April 1, 2010
Just what is a scam anyway? Is it a gentle, forgiveable attempt to get something for nothing? Or a dastardly, nefarious method by which to filch loot from the unaware? Most of us would say the latter.
It’s pretty obvious that a scam involves a trick, a bit of deceit or sleight-of-hand to obtain some advantage. It typically involves a promise that isn’t kept. The freedictionary defines it as ‘a fraudulent business scheme; a swindle’ and most dictionaries by and large agree. But it doesn’t have to be so negative – or even illegal. To scam something – in Aussie lingo anyway – is to get something for free, often with the implication only that it wasn’t totally deserved. So for example you may scam some food or a cigarette or whatever you want now and promise to pay later; however what’s unstated but understood is that we know you’ll conveniently ‘forget’ and reneg on the deal. You may not have done it deliberately, but more than likely it was deliberate. The scammer probably has a history of this gentle, low-impact trickery. ‘Cadge’ is a similar slang term for it, but to cadge is more open, even honest, in that no deceit is necessarily implied or involved. Point being that most scams are a gentle, subtle con, not outright dastardly, but deceitful.
And then there is the ‘Bank of Nigeria’ email scams, and such like. Which steps from scam to outright fraud. Now that’s not pleasant or gentle at all. (If you clicked on that Nigerian scam link you’d find yourself at Snopes.com, a seemingly reputable domain and site in the name of David Mikkelson. But who is he, and why should you trust him? He is after all deriving income – however indirectly and legitimately – from your interest in these very same hoaxes and frauds. One of the ironies of the Internet is that anyone can post anything and make it look rock-solid and trustworthy. Now I do trust Snopes.com but I’d still double check other sources. And please don’t trust me either – I’m hoping to recoup costs from this site, too!)
And so we are left with one word – scam – for both a gentle deceit and outright crookedness. So where do we place things like direct marketing or the advertising industry in general? It’s arguable but a case can be put for lumping any market distortion into the scam category as even the most legitimate advertising usually works via the subtleties of psychology – ie, it relies on a trick to draw attention.
Our acceptance of these tricks – or not – depends on how grossly misleading the trick may be and what finally is delivered. Or not delivered. From my days marketing PC products I remember clearly how much more effectively a cute animal or baby photo, strategically placed on a computer advertisement, would draw the eye and result in vastly more sales calls. So what does a baby or a pet have to do with a computer? Nothing. But we accept and condone some of these tricks – such as the use of particular words, colours, smells or sounds because it’s viewed as a mild, almost innocent pychological influencer that doesn’t overwhelmingly lead us to make a bad choice. And of course in most cases the product is real and can stand on its merits. If the product is fake, non-existent or doesn’t live up to its claims at all then it may indeed be considered a fraud.
Fraudulent claims and offers aside, what about the complex but completely legal attention-seeking involved in some direct mail? It may be the offer of a free meal by some investment company selling a cutting edge global hedged-and-leveraged sports-betting futures opportunity you can’t possibly understand, or perhaps the Wenatex offer of a meal and a sales pitch, with no-strings-attached and absolutely no-obligation-to-buy.
Some of us call that sort of deal a scam, but it’s not - indeed in this country at least it certainly isn’t – fraudulent. Wenatex is a legitimate company that sells real products, it’s just that the method of attracting the customer (a free meal) also throws a thin veil over the real purpose – to get lots of prospects in a room and sell them something. Having had the free meal and sales pitch you may well feel obliged (although you really shouldn’t) to buy something – it’s human nature. Of course you can always say no, it’s just that many people feel that they ought to do something in return. And of course that little bit of applied psychology helps make the sale. The fact that you are well fed and cooped up in one room with a bunch of experienced sales people doesn’t make it any easier to just walk away. But it’s no more fraudulent than any other high-pressure sales pitch, it’s just that you may feel that you were lured there. And may possibly feel uncomfortable about it.
Some other tricks of advertising rely heavily on more intense emotions such as sexual attractiveness. Drape a near-naked woman over a car and watch the queue (mostly of males) form. Sadly it works. It acts on a deep-seated urge, creates good feelings and softens you up to buy. The choice of music played in a shop, even the fragrances that waft around a store may be designed to hit your “buy” button. Now this may well be cunning but in general it’s not fraudulent. You still have to buy the product – and let’s assume it’s a real product -and that’s entirely under your control.
Another example of complex, seductive direct marketing is the Reader’s Digest technique of offering their extensive mailing list the opportunity to win a large sum of money that could be even larger if only you choose to buy something. Again, real products. Again the unstated “guilt trip” that they are offering something so maybe you should “do the right thing” at least once (even if you’ve never actually won anything). Plus – and this is probably the clincher – the fear that maybe this time you will win and if you had only said “yes” you’d be so much richer! It’s a scam in the weak sense that it’s playing with your hopes, dreams and emotions, and it’s casting a veil over reality (the odds are slight that you’ll win) with a complicated set of instructions, steps and choices. But it’s not fraudulent. It’s just smart marketing, isn’t it?
Now in a perfect world with a perfect market we wouldn’t need to be manipulated by any sort of marketing tactics, would we? But I bet it would still happen.
If you have concerns about scams, hoaxes and the like, check out these links…
Scamwatch – the Australian government’s ACCC makes a good attempt to even the score against the worst, most fraudulent scammers
HoaxSlayer – again a useful site, especially so for weeding-out those annoying email hoaxes. The site has been around for years and appears quite genuine – but who exactly is behind it? Well Brett M. Christensen claims copyright, so that at least gives us a name – and the “about” page reassuringly describes Brett and his “mission” in detail.
If you really want to check out a suspect offer be prepared to spend some time Internet searching and weigh up the truth. It’s not always clear-cut.