Marketing in Disguise

11/16/2009 10:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The primary job of marketing is to promote sales, and those in the industry use a myriad of tactics to entice consumers to action. Advertising, direct mail, sales promotion and PR experts have a host of persuasive armament in their arsenals. When we communicate a meaningful message that delivers on the wants/needs/desires of the consumer, sales increase.

However, the manner in which marketers put the carrot in front of the consumer isn't always black and white. Certainly, we know not every consumer will take advantage of every offer presented. Yet, when we knowingly play in the darker parts of the gray to drive sales, we're doing a disservice to the consumer and the industry. A good deal not a good deal when marketers misinform consumers and/or misrepresent offers.

Here Are Just a Few Examples:

The Nearly If Not Impossible Mail-in Rebate

The mail-in rebate began with the best of intentions. A retailer might not have wanted to drop a price of a product, for example, but the manufacturer wanted to give something back on the price to reward the consumer. The engaged consumer viewed the enticement positively, and took action. Many present day rebates, unfortunately, have become art forms of complication rather than real rewards.

Some marketers design rebate offers that generate sales while making redemption nearly impossible. We want to be able to say consumers can get $100 back on a new printer because that might be just the right enticement, but we don't want them to actually do it. The reason for purchase and the reality of reward make for an unsuccessful consumer experience. There has been and always will be a place for the mail-in rebate as a marketing tactic. However, no rebate should be executed with consumer deception in its cross hairs.

Sadly, sometimes the consumer doesn't even know he or she is being rebated. A hotel chain offered a "lowest price guarantee" on its web site. When I found a lower price on another web site, I called the frequent traveler 800# and asked why the price on the hotel's site wasn't the lowest. I was told to book the stay on the hotel's web site at the higher price and pay for it at the higher price. Within 24 hours of check-in, I needed to download a form from the site and submit it with documentation of the lower price I found on the competitive site. (Note: not many travelers hit the road with their lap tops and their printers).

After hotel corporate received and verified the documentation, the consumer would be rebated the difference and given a $50 gift card that was only redeemable at the hotel. As a marketer, I would guess the number of consumers who take advantage of the offer and actually get the lowest price is less than .5%. The offer is framed so that the hotel can advertise a guarantee that it created in hopes consumers would simply believe the guarantee. Further, it counted on those consumers who checked the guarantee not going through the trouble of taking advantage of it. Rebates, in whatever form, should be attainable to consumers without unnecessary effort. Otherwise, marketers are designing to deceive.

Product Downsizing

"We don't need to raise prices, let's just make the product smaller!" Certainly, from a profit perspective, this might be a necessary evil in some instances. Realize, however, that Suzie Shopper knows you're doing it, and you might risk her wrath. Price does not solely equal value. Price plus quality plus product usage (size fits into this) equals value.

Within the realm of product downsizing lives the serving size slight of hand. Anyone who has read the side of a regular soda or a cereal box knows how marketers try to make products seem more appealing. The soda is only 110 calories, provided you only drink half of the single serve bottle. The can of soup is only 8 grams of fat, provided you leave half of it in the can. Amazingly, the bag of potato chips you put in the cart has enough individual servings for a family of 20. Serving size reality as well as nutritional information should be considered by government regulators.

No Supply and Lots of Demand

Try as it might, the government can't watch over every retailer in the country advertising a steal on a new flat screen TV or a killer deal on an entry level car.

My brother once worked at a car dealership. The sales force was told that if anyone sold the lowest priced car (there was only one and it was carried in all of their advertising), they would be fired on the spot. The dealership banked on the salesman's ability to up-sell the consumers into higher priced vehicles. When the bait is non-existent and the switch to another product is planned, it is unethical and often illegal. Yes, products sell out. Yes, the objective is to sell products and services. However, if a consumer is lured into a store for a deal that the retailer knows is non-existent for all intensive purposes, the retailer puts consumer trust (along with its on ethos) in jeopardy.

The good Lord himself wouldn't have the credit rating necessary to take advantage of 99.9% of the automotive offers we've seen on TV. "$2000 cash back and no money down for qualified buyers!" is the ultimate offer bait and switch. Get the consumer into the show room, get them interested, and then eventually tell them they can't have the deal that drove them to the dealership in the first place. Certainly, when applying for credit, those with higher scores deserve better pricing as they are less risk. However, touting an offer that almost no one can take advantage of as those it was the answer for the masses should not be legally allowed.

The Unseen Add-ons

Frequent fliers amass airline miles that may be redeemed for free travel. If you're lucky enough to find the flights you need available for use with your reward, most airlines require you pay them upwards of $200 to use the miles for the "free travel" you've earned as part of a "service fee."

"Plus shipping and handling" has been a mainstay since the 70s, flying quietly below the government's radar. That Amazing Knife Set is only "$5! - a $50 Value!", plus shipping and handling. What's shipping and handling? Well, consumers can find that out when they call or go on-line order the product. In truth, the knife set is not $5. Not even close.

Full price disclosure should be required by law, not accepted as a surprise add-on a consumer finds out after engaging in the purchase process.

Unlike the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association or other self governing bodies, the various marketing associations (AAAA, AMA, etc) cannot disbar or cancel the certification of marketers. The vast majority of those in the industry are committed to the integrity of their work and the honesty of their efforts. However, the few who are not ethical taint our industry. Those playing within the rules are harmed by those who are not, and typically are in support of fair regulation in areas where the government can intercede. In the areas outside of government intervention, however, it is up to marketers to self govern. If we want to believe, we must be fervent in our commitment to consistently telling a more perfect truth.

Ms. O'Leary owns a boutique marketing agency in Marina del Rey, CA. She can be reached at