When Consumer “Watch Dogs” Bite Consumers


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Supposed protectors of consumers share a special responsibility for, well, protecting consumers. And not just pubically, but in their out-of-sight direct dealings with consumers. Predatory business practices have no place in their environment. And while a few of my esteemed colleagues might refer to watch dogs taking a nip out of their protectees as “capitalism at work” – and objections to these practices as naive – I happen to think this stuff is outright smarmy. Further, I believe that these “bites” not only injure consumers but boomerang back on the perpetrators of these offenses as well, undercutting their credibility, and ultimately, subtracting from their loyal following.

Let me give you an example. We recently enjoyed a visit from my indomitable mother, who’s 90, legally blind, still travels alone (with some help from any stranger around when she needs it) – and she can rip someone (or something) a new one with the best of ’em. Which is exactly what she did to AARP on her visit. Oh, and for the unitiated and the younger set, AARP is therwise known as the American Association of Retired People, which is now expanding its market niche to include folks over the ripe old retirement threshold of 50.

So here’s her gripe. AARP lends affliliated direct marketers its member list; allows them to market in AARP’s name; and splits the take with these marketers – which is probably why I’ve never found AARP price competitive on anything. But what AARP doesn’t do is what caught her attention.

Curiously, this “watch dog” organization does not require marketing partners to sell only those products and services appropriate for individual members. Ironic for an organization supposedly committed to protecting its constituency from being taken advantage of because of age. To wit, how the hell likely is it that my dear old Mum needs a new AARP credit card? A lot less likely than the chance of a telemarketer copping a commission by selling the card to someone the same age who’s not retained his or her mental acuity. Oh, and how about car insurance? Ninety years old and legally blind? Well, perhaps AARP is too busy marketing its member lists to bother obtaining enough member information to help it steer the right products and services to the right people, if it cared. But whatever the case. Mom is making AARP pay.

As it happens, my mother is an incredible viral marketer. She volunteers at a nursing home. She works with not only patients but their families as well. She has lots of friends (who tend to be younger than she, because of her vitality). And, ‘xuse me Mom, she loves to diss anyone and anything that doesn’t measure up to her standards to anyone who cares, and even some who don’t. And now she’s dissing away. If AARP had ears (I”m afraid it only has a mouth), they’d be buzzing like crazy right now, and for a good long time to come. And a whole lot of folks who just might have considered using AARP’s travel, insurance and financial service products are now going to think twice. Gives a new meaning to “viral” marketing. Just deadly.

So the perpetrators do pay for their sins – at least sometimes. And as for AARP, guess we could change its purpose to “Protecting older people from being taken advantage of – except by AARP.”


  1. Dick

    I am pleased to hear that your elderly mother is so full of life at 90 years of age. And sad to hear that over-zealous marketers are sending her stuff that she doesn’t want or need.

    This is a difficult area from an ethical and legal standpoint. On the one hand, your mother is a member of a vulnerable group that needs a degree of protection from inappropriate marketing and potential miss-selling. The exact degree depends upon the person and their faculties; the protection required by a 50 year old at the peak of their career is somewhat different from a 90 year old in her dotage. On the other hand, the marketing industry relies upon the protection of the US Constitution to guarantee its right to ‘free speech’. This has allowed the marketing industry to create their own ‘tragedy of the commons’ through over-zealous direct marketing. Which has the highest priority for your mother? No-brainer! But which has the highest priority for society as a whole? That’s a lot harder. You decide if you can.

    I see that the membership form on the AARP website explicitly asks members to opt-in to receive ‘offers from AARP and organizations that provide exclusive AARP discounts and benefits’. The small print doesn’t say anything about appropriate offers, just exclusive offers. I assume your mother mistakenly checked the box that said she wanted this stuff when she applied to become a member. I also assume that she can get herself removed from the list as well. Let’s hope so.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Dick Lee – Graham, as you might guess from her age, my dear mother has been an AARP member for many years, extending back before such nicities as “opt-in.” However, this example reinforces the need to constantly update house databases. A tiny bit of database clean-up would tell AARP not to market auto insurance to her. Just as several purveyors of clothes for young children should figure out that our 6′ son doesn’t wear jammies with pink bears on them. Unfortunately, all too many direct merchants treat a name as a static opportunity without factoring in the passage of years – and my case, even decades.

  3. I think some businesses—or the companies they hire—are just lazy. I hope things have changed, but a decade or so ago, when I co-wrote a newspaper consumer advocacy column, we received a complaint from a widow, who continued to receive mailings to her departed husband from the Neptune Society. The organization told me that it could purge the husband’s name from the local database, but when it consolidated databases with the national organization (something that happened annually), the husband’s name would probably be put back in. This gave the woman grief every time she received a mailing, and given the business the Neptune Society is in, I can’t imagine she was alone. Yet, no one was willing to do anything about it.

    I still can’t get the apartment number off bulk mail that has now been resold many, many times over the years. I haven’t lived in an apartment in 17 years. I just don’t think that many businesses clean their data.

    Gwynne Young, Managing Editor, CustomerThink

  4. Dick Lee – Gwynne, your case makes the point much better than mine. And I’d add to the “laziness” factor you identify the value of each name on a ist from a resale standpoint. “Resale value optimization” (otherwise known as “greed) plays a big role in all this.

  5. Dick

    Your point about marketers not taking the passage of time into account when marketing to loyal customers is well made.

    The Harvard Business Review’s February edition had a long article about Breakthrough Ideas. One of the ideas was keeping the brand (and its marketing) relevant to customers as they age by changing its value propositions, marketing messages and delivery capabilities. This the authors called ‘Harry Potter Marketing’ in recognition of the way the charachter both stays the same (at the core) but changes (in behaviour) as he ages.

    Perhaps your mother needs a bit of this type of marketing magic.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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