Free marketing

Our community run childcare centre is increasingly the target of “offers” from companies wanting to market their products. At the moment we have a display of toilet paper in the foyer, and sometimes free samples are given out to families. It seems harmless enough, and sometimes the companies offer the centre something, in cash or in products, as an incentive. That seems like money for nothing to a small, community childcare centre that works hard on its fund raising, and keeping costs down.

I am becoming uneasy about it, though. It seems to me that, as a society, there is a whole conversation about the ethics of various marketing techniques that we are completely failing to have. While we have bans on some advertising, such as tobacco advertising in sport, and alcohol advertising to minors, marketing is getting cleverer and more subtle all the time. I think we are crossing some ethical lines without even realising it. Sure, marketing results in sales, which is good for our economy. But I do wonder if it is always good for us.

As a small community run child care centre with a good sense of community, we have, in marketing speak, a trusted brand. People feel good about the centre, and trust both the centre, and the extremely talented and popular Director. By advertising products to parents in this space, we are implicitly endorsing them, whether we mean to or not. By offering financial incentives to do so, the marketing geniuses make the deal hard to resist, but are we effectively become party to a “cash for comment” scenario? Is displaying a product in the foyer of our well-loved, trusted centre, an implicit comment on its value?

Certainly the reason this form of marketing is taking off is that it is effective. People feel good about our centre, and some of that good feeling will inevitably rub off on any product that they see displayed inside it – that’s why companies are so keen to make this kind of deal for advertising their wares. The same kind of effect works with “party plan” selling, where companies Tupperware, Intimo, and Enjo use social networks to sell their wares. You are in a friend’s home, and the more you buy the more free stuff your friend gets, so the pressure and incentive to buy is remarkably strong.

So where is the line? Displaying toilet paper in the foyer seems harmless, but what about infant formula? It is well established that marketing formula lowers breastfeeding rates, and higher breastfeeding rates are demonstrably better for the health of our babies. That is a clear case where improved marketing is bad for consumers.

Advertisers are moving more and more towards viral marketing – visible people, especially young people, using a product, wearing the clothes, reading the book, drinking the drink, will lead to more people doing so. It’s subtle, it’s effective. But is it wrong? I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but that doesn’t mean the questions shouldn’t be asked. These sorts of ethical issues need to be debated openly and vigorously in order for us, as a society, to work out where the lines should be drawn.

Misleading advertising is technically illegal, yet we have plenty of marketing schemes that trumpet “3 months free!”, which is apparently ok as long as the fine print discloses “on your 24 month plan”. And bait and switch is a common technique to get people to switch providers, whether it’s phones or insurance – offer a low cost first year, then bump up the price and bank on apathy to stop your customers moving on. It’s not illegal. It’s good for business. But no-one on the receiving end likes it. Too often we put up with it, either out of apathy or lack of real choices.

It’s time we started asking ourselves where the line should be, and voting with our wallets. Loudly.

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