Sunday, December 26, 2010

Money for nothing

A couple of months ago, the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM) called J.P., a reader from London, Ontario, and asked if he would participate in a survey that involved completing a radio listening diary for a week. The BBM is an audience measurement company for Canadian radio and television broadcasters. (It's comparable to Nielsen Media Research or Arbitron in the United States.)

J.P. reports that he "willingly complied" with the request, believing that "my input might have some, however minor, influence on what was broadcast." To encourage J.P.'s cooperation, BBM included a toonie (a $2 coin) with the survey.

J.P. dutifully filled out the survey and sent it back to BBM. He would have completed and returned it regardless of whether any money had been included in his survey package. After all, he had agreed over the phone to participate.

In mid-December, J.P. received another package from BBM, this one unsolicited. He hadn't been called ahead this time to assess his willingness to receive the package that contained a 70-page consumer product survey. But accompanying the new lengthier survey was a crisp $5 bill.

"I have no intention of completing this survey," writes J.P.

His first inclination was to place the unanswered survey and the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and send it back to BBM. But, he observes, that this might cost BBM more in postage than the $5 they sent him. He wonders if he should just pocket the $5 and drop the survey in the recycling bin. A third option J.P. doesn't raise, of course, is to put the $5 bill in the postage-paid envelope and just return it to BBM.

J.P. is wrestling with what the right response should be.

"No one called to ask my permission," he writes. "Am I under any obligation to respond in any way?"

In the past, I've written about not-for-profit businesses that send potential donors personalized mailing address labels as an inducement to contribute to some cause. More than a few readers wonder if it's ethical to use such labels if you don't donate to the cause. My take has always been that it's perfectly fine to do so since you didn't request the labels and were offered them as a gift just to consider giving.

When cash is involved, it might somehow feel different to a reader. But if, as J.P. reported, the $5 was given to encourage him to fill out the survey and not as an agreed-upon payment for doing so, he has no ethical obligation to return it. Presumably, his lack of responsiveness will signal the end of BBM's efforts to entice him to fill out future surveys by using such nominal cash incentives.

Once J.P. decides for certain that he has no intention of filling out the survey, the right thing is for him to do as he pleases with the $5 bill. It was meant to entice him, not to obligate him to fill out an unsolicited survey. He's under no obligation to do anything but consider the request, which he appears to have done.

Given that it's the holiday season, J.P. may decide to donate his newfound $5 riches to a worthy charity. But that, too, is his decision to make.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business, is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to

c) 2010 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


Anonymous said...

I grant you that your correspondent probably looked more into the situation than the average person. We get so many surveys and I believe the survey sponsors don't necessarily believe they are dealing with "the man next door", so what you, the recipient does with the survey and any reward, whatever form it takes, is entirely up to you the recipient. I don't know why people bend so far over backwards to treat these surveys as some kind of sacred agreement between the sender and the recipient. In fact, I believe the survey sender accepts that a certain number of people they send surveys to will complete the survey, a certain number will throw it away and some recipients will pocket the money. This is not a written contract, you the recipient are free to do what you will with the reward freely furnished to you. It came that way from the sender so you are free to treat it any way you want.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

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Anonymous said...

We got 3 of those surveys a couple years ago. No one in my household listens to the radio (too much ads and garbage music) so we just threw the surveys out and kept the $15. No moral qualms about it whatsoever.