As kids, whenever we complained about anything, her response was, “Why don’t you write them a letter.” I think, initially, she intended this as a way to shut us up, but my brother and I took on the challenge.
Over the years, we wrote all kinds of complaint letters. The first one I recall was to Swanson foods to complain about the poor portion size of their Libby-Land TV dinner (specifically marketed to kids). We had begged our mom to buy them for us, and we all ended up very disappointed in our meals just as my mother had predicted we would. My brother and I crafted a letter identifying what, exactly, we didn’t like about the TV dinner. It was read/and corrected by Mom. We re-wrote it several times (to make it briefer), and put it in the mail. A few weeks later, we received a thoughtful response from some marketing VP with a whole bunch of coupons for free stuff. My mother was thrilled.
And, so it began. TV dinners, ice cream, clothing, you name it. Almost anything you could find the least bit annoying got a letter. In almost every case, we were rewarded for our “thoughtful comments” with coupons for free or highly discounted stuff. Complaining about consumer goods was lucrative, but as we got older, we found it was more amusing to complain about other things. My brother and I actively used our thesaurus to craft Shakespearean put-downs for the local papers to ensure our observations on small town politics and other issues of the day were not dismissed because of our immature vocabulary. Mom never wrote any letters. She was too conscious of her social image to ever bitch publicly. I was a teenager. I was supposed to be rebellious. So I got to bitch for her, she got to maintain her “nice” status, and brag about my chutzpah.
I’ve kept many of my poison pen letters in a folder in my desk drawer. The first one was a resignation letter written to a horrible boss. It’s hilarious. I wonder what he must of thought — some old, white guy — getting this from his 24-year old secretary who was 1000x smarter than he would ever be. Every few years when I cull through client files, I’ll happen upon my Poison Pen folder, and I it pull out and read a few of them. They always make me laugh, and I find myself nostalgic for a time when I was young and poor and outrageously irreverent….
I don’t write too many consumer complaints anymore — one of the advantages of being old and rich — but I do write “complaints.” Now they’re called risk assessments and status reports. I’ve learned that to be truly effective complaints must be 1) true, 2) humorous, and 3) fix-able, and if your complaint contains these three qualities, you will see change. And, change is the best thing ever. That is why I will always be a poison pen.