23-02-2001

"Selling dreams and nightmares" is the title of a Kvety article on the growing number of travelling salesmen who are duping Czechs. Drinking and driving is possible - if you know how... And the games that people play - trading human dignity for money. Those are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

In their drive to succeed in the ratings - private radio stations are organising increasingly drastic media contests. Paying a young couple to spend a fortnight in fish-bowl surroundings - usually behind the main shop window of a mega store- and trade in their privacy for several hundred thousand crowns was a hit in the early 90's. Nowadays it takes more to attract a crowd. And in its determination to forge ahead, a private radio station decided to cash in on the huge success of programmes like "Big Brother" in Britain and the US, and try the same formula in Central Europe. A 250,000- crown prize presented a sufficient temptation and soon the station was able to launch its plan - 14 people cramped in close quarters, in public view for a fortnight. From hundreds of applicants the station picked out those who would most antagonize one another - a well-off entrepreneur and a guy who'd been out of work for years, a Barbie doll and an intellectual, a 50-year-old woman and a don't-give-a-damn about-anything teenager, and so on.

None of them were allowed to bring any form of solitary entertainment - such as magazines, books or knitting - so that they would be forced to "socialise". Cabin fever on its own wasn't considered good enough, so the organizers figured that the best way to antagonize the members of the group was to strike one person out on each day and have the contestants themselves decide who it should be. If the unthinkable happened and they decided to boycott the plan by giving themselves one vote each the matter was to be decided by the public via an Internet vote. The contestants entered the game in high spirits convinced that they' d have a lot of fun and maybe even hit the jackpot. But Radio Publikum - the English translation of which is "Radio Audience" - was not paying for a boring show, and the organizers were well aware that with a little help the polite veneer would soon wear off and its audience would be able to watch the full spectrum of human emotions at play.

It did - soon the group had divided into two camps, there were heated quarrels and even a fight. The radio slogan "Live from the lion's den" delivered its promise. When, at one point, the remaining contestants affected a brief ceasefire, and let the Internet vote decide, radio staff piled on the pressure, letting the contestants know how they were doing in the voting. Soon the required measure of antagonism was back, and the contest could enter its final stages with the final decision being made by the public. For Radka, a woman in her 20s, it was tears, champagne and interviews - and most importantly - a quarter of a million crowns, which made it all worthwhile. Most of the others refused to talk about the experience just saying it had been a valuable lesson in human psychology. One woman told Reflex she recently got hate-mail from one of the contestants who found out she voted against him. Psychologists approached by Reflex magazine confirmed that everything pretty much followed predictable behavioral patterns .

A question that the magazine leaves unanswered is what kind of entertainment the public will require when it has got tired of programmes like "Big Brother".

One would think that what with shopping malls, internet shopping and TV shopping travelling salesmen would have been out of work by now. However an increasing number of Czechs claim they have been duped - or pestered by travelling salesmen. "Travelling salesmen sell dreams, but those naive enough to buy them are usually left with an expensive nightmare" says Kvety magazine, which features a set of "defense tactics" for less assertive individuals to use.

Travelling salesmen can accost you at your local supermarket, petrol station, on your doorstep -and amazingly enough, even in hospital where you should, theoretically, feel safe. One patient who spoke to Kvety magazine, says that shortly after recovering consciousness following gall-bladder surgery she was accosted by a strange woman selling pots and pans who warned her that if she didn't buy her pots for fat-free cooking she'd be signing her own death warrant.

The woman managed to ring the bell for the nurse - and told Kvety she didn't even want to think about who turned a blind eye and let the woman in for some business on the side. Judging by people's experience most travelling salesmen aim for homes and most of them sell miracle cures or "beauty and health" products. What can you do to keep such salesmen away? At present, it's as difficult as trying to stop the never ending stream of junk-mail, Kvety notes. You just have to take a tough line with them. Some people think it is enough to post a notice on their front door saying "travelling salesmen not welcome" but in order to keep someone out, the law says you would have to specify WHICH travelling salesman.

Your second best option is to get one of those quaint notices saying "My time is short - please don't waste it" or "Beware of the dog". If not it'll be up to you to do the growling and not buy that set of five pots for 9,000 crowns. "Believe me - they are not gold plated," one of the victims says.

Drinking and driving is possible - if you know how - says Tyden magazine. If you've parked your car outside the pub or restaurant and by the end of the evening have trouble figuring out which one is yours - there IS a way of getting both yourself and your car home safely. Drink and Drive, Drink SOS, City Car and Benas are all agencies operating in Prague for just such an emergency.

"If I am too drunk to talk, please contact this firm and give them my card" is the message on the bright yellow cards of the Drink SOS agency. It all sounds enormously convenient - a cab with two drivers arrives within a short space of time and while one hauls you into the cab the other drives your own car home safely. The downside is that these drivers are not regular cab drivers but people the agency has recruited from their own circle of friends who need a second job in order to make some extra money. The quality of service varies - some are completely trustworthy. But others will refuse to give you a receipt for your money, meaning they can pocket it tax-free, and will try to drive you around for a bit before taking you home in order to increase the fee. If you've called them - they assume you are in no condition to notice. Tyden's editor just put on a convincing act - and produced a critical assessment of four firms -the most trustworthy of which turned out to be City Car. So if you ever have one too many -or a few too many - consider this: losing money is nothing to losing your life.

23-02-2001