We consumers are inundated with offers of free products and services. Just turn on your television and wait until the next commercial break. Chances are some company will offer you something for free, free, free. The irony is that most of these offers are disingenuous and manipulative.
As Robert Heinlein popularized in his 1966 science-fiction novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Other than promotional offers designed to generate leads, when a company gives targeted consumers something in exchange for identifying personal information, most ads proposing a free-something-or-other are discounts. We give the company money and the company gives us something back as a value-added incentive … that’s paid for with our money.
Baby Boomers have been at the epicenter of marketing since they were in diapers. Trillions have been spent. Every marketing ploy that the human imagination can conceive has been tried, and tried, and tried. We are sophisticated consumers—and jaded. We know lunch and dinner are not free.
I could suggest dozens of examples of misleading free offers, but a mass-market TV ad has recently caught my attention and serves as a case-in-point. Here’s the ad:
When I learned the copywriter’s craft, the rule-of-thumb was that a 30-second TV commercial allowed for no more than 70 words of announcer copy, at the outside. More copy shoehorned into thirty seconds makes the ad frenetic, busy, car-dealer like. Less verbiage is usually better, especially when targeting older adults.
The advertising agency for Golden Corral restrained themselves by limiting narrated copy to 86 piping-hot, world-famous words. Additionally, the commercial uses the spoken word “free” five times. The free offer is also presented twice visually.
I guess they get their point across, and anyone paying attention has a brighter day knowing that he will get six free “piping hot delicious yeast rolls” to take home after consuming the legendary dinner buffet for one low price. The offer requires purchase of two adult dinner buffets, communicated in squint type on-screen for 1.6 seconds. A few perceptive viewers may notice, but the offer restriction conveniently appears twice in case we blink and miss it the first time.
I assume that Golden Corral paid a significant budget allocation for production of this television commercial. And it shows. The food videography is top-notch. Depicted buffet items are all-American “comfort foods,” including crispy fried chicken. The piping hot delicious yeast rolls do look piping hot as they appear from an oven in small batches. Happy customers, including possibly a Boomer mom, do indeed look happy.
Cinematography aside, Golden Corral has conceived another free offer that isn’t free; it‘s cloying, especially to this jaded Boomer consumer. And I think the ad must be annoying to others in my generational cohort who also learned from Mom and Dad that there are no free lunches.
Some viewers will be annoyed by the misuse and overuse of the word free. This is exacerbated by one of the most abused combination of words in the English language: “absolutely free.”
From a grammatical standpoint, something is free or it isn’t. “Absolutely” is superfluous, but copywriters have called upon this brassy adverb to add force to the overused promise of free everything. The next generation of copywriters may be forced to embolden their faux free offers with “absolutely, unrestrictedly, totally, utterly, and positively FREE.”
Other viewers will be annoyed by the nutritional truth of “piping hot delicious yeast rolls.” While this ad visually portrays something wholesome and yummy, in reality these rolls appear to be made from white flour, and the recipe probably includes doses of sugar and some kind of mystery fat. Boomers today are becoming more nutritionally conscious as many struggle with being overweight or obese (allegedly 40 percent or more). White flour and sugar are two dastardly culprits contributing to modern diet-related diseases.
The “big idea” behind this ad probably came from a corporate marketing person or team nurturing dreams of industry acclaim. Imagine all the handsomely paid marketing folks and their ad agency colleagues getting excited about this breakthrough advertising strategy. This is how legendary reputations get built.
The offer strategy and copy certainly passed through many layers of approval but still reek of formulaic inexperience.
So what might be effective with Boomer consumers? First, and in a word, authenticity. B. Joseph Pine II and Jim Gilmore have written an excellent treatise on the importance of authentic branding and marketing today. If you’d like to hear an overview of their important oeuvre, then listen to my interview with Joe Pine on the FMG Radio Network.
What could be more authentic to Boomers than six free piping hot delicious yeast rolls? There are many possibilities, but one is an offer that embraces grandchildren.
Comfort food has its appeal to all of us, diets notwithstanding. Including the grandkids makes dining there all the more enticing. In addition to showcasing warm-fuzzy buffet food, Golden Corral could portray charming and motivating glimpses of authentic engagement between generations over dinner. Authentic food. Authentic family connections. If the marketing situation demands a motivating response kicker, then Golden Corral can offer a value-added incentive especially for the grandkids.
My colleague Chuck Nyren has argued for more than a decade that if companies want to create nuanced and effective advertising to attract Boomer consumers, then the creative team needs to include experts who are also members of the target market. Most of the creative directors and copywriters occupying advertising agencies today first became juvenile consumers when Big Wheel racers were all the rage.
Seasoned copywriters – those who have been engaged in the craft for decades, not merely months or years – have attuned their judgment to understanding the differences between fake and authentic portrayals of clients’ products and services. They stopped depending on outdated copywriting formulas such as nauseating repetition of the word “free,” especially when the free offer is a value-added discount or bonus for purchasing something.
There is no free lunch, and there are no shortcuts to reaching Boomers today. It takes maturity, sophistication, and deeper consumer insights. This does not come by believing ad industry mythology that offering something free is the only direct and certain path to the consumer’s heart.