I’ve been sugged!

Scenario 1: Just as you are sitting down to dinner, the phone rings. A pleasant voice asks for a few minutes of your time for a survey. You answer the questions, then go back to your meal. Two days later, you...

Scenario 1: Just as you are sitting down to dinner, the phone rings. A pleasant voice asks for a few minutes of your time for a survey. You answer the questions, then go back to your meal. Two days later, you get another call. This time, a salesman from a financial institution – clearly using information you had provided in the previous call – wants to talk to you about investment opportunities. You’ve been ‘sugged’!

Scenario 2: An interviewer with a clipboard stops you in a mall to do a survey on the charitable sector in Canada. After the first few questions, the interview turns into a pitch for a donation to one of Canada’s leading charities. You’ve been ‘frugged’!

Scenario 3: A letter from the marketing research department of a publishing house invites you to participate in a ‘marketing study.’ Order a special edition book and if it doesn’t impress you, send it back and you won’t be billed. ‘Sugged’ again!

These are only three examples of a disturbing phenomenon whereby marketing research is being used as a camouflage for prying money from unsuspecting consumers.

Labelled ‘sugging’ (selling under the guise of marketing research) and ‘frugging’ (fund-raising under the guise of marketing research), these techniques have proven to be effective for organizations looking for new ways to get consumers to heed their pitches.

Sadly, by undermining the willingness of consumers to participate in surveys, the ‘pseudo-survey as promotional tactic’ is damaging the long-term health of all Canadian brands and charities.

Luckily, the federal government has introduced legislation that essentially makes this unethical behaviour illegal.

The ethics

First of all, why is such behaviour unethical?

Well, on a very basic level, it is dishonest. Consumers are being misled about the purpose of the intervention and cannot make an informed choice whether or not to participate.

Secondly, it undermines the good name of marketing research. We all need to work hard to maintain the public’s good will towards this industry.

It’s a simple mathematical equation: Public trust leads to high participation rates in surveys and results in accurate data. Accurate data gives marketers a clearer picture of what the public wants and needs and ultimately results in better products, services and policies. Anything that undermines this trust is detrimental to the process.

If a ‘marketing research’ call turns into a sales pitch, a respondent will feel misled and is less likely to agree to participate the next time an interviewer calls.

Sugging and frugging also contravene the Professional Marketing Research Society’s Code of Conduct and Good Practices.

A new ally

We now also have the federal government as a strong ally in the fight against those who would sug or frug our respondents.

This past January 1, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, known as Bill C-6, came into effect.

In a recent article published in the Professional Marketing Research Society journal Imprints, Brian Bowman and Graham Robson, technology lawyers with Winnipeg’s Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson, indicated that the legislation’s impact on those who deal with personal information will be significant.

Essentially, the law requires the consent of the individual who provided the information for it to be collected, used and disclosed.

Collecting information for ‘research,’ and then using it to create a sales or fundraising lead, is a clear contravention of this requirement.

Bowman and Robson also indicate that organizations must designate an individual who ‘will be accountable for compliance with the 10 privacy principles set out’ in the Act and who must establish and publish privacy policies.

This Act has teeth! The Privacy Commissioner of Canada can investigate complaints. Canadian courts can order organizations to correct their practices and may award damages, including those for humiliation suffered by the complainant.

Making use of C-6

This spring, we ran a public relations campaign offering the Canadian public 10 ‘Do’s and Don’ts’ for protecting the privacy of their personal information. The full list is posted on our Web site at www.pmrs-aprm.com. Prominent in our press releases and interviews were descriptions of the C-6 complaint process.

As the electronic world expands, the public and its political representatives are increasingly concerned about the protection of personal information. Canada’s marketers must be aware that camouflaging sales and promotional pitches as research clearly crosses the line.

Jordan A. Levitin is president of the Professional Marketing Research Society and VP of Ipsos-NPD Canada, a full-service marketing research company based in Toronto.