In a couple of days, my 84-year old-dad — father of seven, World War II veteran, and former advertising executive from television’s golden age — will undergo surgery for early stage cancer. I’m cautiously optimistic, but any surgery at this age has real risks.
Leaving nothing to chance, my wife and I flew our twins from Cincinnati to my beloved hometown of Pasadena, CA, to send good vibes and lift his spirits. Along the way, we were able to spend quality time with my mother, who’s now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, a condition which prompted both of my parents to move to assisted living earlier this year. I’m still in California through the surgery and beyond.
My dad’s an amazing guy, but in the last few months his frailty and vulnerability have started to really shake me up. His condition, along with my mother’s, has had me thinking about not only my parents but also our entire aging population. How do we treat them? How do we protect them? How do we thank them?
Marketing and Seniors
One obvious answer came to mind after I read a very troubling yet familiar story in the “The New York Times,” “Bilking the Elderly, With a Corporate Assist.” The article documented how unscrupulous hucksters buy readily available targeted mailing lists from respectable firms to lure senior citizens into coughing up personal identity, bank account information, and more. The key insight: prey on their loneliness and their desire to feel connected.
“Telemarketing fraud,” the article notes, “once limited to small-time thieves, has become a global criminal enterprise preying upon millions of elderly and other Americans every year, authorities say.”
Much has been written about seniors as a target and demographic. They have more money, disposable time, and feel a need to be connected, reasons online usage among this segment is growing. But our targeting and relationship marketing also contribute to key segments’ vulnerability. The reality is though we marketers wax poetic about the power and beneficence of conversations (admit it, you used the term a hundred times today), the same principle is shamelessly used as a deceptive, unethical, and often illegal hook to scam unsuspecting consumers, from teens to the elderly.
If we’re to preserve and grow the integrity of our industry, we always need to keep that in check. As purveyors and ambassadors of the Web 2.0 movement, we have a vested interest in ensuring our “join the conversation” hoopla doesn’t become another convenient entry point for manipulation, deceit, dishonesty, and abuse. This is why commonsense foundational frameworks like the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA’s) Ethics Code are so important.
Ten Strategies to Protect Our Parents From Marketers
But if that’s too righteous to swallow or act upon, we can still take a few proactive steps with our own parents or aging loved ones to ensure they aren’t victimized by the ugly side of marketing. Trust me, you’ll feel better. Here are a few tips:
- Weed the mail. Whenever possible, help filter your parents’ mail, especially the marketing literature. Toss out the junk, flag the questionable, and create a special pile for the letters that merit a shout-out to law enforcement. If you can’t do it by hand, ask them over the phone what showed up in the mail box. Stay engaged!
- Know the vulnerability zones. Some areas are more primed for abuse and manipulation than others. Money, driving, and drugs are three areas where abuse is rampant, so be on the look out for bogus credit card offers, drugs (e.g., herbal Viagra), bank scams, and free car sweepstakes.
- Learn from others. Some of the consumer feedback sites like My3cents, the Better Business Bureau, and even PlanetFeedback.com (full disclosure: I founded PlanetFeedback) can help quickly spot areas where senior citizens get the most abuse. It’s painful to read, but you’ll emerge smarter and wiser.
- Sweep out the sweepstakes. If you want to play it safe, avoid all sweepstakes. My father still boils with anger over the Ed McMahon sweepstakes offers my now-deceased Aunt Sal would mindlessly fill out without realizing she’d effectively purchased enough books and magazines to replace the Library of Alexandria. She didn’t know; her eyes couldn’t see the fine print. After all, Ed and his smile seemed trustworthy. Legal, sure, but shamelessly deceptive. Sweep it out!
- Create a swatch list. Often scammers use the same bogus personalities or expert third parties to lure seniors. Go to Google Image Search, type in their names, paste the names images to a sheet of paper, and send the parent to your parents so they can easily flag or identify the usual suspects. If Ed McMahon ticks you off the most, put him in the center of the swatch. As we’ve learned with Web 2.0 tools like Flickr, visual cues help. Same applies to e-mail. Print out examples of bogus e-mail and spam, especially the really sneaky ones.
- Prime the counterattack. If your parents are being specifically targeted, have a form letter ready to send to the company demanding your parents’ names be removed from the list, taken off the phone registry, taken off the e-mail list, and the like. Threaten legal action, even if you don’t plan to follow through. The mere threat of legal intervention is often enough to get the company to act.
- Reverse the tactics. Here’s one from my colleague Sue MacDonald, who is managing two elderly parents, one with Alzheimer’s. She found out her father, who had a history of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke, had been buying “heart pills,” effectively various forms of herbal Viagra and “chocked full of stimulants.” She advises, “Be prepared to point out their liability if your loved one suffers another heart attack or stroke because they didn’t bother to ask when they were schmoozing him/her over the phone. Dad, at one time, had 39 bottles of sexual ‘aids’ in his medicine cabinet when we finally went looking.”
- Check the credit card bills. Use your best judgment here, but if appropriate, periodically check your parents’ credit card bills for curious, automatic monthly deductions. Many of the marketing scammers do the fleecing over a long period, and start with a relatively small charge. We’ve all been there, so use your own pain to cut the abuse on this front.
- Educate the network. If your parents have a set of dependable local vendors with which they’ve always done business (carpet cleaners, delivery people, lawn mower guys, mechanics), notify each that your parents aren’t capable of making completely sound decisions and that you would appreciate a call if your parents come shopping for something new, sign a contract, or want a transaction of some kind. Be nice, but be firm.
- Power the power of attorney. If you’ve been given power of attorney, don’t hesitate to use that as leverage against marketing abusers. It helps to be able to say, “I’m power of attorney for my mother/father.” Trust me, they’ll listen — and probably run away!
Once Again, Let’s Learn from Consumers
I love marketing, but the thought of my parents getting abused by unscrupulous marketers elicits an emotion that conquers all. Consumers have taught us a great deal about the power of banding together to drive greater transparency. In the context of keeping the marketing airwaves safe for our parents, there’s no reason marketers can’t do the same thing.