Nothing ignites our neighborhood association’s email list like the appearance of home security system salesmen. Once or twice a year, salespeople will canvass our neighborhood, knocking on doors, urging us to sign up for their service. Invariably, these visitations produce a flurry of panicked, hostile emails.
“Someone came by at 8:30 last night claiming to be from ADT,” one neighbor will report. “Not sure he was legit. White guy with dark hair, clean cut, medium build. Wearing an orange safety vest.”
“I called ADT,” another neighbor replies. “They said their salespeople usually wear blue and white.”
A third concerned citizen doesn’t fool around: “I called the police. They’re sending a patrol car. Asked which way he went and whether he had a weapon.”
Regrettably, I’ve never been at home when the alarm system salesmen come calling, so I don’t know if their sales technique warrants them being hounded out of the area by cops. I do understand why they consider us potential customers. Our neighborhood lies just off a major urban highway, and break-ins are not uncommon; we contribute our share to America’s annual $3 billion in home burglary losses. So it’s ironic that people selling burglary prevention systems arouse our suspicion. But it’s a fitting irony, given that the home security business—like the other industries that make up Fear, Inc.—generates profits by stoking our worst fears.
My neighbors’ mistrust of alarm system salesmen is not groundless. Scams involving home security are pretty common. The $12.5-billion-per-year industry is currently undergoing “disruption,” as Silicon Valley rolls out “smart home” technology and DIY systems. All these new players in the market make it easy for rip-off artists to look legitimate. But professionally installed, monitored services still control 93% of the home security market. They may not run scams, but their sales tactics aren’t exactly scrupulous either.
Judging by their websites, most home security companies assume you are white, with blonde children, and that everything around you—curtains, woodwork, brick walls, or infinite beach horizon—is also white. The professionally protected homes they depict are cool and stark and free of chaos, making them look a little bit like prisons. The repeated use of these images, by multiple competing companies, suggests that the industry wants us to see white people as the most valuable, the most worthy of protection. Of the six sites I examined (ADT, Vivent, Lifeshield, SimpliSafe, Point Security, Smith Monitoring, and Alarm.com), four featured white people. In fact, Point Security and Smith Monitoring featured images of the exact same white, blonde family, in slightly different poses, evidently purchased from the same stock photo company.
When I noted this coincidence on Twitter last year, Smith Monitoring replied with some cheerful banter, claimed to be a fan of my McSweeney’s writing, and offered me three free months of their monitoring service. I did not avail myself of that offer. Since then, I note that Smith Monitoring and Point Security have removed the matching photos.
“Security for white people” seems oddly counterproductive from a marketing standpoint, given that white people are an increasingly smaller segment of the market in America. It only makes sense if these companies are specifically targeting white customers. Perhaps white people, because we’re becoming outnumbered, are more likely to feel vulnerable and in need of security. Studies show that in fact burglary rates are consistently higher for blacks than for whites, but bias probably sells more alarms than facts do.
Offline, the whiteness of the security industry’s appeals is less pronounced. ADT, the largest American home monitoring service, not only features people of color in its advertising, but goes so far as to personify its home security systems as a large, uncompromising black man. In ADT’s television commercials, he stands stoically through rain and snow, menacing burglars. The same actor appears on ADT’s website, where you can “operate” him remotely: Click a button to “arm” an ADT system, and the man clones himself into 30-plus men standing inside, around, and on top of a two-story home. “Swipe” the phone screen to manage the home’s door locks, and he cracks his neck joints, one direction for locked, the other for unlocked. The fact that ADT is inviting us to buy a black man and use his body to protect our property makes me (a white person) cringe inwardly. Still, the approach is a welcome change from the implicit racism of some of ADT’s rivals.
It also represents a shift from the commercials of Brink’s Home Security, which merged with ADT in 2010. Brink’s ads used to be ubiquitous on television; I still have nightmares about them. One Brink’s commercial depicted a mother and daughter (carefully cast to depict people of color, but of no specific ethnicity) menaced by a masked intruder, then rescued with a phone call from “Tom, at Brink’s Home Security,” who assures them he’s “sending help right now.” Brink’s ads regularly featured shrieking women, children, and teenage girls. Just as many industry websites imply that white people need special protection, these TV spots portrayed women and girls as high-value targets for criminals.
One fact that might slip your mind as you peruse these commercials and websites is that home security systems exist primarily to protect property, not people. There is no hard data showing that they reduce violent crime. That’s not surprising when you consider that most violence in homes is perpetrated by people who live there. “The point of a security system is to reduce loss,” according to the president of the Electronic Security Association, which represents some 2,600 businesses. Yet Brink’s evidently found it more effective to appeal to our fear of bodily harm. ADT deserves credit for disavowing this line of marketing.
How does ADT’s service compare with Brink’s though? I decided to ask. “CHAT NOW!” The ADT home page commands, in language one normally associates with per-minute charges. I chatted with ADT Security Sales Specialist Brittani, who hastened to tell me that ADT has six call monitoring centers across the country. Great, I responded. What will they do if my alarm is activated?
“A trained ADT Professional will contact you,” she explained. “If you need assistance, the ADT Representative will contact police, fire department or other emergency personnel to request dispatch to your home immediately.”
Is that all “Tim” was doing, I wondered? I felt let down. If all of the “responding” happens purely over the phone, what difference does it make that ADT has six call centers across the country? It’s not like they’re jumping into a car and driving to my house to help me. Their “assistance” consists of calling 911 for me, after they talk to me on the phone. If I can answer the phone, couldn’t I just use it to call 911 myself?
If a monitored security system doesn’t provide any protection my local 911 service doesn’t already give me, is it really worth the money? According to my insurance agent, installing one would save me a whopping $171 annually on my homeowner’s policy. They also warned me I’d have to buy a $30 annual permit from the city. Because over 90% of police responses to security system activations turn out to be false alarms, many cities now charge an upfront fee to cover the associated public costs. Repeated false alarms incur stiff fines, and operating an unpermitted system can earn you a class C misdemeanor.
A survey of my friends revealed just how confused consumers are about their home security spending. Those with systems said they provide “peace of mind,” but most understood the anxiety they were assuaging wasn’t necessarily rational. “I was worried about break-ins and home invasions,” one friend explained, “though I know these are unlikely events.” Others reported feeling frustrated by their systems and abandoning them. “All it ever did was generate false alarms,” my sister said. My friend Matt had perhaps the most logical approach: He simply divided the property loss deductible on his insurance policy by the monthly cost of monitoring, and concluded, “ROI for a security system is only positive if I get robbed every eight years.” He doesn’t have a security system.
Neither do I, and I want one even less now that I’ve looked at how they’re sold. Home security is a model subsidiary of Fear, Inc. It generates sales by giving potential customers skewed visions of both its product and the problem of safety. There’s evidence that home security systems reduce property loss from burglary (ESA claims the average loss for a home without a system is over $5,000, versus about $3,200 for a home with one). But they’re not cost-effective for every home. And the systems clearly burden police forces when they malfunction They can generate significant financial penalties for owners. The industry does not encourage customers to do the basic math necessary to make a wise choice.
More troubling, while these systems can include sensible safety components like fire detectors, it’s entirely unclear that they provide protection from violence. Yet many companies’ marketing methods explicitly focus customers’ attention on the need to protect people—especially white people and women, who are positioned as uniquely valuable and defenseless. Many of the images home security companies use to sell their products reinforce harmful stereotypes about how vulnerable we are, and about who represents a threat to us. Those stereotypes make our society more dangerous, not safer, because they encourage us to doubt our own competence and to value or distrust people based on their appearance.
It’s pretty brazen for an industry to sell “peace of mind” by fueling self-doubt and mistrust. It’s especially sad when you consider that building relationships among neighbors has been recognized for thousands of years as the most effective way to keep your home and family safe. As Hesiod wrote in 700 BC, “If misfortune strikes your house, your kinsmen take time to get dressed. Neighbors come in their nightclothes.”
For that reason, I’m grateful to the home security industry—or at least, to the salespeople they keep sending into my neighborhood. The conversations they generate on our email list help me get to know my neighbors, and encourage us to share our concerns about safety. That kind of community building is a powerful rejection of Fear, Inc.‘s sales pitch. And it’s given me more peace of mind that any alarm system ever could.