NOTE: This blog post was originally written for an appeared on the NEXT Marketing Agency’s website, which is no longer in use. I am posting it here to showcase a reference to a portfolio. This post explains the writing I did for this marketing agency: Being a marketing writer / ghost blogger for a marketing agency
Recently our market research and SEO team member, Joyce Grace, went for a trip to Australia, where she encountered a company offering “free tours” of Sydney. “That’s brilliant marketing!” she thought. “These people could be geniuses!”
But the thing is, the tours weren’t entirely free. Well, they were. But they weren’t. But they deserved to be paid. But they said they were free… So what was the catch? Well, you had to leave a tip, if you thought it was worth the money. The thing about the service industry though, is that tips are a given in many countries, and even if the tour was not free, a tourist would still have to leave a tip. Maybe a smaller one, but still.
So was the tour free? Or wasn’t it? Does the tip count? Should a company advertising something as being “free” include all the finer details in their marketing material, like the requested tip that will leave you with a sinking feeling of guilt if you don’t pay it? Or should people expect that “there’s no free lunch” and any tour (as in this example) is going to require you leave a tip anyway?
Joyce thought the tour was FANTASTIC and worth every penny of the tip she left. The tour guide was excellently researched, animated, charismatic, professional, punctual, uniformed and clearly organized. He even handed participants a free map of Sydney he made himself that located free things to do in the city, where to get cheap eats, how to take public transport, and a bunch of other useful tips. The quality of the tour was worth what any paid-for service would have been able to offer. Plus they had really high Google rankings (which Joyce noticed right away) and great reviews on Trip Advisor, which meant they were doing something right, and Joyce loves analyzing why companies are successful! (That’s why she’s our market researcher).
But after the tour, she also got inspired to write this blog post for NEXT Marketing, because it’s an interesting philosophy in marketing, to say something is “free” when really, it is not fully free (or it might be, it depends on how you look at it). It works so well, but is it unethical marketing or ethical marketing? There may not be a right or wrong answer, but there are reasons for and against it that we can we can delve into.
Take it away Joyce!
The case for calling it “ethical marketing”
The example of the tour above was a bit of a specialized case because, as noted, the service industry usually always is going to require a tip, whether the service was free or not. It just so happens that the business model of the I’m Free Tour company in Australia is able to survive on tips alone. They tell you at the start of the tour that any other company would charge at least $30 (or whatever it is) for a tour of Sydney, but that they only want you to evaluate what you think the tour was worth and leave that tip for them at the end, if you wanted to. But it’s free, they say. Could a person really leave the tour without giving a tip? Well….yeah, if they don’t mind going red in the face.
But is this business model new? No not at all. Street performers do the same thing all the time, and cities license them! And dare I say, time-share companies will give you lots of so-called “free” things, like “free” trips to Costa Rica or Vegas. But we all know those are not really free. If you want them, you have sit through a high-pressure sales meeting that will probably ruin your trip (or so the reputation goes for that industry). In effect, you are paying with your attention, feelings of guilt and your time. But you do get the “free” thing they offer you – usually that is not a lie. So is that ethical marketing because no lies were involved? Maybe. But people don’t usually don’t like the ‘catch.’
What about in the Internet marketing world where we see offers for “free” online courses, e-books, consultations, and the like. Are those really free? You get what they say they’re going to give you, except you are not getting it for free. You are paying with your e-mail address and the permission to allow this company to start sending you sales messages, which also requires your time and attention. If they are not segmenting their lists as we learned on the NEXT blog, you will get a lot of useless stuff in your inbox, which will annoy you. But then again, you knowingly handed them your e-mail address in exchange for the “free” e-book or whatever it was. Should we think entering our e-mail is for anything other than future contact by that company?
So the conclusion is, saying something is “free” may just be ethical marketing after all because:
a) It’s nothing new in marketing.
b) You get what they say you’re going to get for free.
c) We all know there’s really never any “free lunch” in this world – everyone has motive.
The case for calling it “unethical marketing”
The times that this type of marketing could become “unethical” is likely when something is really untrue or a scam that tricks people in a sneaky way. Still all the cases I can describe below can probably be argued, in one way or another, as being “ethical marketing.”
Let’s take the case of using the scarcity principle. We know that works well in marketing. We can say there’s only a few of something left, or the deal ends soon, so people think they have to get in before they miss out. But if it’s not true, and there is plenty stock left of that product, is it right to say there’s only a few left, just to increase sales? What if you now say there are only a few left that are free. Ah, now that changes things, doesn’t it?
A computer chain store once had a Boxing Day sale ad that said they would be giving out free iPads to the first people that entered their stores. It turns out it wasn’t entirely true, there was maybe only one iPad, and only at one store. It was a miscommunication and mistake on their part, but the question is, was that using the word “free” in an unethical, untrue way, just to try to get more people in their stores on Boxing Day? Or is that totally validated because they did give out one for free and they never specified how many would be given out?
When signing up for a credit card, there are often “free” incentives, like lots of points towards travel. But the thing is, there is an annual fee on the card. So you have to pay for the card to be able to get the free points. Is that really free, if the value of the points is nearly the same as the cost of the annual fee? Should that be worded another way? Why is the annual fee an, “oh, by the way….” statement, after you start filling out the forms?
Here is a scenario we encounter all the time, perhaps nearly every time we go shopping: “Buy one get one free.” Now, dare we say that the company could just say that the two items are half price? The second one is not really free because it requires a purchase. Have we been accustomed to hearing this sales line over and over that we don’t stop to think about whether the word “free” is misused there?
Based on this conclusion, we can say that calling something “free” is unethical marketing because:
a) Leaving out part of the story of how something can be “free” can be misleading. Knowing the full truth might change people’s minds about trying to take the offer.
b) The cost to get the “free” thing is worth as much as paying for it.
c) The word “free” is being used as only one way of calculating the true cost of getting the “free” thing.
Now it’s your turn to tell us what you think is unethical or ethical marketing!
The thing about the above given examples is that they could have ended up in either section of this article, either the case for calling it ethical marketing or the case for calling it unethical marketing. Sometimes it comes down to our biases, backgrounds and tolerance levels. It could also be cultural – many Europeans think Canada is a ‘tricky’ country because we don’t include tax in our prices. This just shows how our upbringing and culture can influence the way we judge a situation to be unethical or ethical. So our goal is here is to let you have your say; do you think using the word “free” is an ok think to do in marketing?