A Blockbuster of a Marketing Mistake

The Blockbuster chain of video stores may be, in its current incarnation, parallel to a charging bull elephant with a bullet in its brain: It’s dead but doesn’t know it yet.

Video rental is a perilous business to be in these days. So Blockbuster is testing new marketing ploys to keep its franchise in moderate health.

The latest is a program called Blockbuster[R] Rewards[TM]. Oh, sure, the combination of the registration symbol and a trademark for the common word “Rewards” is in itself an admission of desperation. That isn’t of any significance in an era in which we’re likely to see a trademark symbol for the word “the.”

What called this program to my attention is the literature the company created to sell it. The sequence: You walk into a Blockbuster store to see what movies are for rent. At the checkout counter, the clerk suggests signing up for Blockbuster Rewards. For $9.95 you can get 12 “Blockbuster Favorites[TM]” (yep, another trademark symbol for this one).

Talk about confusion! Blockbuster Favorites becomes a euphemism for Old Movies. (They also call them “non-New Releases,” and at least “non-New Releases” seems to be exempt from the registration and trademark symbols they usually assign to awkward phraseology.) New releases aren’t part of the deal. So OK, that’s acceptable.

But more conditions come in a swarm: You can get additional free rentals of non-New Releases but only Monday through Wednesday and only in combination with a paid rental. You “earn” (a ghastly word in any selling situation) a free movie or game rental for five paid movie or game rentals each month. It isn’t clear whether you get nothing if you rent fewer than five a month.

On the back of the descriptive folder the clerk has handed you is a heading: “Terms and Conditions.” Uh-oh. It’s reversed in 6-point type, which means something nasty is hidden there.

By golly, there it is. Check this wording – and, believe it or not, this appears on a piece that’s supposed to describe rewards:

BLOCKBUSTER Favorites are movie titles labeled as such in stores, and are determined by BLOCKBUSTER[R] at its sole discretion…Our way of providing you with such offers is through the mail. Therefore, when you join BLOCKBUSTER Rewards, you overrule any election you may have previously made to opt out of receiving regular communications from BLOCKBUSTER. BLOCKBUSTER is not responsible for coupons lost in the mail. Coupons are not transferable and have no cash value. Other restrictions apply.

Other restrictions apply? Hey, buddy, you’re supposed to be selling me.

Blockbuster isn’t through torturing us yet. Get this one:

BLOCKBUSTER may change the BLOCKBUSTER Rewards program rules, regulations, rewards and special offers at any time without prior notice. BLOCKBUSTER reserves the right to end the BLOCKBUSTER Rewards program with three (3) months’ prior notice.

Gee, fellas, how can anybody resist such an attractive offer?

Buyer Beware? Are you wondering why any sane person would sign up for a program whose multiple “Look out!” signals are described with all the warmth and friendliness of a Miranda warning? So am I. I’m not bothered by the listing of conditions. We’re all used to those. What bothers me is that this folder typifies what we’re beginning to see: “Buyer beware.” “The customer is our enemy.” “Do unto others before they do unto you.” Result: negative wording, combined with the repeated negative word “earn.” We become their indentured servants, their lackeys, their Cinderellas to push around. That just ain’t smart marketing.

Any one of us in the superior universe of direct marketing could transmit the same information without annoying the reader. How difficult is it to optimize the information instead of generating what seems to be a “Welcome to Leavenworth” folder? In 30 minutes, anyone reading this publication could write terms and conditions that satisfy any legal requirements but don’t outrage the customer.

I’d recommend this as a project in any Communications 101 class. To carry it beyond that level would be an insult to sophomores.

Oh, well. Blockbuster didn’t ask us. And with the arrogance implicit in this little customer-harassment folder, we aren’t about to volunteer.

But on behalf of those old enough to remember when stores actually posted little signs saying, “The customer is always right,” I’ll volunteer this: Guys, the Web is out there. It’s everyone’s competitor and it’s the worst nightmare of retailers who forget that the last bastion of brick-and-mortar’s ongoing existence is that most fragile of all assets, customer loyalty.

Oh, Blockbuster isn’t alone. Airlines show increasing frenzy by offering incentives to get us to sign up for their frequent flyer programs, then leave us in a frenzy when we try to book a flight using those miles. Restaurants establish loyalty programs, then carefully and cannily insert enough exclusions to turn off all but the greediest takers. Don’t they realize that the greediest takers, like the greediest givers, are the least desirable prospects?

How typical it is, how 21st century it is, to extend what appears to be a clean and clear offer and then weigh it down with conditions and exclusions. That alone is a reason to treasure any offer that seems to be free of self-injected negative-condition viruses.

Blockbuster, heal thyself. I’d hate to have to go back to pay-per-view, but if I get infected with your virus I might start writing copy like yours. Ugh.

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