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Marketing Obligations

The more indebted we feel, the more motivated we are to eliminate the debt. Pre-giving makes us feel like we have to return the favor. Greenburg said this feeling of discomfort is created because the favor threatens our independence. An interesting report from the Disabled American Veterans Organization revealed that their usual 18 percent donation response rate nearly doubled when the mailing included a small, free gift.

The Law of Obligation also presents itself in the following situations:

* Taking a potential client out to dinner or to play golf
* Offering free tire rotation or fluid fill-up between services
* Someone washing your car windows at a stoplight whether you want them to or not
* Generating money at “free” car washes by asking for a donation after the service is rendered
* A carpet cleaner offering to clean your couch for free

A film-developing company thrived on the Law of Obligation. They would send a roll of film in the mail along with a letter explaining that the film was a free gift. The letter then outlined how the recipient should return the film to their company to be processed. Even though a number of local stores could process the film at a far lower price, most people ended up sending it to the company that had sent them the film. The technique worked because the company’s “pre-giving” incurred a sense of obligation to repay the favor. We often see this method at work when companies give out complimentary calendars, business pens, T-shirts, or mugs.

In a local clothing store, the sales staff are trained to ask customers whether they want to have their suit jackets pressed at no charge while they are shopping. Of course, hardly anyone ever refuses. While they wait on their jackets, they naturally have to spend more time in the store, whereby they occupy themselves by checking out all the merchandise. Because the store is pressing their jackets, the customers feel more indebted to buy. Moreover, when they do decide to buy something, they are more likely to buy it from the salesperson who pressed their jacket.

The same principle applies when you go to the grocery store and see those alluring sample tables. It is hard to take a free sample and then walk away without at least pretending to be interested in the product. Some individuals, as a means of assuaging their indebtedness, have learned to take the sample and walk off without making eye contact. Some have taken so many samples, they no longer feel an obligation to buy or even pretend they’re interested in the products anymore. Still, the technique works, so much so that it has been expanded to furniture and audio/video stores, which offer free pizza, hot dogs, and soft drinks to get you into the store and create instant obligation.

In the early 1980s, the Hare Krishna movement encountered difficulty in raising funds through their traditional means. The rebellion of the 1960s had given way to the more conservative 1980s, and the Hare Krishna members were now considered almost an affliction to society. To counteract negative public opinion, they developed a new approach that utilized the Law of Obligation. Their new fundraising strategy worked because it prompted a sense of obligation that outweighed the dislike or negativity felt toward the Hare Krishna movement.

The new strategy still involved solicitation in crowded, public places, but now, instead of just directly asking for a donation, the potential donor was first given a free gift–a flower. If someone tried to turn it down, the Krishna follower would, under no circumstances, take it back. The Krishna gift-giver might say, “Sir, this is a free gift for you to keep, and we welcome donations.” Often the gifts just ended up in the trash cans, but overall, the strategy worked. In most cases, even individuals who ended up throwing the gifts away donated something. Although lots of people were extremely annoyed by the high-pressure gift giving, their sense of obligation to reciprocate was too strong to ignore.

Another study found that survey takers could increase physician response to a long questionnaire if they paid the physicians first. When a $20 check was sent along with the questionnaire, 78 percent of the physicians filled it out and sent it back. When the $20 check was promised to arrive after the questionnaire was completed and sent in, only 66 percent followed through. The pre-giving incentive increased the sense of obligation. Another interesting result of the study was this: Of the physicians who received the $20 check in the initial mailing but did not fill out the questionnaire, only 26 percent cashed the check. Of the physicians receiving the $20 check who did fill out the questionnaire, 95 percent cashed the check! This demonstrates that the Law of Obligation works conversely, as well. The fact that many of the physicians who did not fill out the questionnaire also did not cash their checks may be interpreted as a sign of their psychological and emotional discomfort at accepting a favor that they were not going to return.

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