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Vice Squad
The art of selling things that are bad for you
For the rest of the July 2017 issue of CRM magazine please click here

Commerce is the art of convincing people they not only want or need a product but they want your product. Normally the process doesn’t pose too many obstacles; we all need food, clothing, and shelter, after all. In fact, given Western material excesses, one might say it’s too easy to make a sale.

The only costs to the consumer are generally financial—the actual money spent, and the opportunity cost it may represent. Sometimes, though, an additional cost in the form of potential harm to the customer or to others nearby arises. This is covered by another art, the art of the fine print: liability management and disclaimer crafting.

Every advertisement for alcoholic beverages contains some variation on the phrase “consume in moderation.” It’s always in very small print, or the voice-over is quick, quiet, and at the end of the commercial. In contrast, the ad itself often glories in the excess of a social event—young, attractive people with full bottles/mugs/glasses and not a care in the world, partying all night long. There’s no way that one serving of your favorite adult beverage will last all night, so of course you’ll have several. The advice is “moderation,” but the message is “More!”

Don’t get me wrong—I’m in favor of drinking as much or as little as you like, even to excess in the right circumstances, occasionally. The problem is that alcohol is not a consequence-free product; it impairs judgment and lowers inhibitions, slows response time, can damage the liver, can harm fetal development, and reacts badly with many medications. It makes some medical conditions worse and can be addictive. (Also, it turns some people into raving assholes, Michael.) Vendors have to acknowledge the potential for harm, but it’s not exactly a selling point, is it?

Goods with harmful side effects are now required to carry warning labels. This began in 1966, when cigarettes and other tobacco products were required by law to advise consumers that these things would eventually kill them. That’s quite a shift from advertisements that a good smoke would protect you against coughs and scratchy throat, was recommended by doctors, and would keep you from wanting to beat your kids.

Not every vice is a consumable; some are experiences. Gambling is one such experience; anything casino-related has to warn potential patrons of the dangers of compulsive gambling. Usually, it takes the form of “Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER” or some such. That’s just brilliant, because many compulsive gamblers are unaware or unwilling to admit they have a problem in the first place, and those who do realize it only after they’ve hit bottom, by which time the damage is done.

Which brings up a problem with warning labels: They often don’t work. It’s possible they could cause somebody who wasn’t already a smoker or drinker to be scared away from starting—assuming a school’s D.A.R.E. program didn’t accomplish this by age 10—but if you’re using the product, you’ve decided the risks are acceptable ones. This is because alcohol, tobacco, and gambling provide pleasure. A brand of soap with the health hazards of smoking would be taken off the market, and if all soaps had the same problem we’d find other ways to wash.

In every case, the warnings are just visible enough for people to know they’re present, but not enough to make their meaning clear without putting on your reading glasses. Not that it would matter; cigarette warning labels in the United Kingdom take up literally half the pack, and they are about as effective as a padlock made of cake. But those disclaimers exist as liability shields; nobody honestly expects the warnings to be a surprise to people, but this way nobody can claim they were unaware of the risks—even if the warnings are in tiny letters, whispered, or wholly unconvincing.

I absolutely believe that competent adults should be allowed to do things that could harm them, but only so long as they’re given a clear understanding of the risks. Consequences exist for actions, and harming others is separate from whatever you do to yourself. Treating customers as adults means ensuring they’re fully informed of the hazards attached to products and experiences even as they’re free to disregard them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, this Scotch isn’t going to drink itself, and escorts charge by the hour even if you don’t go anywhere. 


Marshall Lager is a senior analyst in Ovum’s customer engagement practice; his advice is for entertainment purposes only. Contact him at marshall.lager@ovum.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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