Matt Gemmell

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Sleazy promotions

business & software 3 min read

Social media has transformed the way that promotions and competitions are run, and not always in a positive way. The temptation to offload marketing onto customers can be difficult to resist, and too many companies forget (or choose to ignore) that many customers rightly see such tactics as sleazy and disrespectful.

Everyone knows that the purpose of a competition is not to give away a prize, but rather to generate interest in (and revenue for) the maker of the prize, and/or the organisation that’s running the competition. That’s fine, and is an inseparable part of our culture - but it’s not carte blanche to treat entrants any way you like.

There’s an understanding that the price of entering a “free” giveaway is that you’ll be exposed to marketing, in some form. That’s an unpleasant and intrusive thing, hence my use of the word ‘price’. Social media has created new categories of marketing-exposure that can be actively damaging to not only the entrant or customer, but also the reputation of the companies involved.

In terms of the customer’s exposure to marketing, there are three main types of promotion that I see regularly. Let’s talk about them individually.

One-time personal exposure

In this scenario, you alone are exposed to marketing, once. This is true of any competition, since you must have become aware of the competition in order to enter it, and by entering you’ve already visited the relevant site.

It’s only a one-time personal exposure if the competition entry mechanism is a private, single-user experience, such as an entry form. This is a fair and sensible mechanism, and I doubt that any reasonable person would take issue with it. Before the internet, many competitions took either this form or the next.

Repeated personal exposure

In this scenario, you alone are exposed to marketing on multiple occasions. This is true of any competition where any of the following apply:

  • You are automatically signed up to an email (or postal) distribution list upon entering.
  • You require to ‘follow’ a given Twitter account (or equivalent) in order to enter.
  • Your contact details are sold to other companies.
  • You require to do more than simply enter the competition on one occasion, such as checking back later for some reason.

This competition mechanic was the most common before the internet. Entering almost any competition would result in postal mail or (later) email, or even phone calls. Some countries have sufficiently evolved consumer protection legislation to insist that such follow-up exposures are opt-in, but some less advanced jurisdictions still permit an opt-out system, and all of the abuses of trust and privacy which such a system invites and entails. In this type of promotion, the cost of entering is likely to exceed the perceived value of doing so.

People are becoming more educated about privacy and about their exposure to marketing, so examples of this type of promotion are becoming marginally less common. Arriving to fill its place, however, is a significantly worse phenomenon.

Self-propagated exposure

In this scenario, you become the advertisement, and are an accomplice to the marketing exposure of many other people.

Examples are unfortunately commonplace:

  • Tweet to enter.
  • Retweet to enter.
  • ‘Like’ on Facebook (or functionally similar) to enter.
  • Comment/respond publicly to enter (in a way that’s propagated, such as on Facebook).
  • “Pay with a Tweet” to obtain extra value or some kind (such as additional apps in a software bundle, additional license rights for artwork, etc).

All of these are blatantly abusive, and should never be used as the sole method of participating in a competition or other promotion. They are greedy and sleazy, of course, but far more importantly they undermine the integrity of the entrant within their own social group. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of this immorality.

It’s bad enough trying to artificially turn a prospective customer into a delivery mechanism for your marketing, but requiring that they advertise to their chosen social circle is nothing less than appalling. The customer’s credibility, impartiality, judgement, taste and sense of personal ethics are all assaulted if they choose to take part in such a promotion, and the existence of the promotion invites such an assault.

To argue that the promotion itself is alright, and that if the customer chooses to participate then it’s their own fault, is akin to denouncing cancer warning labels on cigarettes, or disagreeing with bans on cut-price alcohol promotions. It’s monstrous to divorce responsibility for availability from that for consumption. Such sophistry is only yet another warning sign that the speaker’s handshake is likely to be slippery.

Those who are responsible for such promotions (and be aware that it’s almost never the customer-facing staff, but rather inaccessible marketing departments, executives, strategic partners and other stakeholders) are choosing to damage your personal standing and character in order to sell their product, in a far more egregious way than marketing has ever managed to do before.

A self-respecting person should choose to devote their attention to other, less blatantly disrespectful organisations and brands.