The Ethics of Affinity Marketing (Or Lack Thereof)


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Don’t you love it? You join an association or enroll as a “club” member–and almost immediately the affinity offers start rolling in. “Because you’re a valued member…” “We want to welcome you with special offers from our partners…” “Among the many benefits of membership…” These, and a bunch more skanky intros touting this special offer or that arrive non-stop, or almost. But are these offers really “special,” and do affinity marketers bear any responsibility to make them special?

Should these offers be “special?”

I’m of two minds on this. First, anyone receiving any type offer from Northwest Airlines (soon the be Delta, mercifully) probably knows that buttoning your wallet shut isn’t enough. You need to bolt it shut. Same applies for most “points” programs, unless points generously convert to airline award miles or free lodging. And they should know that “special” credit life insurance offers bankers hawk when dispensing loans are outright thievery.

Hey, caveat emptor.

Should advocay organizations act differently?

But what about offers from supposedly trustable, not-for-profit players–AAA and AARP to name just two? Would they pick your pocket? And more to the point, should they hold out their “do-gooder” hand while robbing you with the other?

I’ll use AARP as a case in point. I’ll admit, I’m a card-carrying AARP member. Gets me hotel and rental car discounts. And I love telling clients that they’re getting a deal on my travel expenses because I’m a consultant of the “older persuasion,” despite my youthful looks. And according to AARP, membership gives me access to great member rates for several types of insurance, notably auto.

Testing AARP

Well, I tested that premise over the past several weeks. I shopped all our household insurance using an online service that shares our request for quotes with any insurance carrier willing to pay for it. That’s how our names and info got to AARP, or, more properly, AARP’s auto insurance marketing partner.

So in came the quote, promising hundreds of dollars in annual savings if I was (or became) an AARP member. The rationale given for the savings was AARP better understanding older drivers. Hey, they’re going to give us a special deal for being over 55.

And offer us a special deal they did. They gave us the shaft, that’s what they gave us. They tried to pick our pockets just like the known predators of the affinity marketing game. AARP’s auto quote was 166% of our best quote, which several carriers approximated. Guess they’re hoping older folks will trust them, and not shop the rate. After all, who would take better care of customers, if not AARP?

Abusing trust

Boy, did I ever feel privileged. Outright giddy over how much AARP does for older consumers. Excuse me, to older consumers. There’s an old phrase that fits this experience to a tee–”BOHICA.” And if you’re not familiar with it, I’m not going to explain it here.

So the moral is, next time you hear AARP out front supposedly representing older peoples’ interests, know whose interests AARP really represents. Not yours. Not your parents. Their own. Wonder how some executives look in the mirror before going to work at this supposed advocacy group? Outright smarmy behavior.


  1. Dick,

    I am with you on a number of levels. I am a card carrying AARP member and get value from the content on their website as well as from their advocacy for our generation.

    Why do they get “sold” on the sorts of affinity programs you describe? It undermines their credibility and our willingness to trust them in area where they might deserve trust.

    Of course, it is not just AARP. These sort of program are used by all sorts of businesses. I want transparency and a straight forward value proposition.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.

  2. John – glad to know I have a fellow “card carrying conspirator.” As for the “why,” the only thing I can offer stems from my experience in the 90’s, when I finally had to choose between being a mature consumer marketer/advocate versus a more broadly-defined relationship marketer (pre-CRM or even SFA). At the time, AARP was uninterested in any type of intellectual excahange with others working in the field, despite blatant mistakes they were making. It was always all about them, not about their advocacy group. For example, I spoke at national American Society of Aging conferences during that period. I never once say an AARP representative. Appears that nothing has changed.

    Good to hear from you,

  3. Dick

    Sad to hear about sour shoddy experience at the hands of the AAAP.

    At least in the UK, there are now so many free comparison sites for things like auto insurance, some of them listing hundreds of insurers, that it has become ridiculously easy to get the best quote. When it comes to getting a quote, I simply ignore all the offers I have received and go straight to the comparison site.

    Thank goodness for the transparency brought on by the Internet.

    The affinity marketing thing is a clear symptom of the AAAP acting in its own organisations’ interests rather than its members. Such organisations have long fallen into the hands of the spivvy end of the marketer continuum that simply view members as sales oportunities, a small cut flowing back into the eager coffers of the organisations. It is a broken business model that needs fixing. It is time that members overhauled such organisations for their own benefit. And booted out the officers who let it slide into a giant marketing scheme in the first place.

    Caveat emptor, as you said.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.

  4. Dick: AARP sent me my coveted card on the day of a certain birthday I had! While your blog rightfully questions the ethics of AARP along with their partners, and throws doubt on how meaningful the term “preferred customer” really is, you can’t fault the organization on execution! Gosh they’re good!

    Today, when I hear or read “you’re a preferred customer,” coupled with an offer that’s only valuable to the company receiving the payment for it, it’s a rapport breaker. I know too well the book they’re reading from: Chapter 1: Make Every Customer Feel Important! The problem is, they never got to reading Chapters 2 and 3: Be Sincere, and Make an Honest, Meaningful Offer.

    Case in point: my son receives Baseball Digest, a gift subscription he began to receive last year. Only a few months into the subscription, I received a phone call from the publication saying that we had “preferred customer” status and there was a “special offer” they wanted me to consider. I asked the caller what, exactly, made us a preferred customer for Baseball Digest, but she wasn’t able to answer the question.

    So much for my hearing the rest of her pitch. I ended the call immediately.

  5. Andy

    I guess in these difficult times, any customer automaticaly becomes a ‘preferred customer’. It is about as meaningful as being told that “your call is important to us!”. Not!

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.


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