Stick your cupcake up your petrol pump

Curmudgeonly isn't just a fine word. It's also a fitting way to respond to many things.

As the years have passed I've found more and more reasons to be curmudgeonly, so it was no surprise that my looming 57th birthday has just brought another. It took the form of a birthday card, on which were printed the words, "Hi Joe".

Up went my hackles like a hedge. I don't object to hi. Hi is an apt way to greet people face to face in a cheerful but non-committal manner. But sending a birthday card is not greeting someone face to face and it is not non-committal. A birthday card sings of commitment. It is a token of love or kindness from a friend, relative or lover.

But this card wasn't from a friend, relative or lover. It was from, and here you will perhaps get a hint of the reason for the hackle-hedge, a petrol company.

(Not of course that they call themselves petrol companies any more, nor yet oil companies. They are now called energy companies, because energy is what we all want to have. But we want it without the nasty associations of seabirds drenched in crude, greenhouse gases, global warming, visibility in Beijing of 10 feet on a clear day and, if recent reports are true, children raised by busy roads being rendered terminally stupid.

So we dump the nasty words oil and petrol and hey presto, the nasty things disappear with them and the world is scrubbed as clean as our consciences when we fill the car up with, well, energy.)

Anyway, the company wanted to thank me for being one of its "most loyal customers", which is an endearing little lie. Because for one thing I don't drive much so there must be millions of motorists who buy more fuel from them than I do. And for another thing, I am not loyal. Petrol is petrol, whatever the advertising says, and I buy petrol from whichever company has a station nearest to where I am about to run out of the stuff.

At first glance the word loyal looks like flattery. Loyalty is a traditional virtue. The loyal person feels a debt of allegiance to something greater than himself, a monarch or a mentor or a lord or an ideal. He is willing to fight on behalf of that greater something and perhaps even to lay down his life for it. All of which is admirable if the greater something is indeed a greater something. But if the greater something is not a greater something then the loyal person is merely a sucker. And a petrol company is the opposite of a greater something.

As I have said, petrol is petrol. So the difference between one retailer and another is branding. And branding is myth-creation, an exercise in generating false belief, the manufacture of a commercial religion. So when the company calls me loyal in the hope, presumably, that my chest will swell with pride, it is calling me a credulous dupe.

But the insults and impertinence don't stop there.

"Here's a little present from us," says the card, above a pretty picture of a cupcake. I shall receive the cupcake when I next turn up on the forecourt and spend a minimum of $20 on petrol. Which is precisely like my darling granny saying that she'd be delighted to give me 10 bucks for my birthday just as soon as I've been over to mow the lawn. A gift that comes with strings attached isn't a gift. It's a commercial arrangement.

I would love to reply and explain all this to the person or persons who sent me the card. But though they used my christian name they did not supply their own. They called themselves merely, "the team at Z". So I have no choice but to write them this open letter of reply in the hope of showing them what's what.

They have taken a good and loving thing, a birthday card, and created a parody of it for commercial gain. They have taken virtues such as love and loyalty, and created a parody of them for commercial gain. They have feigned an interest in me that they do not feel. They have treated me as a cretin to be bled.

More sinisterly still, they know my date of birth and no doubt other things they might seek to exploit, but I know nothing about them. And thus their patronising and dishonest card embodies something grimly greedy about the 21st century to which, it seems to me, the only apt response is a curmudgeonly one.

The Dominion Post