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Hope and (auto) renewal: Whatever you do, don't click this

From the "11 CDs for one penny!" marketing of the Columbia House Record Club to today's slick "Just click to subscribe" trickery, columnist Tammy Swift struggles to navigate the complex world of auto-renewals, free trial periods and digital subscriptions.

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FARGO — Oh, how I miss those days.

How I long for the old days, when the only subscription I had was Teen magazine .

You resubscribed once a year, usually because the magazine was stuffed with irritating little cards that said: “Uh-oh! It’s your last issue! If you really want to find out how to make your own acid-washed prom dress, resubscribe today!”

That was it. There was no such thing as auto-subscribe. You placed a check (Kids: For definition, see page 3,186 of “Boomer Handbook”) in an envelope, took a 20-cent stamp (see page 1,327 of aforementioned handbook) from your mom’s pocketbook and mailed it (see page 1,341) to someplace like Flushing, N.Y.

Lo and behold, four weeks later, the first issue of your new subscription would arrive, bulging with perfume samples for Designer Imposters Body Spray , stories on how to rock a rockabilly mullet and in-depth articles titled, “Five fun facts about dreamy Kurt Cameron!”

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Columbia House/BMG Record Clubs offered a more intrusive subscription service. They lured you in with an offer that seemed too good to refuse: Pay just a penny and get 11 tapes, CDs or records. All that was required was that you bought three to five CDs or tapes at regular club prices over the next year.

Each month, your mailbox would fill with irritating Columbia House catalogs. If you couldn’t find a title that looked good to you, you could send in a postcard to the company that told them not to send anything.

Unfortunately, this was all done by snail mail, so you needed to send back the card almost as soon as you got it. And because my 20s weren’t a time in which I bothered with details like, say, opening my mail or paying bills on time, I almost never got the card returned by the deadline.

As a result, I often got saddled with CDs I didn’t want. Columbia House’s business model seemed built on the knowledge that no one would send back their card every month, so then they could unload titles from Eddie Murphy’s blissfully short recording caree r or “The London Symphony Orchestra Plays Right Said Fred’s Biggest Hit(s).”

But that subscription model paled in comparison to today’s “Subscribe and save,” “Seven days free!” or “Auto-renew” trickery.

Now all it requires is to click a link — sometimes accidentally — to find out you’ve spent the last four months paying for a GrubDashDudes food-delivery service that you have never used or are inexplicably tied to a three-year digital subscription to Guns and Tattoos magazine.

More Tammy Swift columns
Forget the “Fargo”-bred stereotypes of Midwesterners as molasses-tongued yokels. A surprising new report by Preply, an online language-tutoring company, reports that Minnesotans are actually the fastest-talkers in the nation — averaging 5.34 syllables per second. Other rapid-fire speakers are North Dakotans (fifth fastest with 5.29 syllables per second) and South Dakotans (eighth fastest at 5.27 syllables per second).

But the worst are those shiny “Get one month free!” offers on streaming channels. As a woman with questionable sales resistance and a limitless thirst for bad TV, I’ve been known to click that little button for “Free Starz” or “Free Premium Peacock,” so I can watch something educational and life-affirming like “The Seedy Underbelly of TV's Beloved 'Facts of Life,'” or “Whatever Happened to Pauly Shore?”

I’ll even place an e-minder in my phone to cancel the subscription before the free period expires. But because it gets lost amid my dozens of reminders to make a Klarna payment or “Wear hard pants: You’re seeing actual people today,” I often forget.

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Then, when I finally track down the email to cancel a subscription (printed in white, agate type at the very bottom of its “Investor Relations” page), I receive an email that says: “We’re sorry to see you go. As you subscribed for our three-year service, feel free to enjoy our Grandmas with Road Rage channel until June 30, 2025.”

I realize there are special apps out there that will actually track down all your subscriptions and even cancel them for you. In a sick twist of fate, these apps also require a subscription.

Ugh. Now those subscription cards don't seem half bad.

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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