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We all do what isn’t rational

“Free” is the bait we all have been taking for as long as I can remember. My earliest recollection is free toys inside boxes of cereal. I wonder how many millions of toys McDonald’s has given away in Happy Meals. Marketers give stuff away because doing so is effective. When offered free stuff, we consumers often take action. This was the case recently in our Working Writers group.

As you might expect, Working Writers members are busy working. So when our blog czar recently pleaded for contributions, we felt her pain, but that was about all. Then she offered a $5 Starbucks card to the first two in the group to produce blog posts.


Clearly, we humans are not entirely rational. Marketers have known this for a long time. We are of two minds, the left and right. They often bicker. The right brain, or emotional side, usually wins. (Funny how it’s the right side.) It’s no wonder some of us couldn’t resist a chocolate chip cookie if our health depended on it.

My rational side will argue that I can earn $5 in well under the hour it will take me to write and edit a blog post. In fact, for an hour’s work I could give everyone in the group gift cards and buy them quadruple-shot Venti lattes. Blog, the left brain tells me, but do it some other day.

The emotional side screams free! And the debate begins:

Rational: Free? But your time is more valuable!

Emotional: Mmm, coffee. Besides, I know you. You’re not pulling five buck out of your wallet for coffee.

Rational: Pull five . . . What? It’s not about pulling out five bucks. It’s about blogging for $5 when you could be putting a hundred in the wallet.

Emotional: Mmm, coffee.

In his e-book, The Ad Contrarian, author Bob Hoffman says that “advertising is most productive when it is focused on changing behavior, not attitudes.” You can change behavior by giving people a good reason to try your product or service. Offering something for free or at a reduced price can work nicely.

In our case, pleading for blog contributions for the good of the group and our individual businesses didn’t work quite as well as bribing the group with a specific promise of immediate reward.

I’m not suggesting that giving stuff away guarantees marketing results. It may or may not be good tactic, depending on your business and the offer. Neither am I suggesting WW members will work for coffee cards. By the way, I wasn’t among the first two bloggers, so there’s no card in it for me. I’m simply pointing out that “free” continues to defy the rational mind.

Scott Burditt is a free-lance writer working in business-to-business and agricultural marketing communications. He specializes in speaking to both sides of the brain.

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