Sunday, December 04, 2011

When good products get bad marketing

Sometimes the companies whose products we love make it difficult for us to love the things they do to sell us those products.

Several months ago, a reader received an unsolicited DVD from a hobby magazine to which he subscribes. It's not a bad DVD. In fact, it seems like one that might have interested him. It's a full-length documentary, apparently the first in a series that the magazine hopes subscribers will purchase.

"The way the magazine is marketing the DVD really angers me, though," my reader writes.

A form letter accompanying the DVD explains that the DVD was sent in hopes that the subscriber will not only send the company $9.95 for it, but will also consent to receive other DVDs in the future for which he will also be charged $9.95 plus postage and handling.

"If I don't want the DVD," he writes, "I'm requested to - get this - remove it from its case and return only the disc in a prepaid mailer." The magazine doesn't want the case back and the subscriber is encouraged to reuse or recycle it. "My guess is that they just don't want to pay the extra postage."

But buried deep in the form letter is a brief acknowledgment that even if he doesn't want to pay for it, the subscriber could opt to keep the DVD and not pay anything for it since the magazine sent it to him unsolicited.

"What really irks me is that a great many recipients -- many of whom are older people who could be confused and think they actually ordered the DVD -- are going to figure what the hey and pay the $9.95 anyway," my reader writes. "I suspect that the magazine's marketing people knew this in advance and are counting on it."

"This tactic is worse than anything a book or record club ever pulled," he writes, referring to clubs that used to rely on people forgetting to decline the selection of the month and end up owing money for items they never really wanted.

So, what's the right thing for my reader to do?

If he returns the disc as requested, he's being dutiful. He's also driving up costs for the magazine since it will be paying the return postage, a cost that is eventually likely to be passed on to him and other subscribers.

But he has absolutely no obligation to return the disc. He never requested it and the magazine should not be deceiving him or others into believing that they owe money for something they never purchased.

After stewing over the matter for a spell, my reader came to several conclusions.

"I'm going to keep the DVD," he writes. "I'm not going to pay $9.95 for it." He is also strongly considering canceling his subscription.

I've written about Stephen Carter's book Integrity (Basic Books, 1996). In it, Carter talks about three steps that are essential to integrity: The first is discernment, the second is to act on what you discern, and the third is to state openly what you have done and why you have done it.

"I am going to write a letter to the publisher and explain why I'm canceling my subscription," my reader writes. By acting with integrity, my reader is doing the right thing.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal
Responsibility in Today's Business
and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.

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

(c) 2011 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Hey, sellers are desperate in this Obama paradise! The person writing to Jeffrey wants to hold the entire selling fraternity guilty for this questionably aggressive method of soliciting more business. There's no skin off the questioner's back if he clearly sees the seller's M.O. We've gotten to the point that we want to indict every seller for setting a slightly bogus trap. I'm pretty sure that if this ever turned out to be a court case, the complainer would be laughed out of court. There's an old saying "Let the buyer beware".

Charlie Seng

William Jacobson said...

I second Charlie. This is simply a calculated marketing effort on the DVD sellers part. Certainly some of the receivers will do as the writer and keep the DVD without paying for them. Others will send it back providing more DVDs to send out. Still others will choose to pay for the DVD - not so likely because they thought they had ordered it but more likely because they liked the DVD and may like more of them.

It isn't often that the ethical answer is to keep the product AND not pay for it though.

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA