Jan and Cora Gordon, 1928: Salesmanship in California

I smiled last Saturday as we found ourselves taking part in an earnest time-share sales presentation in San Diego, experiencing some insistent and misleading salesmanship, quite alien in style and content to anything a Brit would have come across at home.

This prompted a recollection of the encounter between Jan and Cora Gordon and California real estate salesmen in 1928 recorded in "Star-dust in Hollywood". The similarities are astonishing.

".. every real estate firm, in an agony of cut-throat competition, was trying to catch every 'tourist' as he arrived with his savings, to induce him if possible to invest his money in land before he could discover the real conditions. All along the streets near the centre of the town large rubber-neck wagons waited to abduct the wandering visitor. Young and often charming women pounced upon one from doors, waving prospectuses and promising free drives, free lunches and the rest."

Cora Gordon "was willing to become a wary fly on the spider's invitation, so she accepted at last the offer of a firm that promised a view of the Hollywood Bowl, lunch in a Maori hut where cinema stars habitually refreshed themselves, and some vague allusion to having as neighbours Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford." In the present, the bait is free tickets to the San Diego Zoo and lunch in return for attending a presentation on the hotel company's other properties. The first surprise is that there is a taxi ride to another unspecified location and the second is that this will be a timeshare-selling exercise. Lunch is a turkey wrap. The slick salesmen make their arguments and attempt to obtain signatures and down-payments. Inflation rates of 7% are assumed (actual US inflation rates over the past decade average a little less than 2%). The audience, which contained some very pleasant and entertaining characters, is engaged with their views on their ideal vacations and the importance of actually taking vacations in the first place.

In the lecture enjoyed by the Gordons in 1928, the salesman "stood on the platform in their midst and began to talk, inscribing gradually mounting figures on the black-board, with the evident hope that the apple-pie they were now munching would become inextricably mingled with the 'apple-sauce' he was offering, and the two would be digested together. Fabulous figures piled up before the eyes of those gaping women." In the 2015 version of this scene, the blackboard is replaced by a large sophisticated touch television screen.

After their tour, the salesman asked, "what priced lot was you thinking of buying?"
"Jo [Cora] hesitated. She wanted to say that, having been continually called up, visited and generally badgered by real estate companies for a month, she was now taking it out in a free ride and lunch. But that might have cut short the experience." Cora stated that if Jan was safe to travel, they would be going home to Europe. "Do you mean to say that after having seen Los Angeles you can bear to think of going back to Europe?" asked the salesman incredulously.

After a viewing of some of the lots, Cora thought, "Soon I shall be home, and that will be that," but there was one final ordeal:
"We all got to wait here," they said, "and one by one folks is taken into that office." "And the Lord help you when you get there," whispered a shrewd-faced woman .. "High-pressure salesmanship they call it. You'll see." After an hour of waiting, Cora was brutally efficient with the salesman, saying, "if we decide to live in California we may consider that lot. If not, nothing will induce us to invest." After some final attempts to sway her had failed, the head man murmured, "Take her home at once." In our case, I kindly said to the persistent salesman, "It's OK, you can stop trying now."

I am struck once again by what good observers the Gordons were, and also by the extent to which some things stay very much the same across the decades.

"Almost any suburb", by Jan Gordon.


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