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Smart Sales or Exploitation? The Sobering Reality of Buzzed Marketing

It’s 9 p.m. and after a long day at work, you’re taking some time to unwind with a glass of wine. You feel relaxed… calm… happy. In fact, you’re in just the right mood to… shop?

According to your favorite retailer, yes. Just like clockwork, they shoot you an email. It probably looks like this:

Suddenly, that sweater you weren’t convinced you wanted looks a lot more appealing.

Shopping Under the Influence

There’s a lot of things we shouldn’t do while drinking — driving, obviously. Or using Facebook, Twitter and email, to name a few others. But what about whipping out our phones to shop?

We all know alcohol affects the brain — specifically, it lowers our inhibitions. And although alcohol is a depressant, it actually triggers the release of dopamine, which makes us feel relaxed and happy. On top of this, alcohol affects the part of our prefrontal cortex that controls our impulses. So as you can imagine, a cocktail or two is the perfect recipe for a shopping disaster.

Back in 2011, the New York Times reported that online retailers were targeting a new demographic: inebriated shoppers who are far more willing to press the purchase button in their alcohol-induced state. And it’s true — there’s a whole host of people who admit to shopping online after a few drinks. But at the time, e-retailers’ targeting methods were based more on web traffic evidence than complex data.

Today’s world is an entirely different story. Paid media gives marketers the ability to understand demographic and psychographic behavioral aspects of audiences. There is so much in place for marketers to reach a customer with exactly the right product at exactly the right time. And when used for the better — when used to make a customer’s life easier — it’s a great ability.

But for every pro there’s a con. The flip side is there are a lot of techniques in place that make it easy to catch a consumer in a moment of weakness.

Picture this: you’ve been mulling over a new set of plates all day. They’re sitting idly in your online shopping cart. Two weeks ago, you bought a set of wine glasses from the same retailer. A few weeks before that, you searched for a wine rack. Using your purchase and search history, the retailer deduces that a reminder email after Friday evening’s happy hour would be the perfect time to urge you to hit “Check Out”.

It really makes me wonder… Is “buzzed marketing” exploiting consumers’ vulnerabilities?

A Fine Line

Maybe plates aren’t a big deal. Maybe targeting buzzed consumers isn’t the worst thing marketers could do. Maybe it’s on us as customers to control our purchasing habits and say no to buzzed shopping.

But to me, there’s just something wrong about it.

It’s telling when marketers skirt around admitting to using a particular strategy. It’s easy to deduce that it probably isn’t an ethical one. In the case of buzzed marketing, few are standing up to say, “We specifically target consumers who are drinking.” And that’s because it would be a PR disaster. Instead, they nod to coincidental traffic upticks and adjust accordingly.

But with that said, no one’s denying it either.

The core issue with buzzed marketing is the motive behind it. There’s such a fine line in today’s digital world between using our tools to learn about our customers and make their lives better, and using our tools to exploit what we’ve learned about our customers in the name of turning a profit. Buzzed marketing reeks of exploitation.

It also begs the question: how far is too far?

If we say that it’s okay to use behavioral insights to push emails and sales on consumers during the times we can (quite accurately) guess they’re drinking… is it okay to use location-based targeting to ping consumers as they leave the bar with an ad for a drink special down the street?

Or, let’s take alcohol out of the equation. Is it okay to push a life insurance ad on a consumer who just changed her relationship status to “Widowed” on Facebook?

Buzzed marketing opens the door to a new type of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) advertising, and that’s a frightening reality. Could you imagine getting an ad that was eerily unique to your own, personal fears, uncertainties and doubts? And all in the name of making a sale?

At the end of the day, is buzzed marketing really worth it? While some shoppers may be satisfied with their inebriated purchases, there are others who won’t be. There are customers who will be disappointed and regretful. Return rates could increase. And in the mind of these customers, your brand will be connected with a poor decision and negative experience.

Making a Choice

As marketers, our motives are everything. We have the ability to use our tools — our data, our insights, our strategies — to change the world for the better. Instead of using location-based targeting to push a drink special, what if we used it to get people into cabs to reduce the risk of drunk driving incidents? Paid media gives us the ability to make these changes — the choice is up to us.

As much as I love a sale, I can’t condone buzzed marketing — as a consumer, or as a marketer. Because it preys on those who have let their guard down. It opens the door to using people’s vulnerabilities to do nothing more than turn a profit.

And after all the work we’ve put in to changing the name of the marketing game, and with all the work we still have to do, it’s tactics like these that send our progress sliding backwards.

Written by Jack Scullin on February 10, 2015

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Nikki says:

Great job on addressing the ethical side of marketing, Katelyn! Just because we have the ability to use a certain marketing tactic does not mean that we should. In the end, our prospects and customers will both thank and trust us for not exploiting them.

Written by
Jack Scullin