The amount of leafleting that goes on here was something that struck me very soon after moving to Spain. The practice always seems old fashioned to me, of the 1960s or earlier, something we learned about in commerce class in school as a theoretical form of advertising but something that wasn’t really used anymore. Regardless of whatever my impressions might be, the leaflet blanket bombing you see in Spain has shown no decline in popularity in my decade-and-a-half-long familiarity with the country. Whereas in Ireland the bulk retailers — your Dunnes, your Tescos, your Lidls and Aldis — use the newspapers, radio and television to draw the attention of potential customers to their special offers, in Spain, Alcampo, Día, SuperSol et al use leaflet drops.
When we come home in the evenings, our letterbox may contain up to a dozen leaflets seeking our custom for everything from Chinese takeaways to hardware stores. If I get home first the junk mail never makes it from letterbox to apartment, but is deposited in a paper recycling bin conveniently located underneath our block’s array of letterboxes. If my partner is home before me, I am greeted by a pile of junk mail on the kitchen table, which she will systematically go through, searching for bargains and mentally taking note of new shops or services in the district. Where I see an annoyance and something to be extirpated as soon as possible, she sees an opportunity to cadge a discount or learn more about her immediate environment. Sometimes leaflets are retained and filed neatly (or on occasion, not so neatly) away. I don’t know whether the difference is a man/woman or an Irish/Spanish thing or just two distinct personalities’ ways of dealing with the world around them, but our opposite approaches sometimes grate with one another — to the extent that I believe that I have actively grown to dislike leaflet advertising and all those mixed up in the trade.
The denizens of design studios and printing works responsible for the production of the leaflets may be invisible to us members of the public on the front line of the flyer blitz, but an army of delivery men and women are out there on the street every day, their presence challenging our peace of mind (if you’re a OCD tidiness freak like me), and doing their bit to ferry the remnants of the last of the world’s trees (now converted into shiny scraps of paper advertising soy bean mattresses and the like) to our abodes. It is not hard to recognise leaflet giver-outers. They are always on foot, pulling those large-capacity shopping trolleys behind them with one hand, stack of whatever leaflets du jour they have been commissioned to deliver in the other. Invariably they always wear distinctly stressed expressions, veritable thousand-yard stares, as if the task they have been given is an impossible one. Like that Greek dude, Sisyphus, who had to push that darned stone up the hill for all eternity. Perhaps their ganger sets them difficult-to-reach targets — ten thousand leaflets in a day or some such unimaginable figure? Or perhaps after a couple of days in the job the monotony just gets to you. I can picture the leafleteers back at flyer central chewing the fat after a long day’s campaign, talking like Vietnam vets, asking one another how long they had been in country, swapping tales about particularly difficult tours or missions. Days when the wind blew so strong they could hold on to no more than two leaflets at a time. Or when it rained so much their trolley took on water and weighed a ton and the day’s work had to be aborted . . .
Or perhaps the look their faces display is a form of armour against the dog’s abuse they receive from the public on a daily basis — because the office of the leafleteer is not a popular one. Besides bothering people of my ilk who have a thing about unwanted clutter entering their homes, there are two further ways in which the leaflet giver-outers annoy their fellow citizens. Firstly, to gain access to the phalanx of letterboxes corresponding to an apartment block’s individual residences a leafleteer must somehow enter the building. And how does he or she do this? By buzzing individual homes via the intercom until, (a) somebody answers, and (b) somebody lets them in. Many times, even in a block of twenty or thirty flats, finding someone in during working hours is far from a simple issue; workers are out working, kids are in school and retirees are taking their constitutional or shopping. If you happen to be in residence when a leafleteer calls, you can hear the sequence of electronic rings rising up the building until someone (who might be you) finally answers. If you happen to be busy — dying your hair, stuffing a chicken, perched precariously on a ladder feather-dusting those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, or in the middle of a difficult paragraph of your debut novel (!) your bile rises if it falls on you to interrupt what you were doing do to buzz the leafleteer in. As well as muttering and grinding your teeth, you have an existential choice: be nice and press that little button on the intercom or ignore the ding-a-lings and let answering be some else’s problem. Some canny leafleteers, having learnt that their rings are often ignored by householders go for the nuclear option: ringing all the flats at once. This approach is likely to be counterproductive: the only thing more annoying (on the intercom-buzzing front, at least) than the sequential ringing of every bell in the block is their simultaneous ringing. On principal, I would never answer the door to someone who took this approach.
Of course, in the same way that a member of the species, Equus ferus caballus, may be taken to an open body or vessel of H2O but cannot be forced to imbibe of the said fluid, a leafleteer might induce a householder to walk on down the hallway to their intercom but not necessarily buzz them into the hallowed ground of the block’s foyer. With most modern intercoms having a camera to allow the caller’s mug to be scrutinised from the peace and quiet of one’s quarters, if a caller seems less than respectable (or indeed is sporting an obvious Hamburgler look) then it’s odds on that the door will remain shut. Hence, besides the thousand-yard stare, most leafleteeers tend to look reasonable normal (no Maori face-tattoos, dreadlocks or ethnic piercings, for example).
It is the other activity of leafleteers that really gets on people’s goat, though: pinning those leaflets under the windscreen wipers of cars. Along with death and taxes, life in Madrid guarantees that if you park your car on the street eventually somebody will come along and put a flyer under a windscreen wiper. The front wipers are preferred, but I’ve seen the rear wipers of hatchbacks and station wagons used. If the leafleteers who “do” houses are the infantry, then their brethren who take care of the car side of things are the crack commandos. Because what they do is technically illegal (defacing property, vandalism) car leafleteers go about their task with great haste and stealth. For the purposes of speed, they usually carry less leaflets, and so prefer satchels to trolleys. In their difficulty to spot in action they’re like squirrels: in the same way you can sit under a tree all day peering at the branches without being able to catch a glimpse of the squirrel you know is hopping about up there, you could stand on a street corner for hours watching leaflets flicker in the wind but not catch site of who is responsible for placing them under the wipers.
I can understand the car leafleteers’ penchant for moving like the wind and hiding in the shadows. Most Madrileños would be more than apt to give a leafleteer sticking something under their windscreen wipers a piece of their mind. Because, let’s face it, no one welcomes the ritual of having to remove a half-dozen flyers before turning key in ignition, or worse — already be en route when you notice the dancing of coloured paper on the edge of your vision and realise you forgot to make that trip to the top of the hood/bonnet this time. I would also suppose that many car leafleteers feel a degree of shame regarding the material they are paid (a pittance I presume) to pin to cars. For, much of what they give out consists of ads for local prostitution services, and the content of these ads is quite graphic. There is full frontal nudity and often the girls are in raunchy poses, pointing to this area of their anatomy or that, or reaching in with their mouths to suck an object that is thankfully off camera. I have heard of young boys collecting these flyers like they were football cards. One lad of my acquaintance had his stash discovered and seized by his mother. Poor fella. At the other end of the spectrum, I have seen an old lady doing some public good and systematically removing these flyers from every car along a street.
There’s a whole chain of exploitation and of the strong preying on the weak in the business of car leafleteering. Besides the promotion of prostitution, many flyers offer to buy your gold or silver or take your car off your hands for a “top price”. There are also leaflets announcing “fire sales” or liquidations. So as well as littering and making us walk to the front of our cars to remove junk, the gullible or desperate among us have temptation thrust before us on a daily basis. I don’t blame the leafleteers, though; like I said they’re only paid peanuts.