence of black box sales among smaller firms, who are not too particular about consumer reactions, worries some direct marketers who fear that black boxes might give their profession a black eye.
''We have a very strong feeling that the abuse of these devices could lead to unreasonable legislation restricting all telephone marketing,'' says John Hamilton, chairman of the telephone marketing council of the Direct Mail Marketing Association (DMMA).
DMMA objections notwithstanding, telephone marketers are using a variety of new techniques to make the devices work for them. For example, there are preprogrammed ''scripts'' that make it difficult to tell you are talking to a recording.
Used largely by collection agencies, these scripts quiz delinquent payers and then pin them down to specific dates. If the customer rambles on, the machine interrupts and says, ''Maybe you have a question about your account. We'll get to that later on. Right now, let's establish when you will pay. Will you pay today or tomorrow?''
The machine then plays back the debtor's recorded promise in order to ''reinforce his commitment to pay.''
All of this strikes many people as mechanically manipulative.
''I'm a human being, just like you are,'' says William VonAlven, manager of the telephone equipment registration program at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He doesn't like the idea of being manipulated by a machine, he adds.
Like it or not, however, Mr. VonAlven acknowledges that the use of such devices is on the rise. The FCC registers the basic components, which VonAlven refers to as ''junk phone-call dialers.'' But it has no way of determining the number of firms who are hooking them up around the country.
Since each black boxes is capable of making thousands of phone calls a day, the question of how many are out there is increasingly important to phone companies and state utility overseers. Several states - Nebraska and Colorado, among them - are regulating their use.
Nebraska's registration requirements are a blueprint to the abuses these devices can cause. The state's 1979 statute requires anyone who plays a prerecorded message over the telephone - without first obtaining the permission of the respondent - to register with the Public Service Commission.
TBS International, a manufacturer of the devices, reports sharply increased sales in recent years. Executive vice-president Martin Durbec acknowledges that there are still many abuses of black-box technology, but he maintains that TBS builds safeguards into its programs.
''Every single one of the calls we make,'' he says, ''is 'fronted' (introduced) by a live person.'' He decries the random systems that simply run through the telephone numbers of an exchange. ''We will make you think that you are talking to a live person,'' he boasts, adding that his devices can work this magic on 1,000 people a day.
The distinction may seem small to anyone called to the telephone in the middle of an evening to hear a recorded message.