Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bad Credit? I know why...

There are many rites of passage for a given generation some common to all (like having a photo taken of you as kid where it looks like you're drinking a beer) and some which are more specific (trekking across the dust bowl so pa can find honest work.) Our generation had a significant one, and one that nobody brings up- even though it explains everything. What is this magic commonality?

I'm talking about ripping off Columbia House and/or BMG. You fill out the little 12 CDs for a dollar card, you send it in, get your 12 CDs and then ignore everything else you ever get from them. Based on an informal survey I recently conducted, 100% of people in the US between 20-30 have done this. 98% have done it more than once and 45% have used a fake name to do it a second or third time. I mean, how could you not? 12 Cds for 1 cent? Add that to the fact that you've got a nice little checklist that's demographically targeted to you (based on the magazine you found it in) and all you have to do is check the box and drop it in the mail. I remember filling out those checklists for fun sometimes- it was like rehearsing your fully paid shopping spree.

Well first let's acknowledge that however BMG and Columbia House thought they were going to make money, they had the stupidest business model outside of rent-a-sex-toy. Let's set aside for a minute the millions that BMG has been losing and focus on what in the hell they could've been thinking. Can you imagine walking into a furniture store and having the guy go "well you can have 12 free pieces of furniture- go ahead and pick them out and you can take them home today. BUT I gotta tell you that we're going keep shipping random furniture items to your house, and it's up to you to send them back. Eventually we're going to ask that you pay for one of the items." It'd be amazing! You pick out all 12 items and you're about to leave but suddenly the guy stops you and says "Woah woah wait a sec. We can't just let you walk out of here- do you think we're stupid? We're going to need you to write your name down on this here piece of paper. No no, don't worry we don't need to check ID. But we're gonna need that name. And WRITTEN."

That's Columbia House/BMG's (they are the same company now actually) entire business model. Of all of the people who got the CDs, didn't send back the CDs they got in the mail every month, and never paid a single dime (i.e. 100% of the 100% of the people I talked to) nothing ever happened to them*. I don't even remember a threatening letter!

Between you, me, and everyone reading this we probably owe Columbia House and BMG $100,000. Don't worry though, I won't tell. Do you feel like you got away with something though? Don't be so sure. I think a good case can be made that our formative experiences with Columbia House/BMG has had a lasting effect on our collective generational psyches, as follows:

  • Our generation has bad credit. What else would you expect from a generation who's first experience in Corporate credit (because that's what it was, if you think about it) was a company that just handed out your favorite stuff, kept sending you other stuff it thought you'd like and never asked for anything in return? Is it any wonder that we think that ignoring credit card bills will just make them go away?
  • Our generation has a music downloading addiction. At a young age we were conditioned to just expect that we could get our favorite CDs for free (or more accurately 1/12th of one cent.) Is it a big mystery that we've created large peer-based networks to ensure we keep getting free music?
  • Our generation has a deep ambivalence toward corporations. On the one hand they seemed to give you free stuff, but on the other hand there was still an aftertaste of opportunistic evil. Why was it so easy to throw the Columbia House letters in the trash? Why was it so easy to sign up with BMG after you'd already ripped off Columbia House? Thinking back, I remember kind of disliking the companies because they seemed to be trying to trick you- why else would they send you a CD you didn't ask for and ask you to pay for it? That's not a good excuse I know, but it's true.
I have a request for the comments. After you picked your 12 CDs you'd always get a few "CDs of the month" and I know you didn't send them back. You kept them in the packaging for 2 months, anxiously feeling guilty that you let the 1 month return deadline pass but eventually going "well screw it, I guess I have no choice." Because you were young enough that every CD seemed at least a little intriguing, you listened to it once, at least partially. What was it/ What were they? I'll go first (in the comments.) If anybody else got the same one as you, I highly recommend using the hi-five emoticon (the only tolerable emoticon, really) as follows:

Commenter Leah: Ropin' the Wind
Commenter Morgen: Ropin the Wind too! o/
Leah: \o

Hey speaking of free stuff. I've got a little reward for your people who check this blog frequently (because this link won't be up forever) and who've continued to check it, despite a little dry spell (it's hard to follow up a post as long-in-the-making and popular as Wet Wipe Manifesto was.) Since you've made it this far, you can download the new Al Gore book "The Assault on Reason" for free here (pt 1) and here (pt 2).

And for those who don't like Al Gore (hey, that's understandable I think) here's a leaked Kanye West track from his forthcoming album graduation that samples Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger" (which makes it awesome.)

Kanye West- Stronger

*And I mean nothing- they have all led blessed, problem free lives thanks to the divine guardianship of the BMG rip-off angel. Okay, no.


Ms. C said...

ha, this is great. inevitably the CD they would send automatically, which would indeed remain in it's cardboard wrapping for a month as you pointed out, would be something i didn't want. i would go one step further than not paying for it though, i would actually bring it to the local independent record store in fort collins and sell it, like for beer money or whatever. sad, i know.

the only one i remember specifically was a sugar ray cd. i was very insulted by that one.

Matt said...

Cece Peniston(many jokes were made, obvs)

XSCAPE (Kick off your shoes and relax your feet, party on down to tha ex-sca-pee just kicking [just kick-in!])

Don't know why it was female R&B for me. Probably because I ordered SWV, Shai, Toni Tone Tony, and shit like that. I remember my dad was so pissed- one time I told him as a joke (5th grade) "I just like rap and R&B because of the way they talk about women" and he didn't think I was joking and he threw away my Domino "Ghetto Jam" maxi-single.

Last Action Hero soundtrack (which I was actually pumped about, because i actually loved that movie.) Let me stress that this in 5th grade, so please don't judge me for the abject shittiness of my young self's musical taste.

Casey- that was genius, the idea of selling it. It sounds like you were a little older than me when you were engaging in this.

Ms. C said...

yeah, this was like a month ago actually. sike, i was like 17 or 18. in honor of your taste in music as a fifth grader, i'm changing my myspace song to some toni tone tony, for serious.

Matt said...

Awesome. Hey, I'm glad you said "sike"- I'm totally in the my 5th grade space right now. Do you remember "no durr"? (NOT "no duh"- no duh was out quick in my group.)

Leah said...

I think I got Fine Young Cannibals from BMG, and maybe Color Me Badd (who were from the Badd town of OKC). Casey, at least you didn't have a mad crush on Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray like I did--that shit's embarrassing.

Re: bad credit...I'm fortunate enough not to have bad credit because my parents taught me that credit cards are evil (thanks, Parents!) but there's still time. I just got my first credit card like 6 months ago.

John said...

I went Columbia House then BMG X2. I remember receiving Sir Mix-a-Lot "Mack Daddy" when I was about 12. Track 3 repeat while I jumped on my trampoline is one of my best childhood memories.

Leah said...

John, your trampoline story just reminded me that I used to choreograph acrobatic routines on my swingset to "Cold-Hearted Snake" by Paula Abdul.

mqzoeller said...

I learned once in college that it is illegal for a minor to make such an agreement with Colombia House/BMG and that is why we all got away scott free. They now require a credit card number, and other things in order to have real consequences.

When I say "we" all got away with though, what I really mean is "all you unscrupulous dickheads", because I was one of the very few who met my end of the bargain every time, which was to pay for one or two cds in full during the year. I am now really embarrassed about this and it is definitely on my list of top 5 biggest regrets. I am actually envious of you unscrupulous dickheads.

The cd of the month first came as a piece of paper, telling you what it was, and requiring you to mail it back if you didn't want the cd. I also mailed every single one of those back, with exception of only one month, when they mailed me a copy of The Cranberries ... the one with the couch on it.
I paid for it.

-Matt Zee

Matt said...


I you thought you weren't a John Wooden guy? That sounds like total John Wooden.

I actually used to tell people that when i was young and we'd talk about it- my defense was "you can't legally sign a contract if you are under 18." I'm not sure if that's actually true (it probably isn't actually- given that they can put 16 year olds to death, but then again who knows.) Nevertheless, it makes their business model that much more hilarious- they'd put ads in 17 for the Ninja Turtles Soundtrack, asking for no age verification and then just be like "d'oh!"

I think it's awesome that you actually paid though- what an upstanding young man! Admittedly, it was still a killer deal, which is maybe something that makes the situation even funnier. Getting 14 CDs and only paying for 1 or 2 isn't good enough for us man. It's free or nothing.

John said...

It is true that you cannot sign a legal contract until you are 18. (i.e. credit cards, loans, etc)

Montana Code:

28-2-201. Who may contract. All persons are capable of contracting except minors, persons of unsound mind, and persons deprived of civil rights. Minors and persons of unsound mind have only such capacity as is defined by this part, 28-10-104, and Title 41, chapter 1.

Anonymous said...

Let's get a lawyer on the case: 41-1-304 says "When minors may disaffirm. (1) Except as provided in subsection (2), in all cases other than those specified by 41-1-303, 41-1-305, and 41-1-306, the contract of a minor may, upon restoring the consideration to the party from whom it was received, be disaffirmed by the minor."

It looks like, as minor, you have to pay it back. I have no legal skillz though, so I could be wrong.

John said...

I asked an attorney for her opinion on the subject... The begining of her response references credit reports because I asked if CH or BMG could report our failure to pay.

"I'm not sure how credit reports work; I think it is a psuedo-private industry (obviously it is highly regulated, at a minimum), so I don't know what the rules are on reporting. However, minors do not have the power to contract, except for necessities of life. A company cannot hold a minor accountable for breaking a contract unless the contract was entered into for a necessity ( i.e. food, shelter, etc.). Therefore, Columbia/BMG could not have enforced the contract in a court of law."

I asked her to clarify what Montana Code Annotated means in the section about "41-1-304 says "When minors may disaffirm."

She responded,

" "Disaffirming" means that you are throwing out the contract. So if the minor still has property he/she received under the disaffirmed contract, he/she has no legal right to keep that property if the rightful owner wants it back. The idea is that the minor should not benefit from disaffirming contracts left and right. So technically, Columbia could have made you give back the CDs. That doesn't really happen in most cases, because by the time Columbia could get the CD back, they would have spent more money pursuing it than the CD was worth (much less the now-USED CD was worth). But consider the case of a vehicle:

A 16 year-old goes out and buys his first car from Nickle Auto. Nickle finances the car with in-house financing, but they are dumb, so they don't get a co-signer for the loan. The 16 year-old then disaffirms the contract. Nickle can't go after the money, but they can take the car back (the idea is that the disafirmer should not benefit from the transaction).

But, what if the reason the 16-year-old disaffirmed the contract is that he had crashed the car, and it was a total loss (and, for the sake of simplicity, uninsured). Nickle can take back the scrap metal, but ultimately, it is Nickle who bears the loss, because they can't enforce their contract. They are out the money the 16-year-old owed them, and they are out the car. "

Matt said...

I was "anonymous" by the way (I was at another computer.) So it looks like you can get in trouble fro both Fraud and they can certainly ask you for the CDs back (MT code says "consideration" which is a tricky word that can indicate money- but the attorney John talked to was an MT attorney, so that's probably covered.) Nevertheless it might not have been in their best interest as it may have cost more than it was worth (just like now with downloading.)

I'd say in the end, we were kind of lucky that Columbia house didn't go after us ("The idea is that the minor should not benefit from disaffirming contracts left and right") but we weren't nearly as lucky as Columbia House was stupid.

Noelle said...

I'm so jealous that I'm not part of the 100%. I loved getting the offers in my magazines, and I would diligently tick off the CD's (although I think it was cassette tapes when I was doing it) that I wanted. However, every time I got 11 picked out, I could never find a 12th that I wanted, even for free.

Also, I succumbed to the other pitfall of our generation: laziness. I never sent the damn thing in. It would have been great, I suppose.

Matt said...


It's a shame- there's no worse feeling than not being included in 100% of people. I actually know what you mean about the 12th CD- my last few picks were always filler.