Columns / Discourse / September 30, 2015

The privilege scheme

It started with a letter in the mail, marked with a letterhead I did not recognize, about a job opening. It was mid-July and I was working as a Teacher’s Assistant at a summer youth program, a decent gig that lasted a mere six weeks. The program was in its final weeks, and I was desperately searching for another job or internship to save me from the idleness of being home for the summer. Receiving that letter in the mail was a beacon of hope for a broke college kid eager to do something more productive with his time.

The letterhead atop my beacon of hope read “Vector Marketing.” Vector Marketing, I would soon learn, is a domestic sales arm of the Cutco Corporation, a company that manufactures and sells high-end kitchen cutlery. Vector hires college students as sales representatives who schedule appointments with clients and give in-house knife demonstrations.

If you google “Vector Marketing” you’ll come across loads of forums claiming that the company is a scam or that the corporation is exploitative. The purpose of this column, however, is not to argue over the legitimacy or nature of this company. To this day, part of me believes that Vector is a deceitful pyramid scheme, while another part of me believes that it is a legitimate means of gaining work experience and some extra income. The intended purpose of this article is to recount the experiences I had while working as a sales representative for this company and to examine the lessons those experiences taught me, namely the ways that racism, classism and sexism manifest themselves in modern society.

Before I recount my experiences, allow me to contextualize my perspective. Although I am a cisgender male from a middle-class background, I am no stranger to racism, classism and sexism. I am well-aware of the many means by which these issues continue to pervade through modern society. Working as a sales representative enlightened my understanding of these issues by presenting me with a new first-person perspective. I’ve read countless academic articles about these issues, but I hadn’t acknowledged how these issues pervade through everyday life. Working as a sales representative forced me to face firsthand the realities of these issues.

When I showed up to training a few weeks later (I was still totally ignorant to the company’s nature), the managers of the office introduced me to my future coworkers, whom I quickly learned hailed from a diverse range of racial and economic backgrounds. While the group consisted mainly of people of color from traditionally working-class cities in northern California, a significant percentage of the group also consisted of white boys who had recently graduated from elite Catholic schools and lived in the affluent neighborhoods of the San Francisco Bay Area. For a while, I felt quite proud to be a part of a company that fostered such an inclusive atmosphere among its employees. But within the first few weeks, that sense of pride quickly dissipated. Once our training period ended and our managers instructed us to make our initial appointments, our once-large and diverse group quickly dwindled, to the point where those rich white boys from affluent backgrounds dominated the office. At first, I didn’t understand the nature of this phenomenon, but then it all began to sink in.

These marketing schemes rely on sales representatives forming clienteles by asking customers for future contacts. And when the product sales reps are representing is high-end kitchen cutlery, then it’s clear that not all sales reps are on an equal playing field. The system naturally favors rich white boys who automatically have rich white clienteles available to them, leaving their peers of non-white or low-income backgrounds to fend for themselves.

Vector’s business model was inherently biased, yet the company failed to to acknowledge its own flaws. In the eyes of our managers, Vector’s business model was infallible, at least in theory. If sales reps found themselves unable to make sales, then the company pinned the blame on bad salesmanship instead of a flawed business scheme. It was infuriating to watch the company continually recognize rich white boys who were unaware of their privilege while inadvertently disparaging those who lacked the social or economic means to find similar success.

Atop the institutionalized privilege the company perpetuated, Vector was also guilty of perpetuating other outmoded norms that continue to pervade through modern society. Our managers continually touted the fact that the company has been maintaining the same business model since the 1960s (the company’s most popular kitchen set is still called “The Homemaker Set”), framing it as a proud tradition. But when one takes a close, critical look at said business model, it’s pretty clear that such traditions aren’t exactly worthy of pride.

In training sessions, our managers continually framed the nature of sales and marketing on the basis of gender. We were taught to be nice and sweet to women, stern and taciturn to men, who are supposedly never interested in cooking. We were taught to sell mainly to women because women are supposedly frivolous consumers whom men tolerate under the “Happy Wife, Happy Life” mantra. We were taught these heteronormative sales tactics on the basis of some pseudo-scientific studies that showed the supposed link between gender and biology (gender is a social construct, people). Of all the qualms I had with this company, the disgust I felt at the prospect that I was further perpetuating these outmoded gender norms was simply the final straw. I left the company without explaining my reasons.

In the end, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge the good that came of my venture. Working for that company certainly opened my eyes to the follies of the “real world.” As a college student, I know that it’s easy to criticize the “real world” as being counter-productive or backward from the comfort of the Knox Bubble. But adopting such a cynical attitude will not solve any of society’s problems. As scary as it may seem, we must engage with the “real world” to shape more fully the perspectives we maintain.

Stefan Torralba

Tags:  "real world" classism Knox Bubble Society stefan torralba vector marketing

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1 Comment

Oct 03, 2015

Wow, thank you for writing Stefan. I actually once had a friend who got hired by Vector and showed the knives to my mom (though we didn’t buy any). It’s fascinating to hear your story from the inside, and see how clearly the evil triad manifested.

It reminds me also of Maria Mies’ comment on the “housewifization” of women as a scheme to make money for the major corporations – she says that women in the First World are encouraged to buy a great many products for the household, while women in the Third World have to make the things without being paid (because it’s classified as “housework”).

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