Simple Saturday – Say NO to Freebies

The Rule of Reciprocity

by Maria Lin, Real Simple, Dec. 2011 issue

About 40 years ago, Disabled American Veterans, a Kentucky-based nonprofit, had a bright idea: The charity decided to send potential donors free personalized address labels. After the labels arrived in mailboxes across the nation, contributors to the group nearly doubled – jumping from 18 percent to 35 percent of those solicited. Why was this marketing gimmick so successful (and copied by countless others)? Because of a phenomenon called the rule of reciprocity.

The concept is simple enough: When people are given something for free, they typically feel obliged to make a gesture – or even a purchase – in return, says Steve Martin, a coauthor of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (Free Press, $15) and director of Influence at Work UK, a consulting company in Luton, England. The principle applies even when the free item is unsolicited and inexpensive, as Cornell University psychology professor Dennis Regan learned in 1971. In his seminal study, he found that when people were offered a free soda by a student, they bought almost twice as many raffle tickets from him as did those who had received nothing. That’s why you’re so often besieged by offers of free samples, complimentary gifts with a purchase, or amenities like chocolate or bottles of water just for entering a store. The acts of generosity may seem like good, old-fashioned customer service, but they actually prompt you to lay down cash, according to Martin.

So remember this counterintuitive piece of advice the next time you’re at the mall or the grocery store: If you want to stay on budget, say no to free stuff.

This Simple Saturday post was contributed by Cindy as was the amusing cartoon below.

A Mallard Fillmore Cartoon


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  1. Cindy, I loved this post. I’ve already reserved a copy of the book you mentioned at our local library. Have you noticed that some charities now send bigger gifts, like umbrellas, t-shirts, and tote bags? These have the opposite effect on me. Instead of encouraging me to donate money to them, it annoys me that the charity spent my last donation producing cheap, useless items.

    • Anita, I haven’t seen that. Address labels is all I’ve gotten. Recntly I received what I thought was an AMAZING deal. $25 free at Origins. Completely free, no additional purchase necessary. My husband and I like the grapefruit scented soap that they sell, but it’s ridiculously expensive. $13 a bar, I think. With this coupon, I got two bars for less than $3. True it’s $3 I wouldn’t have otherwise have spent, but I imagine Origins lost money on me that time. The lady in front of me handed over her coupon plus $65 more dollars. I’m sure they hope for more customers like hers and fewer like me.

      You know what, I just thought about it a bit more. Political campaigns often send a bumper sticker or a photo of the candidate. I bet soliciting a few extra dollars, on average, is what that’s about.

  2. Great post. A charity group sent us address labels years ago and we have tried to get them to stop, but they just keep calling and sending envelopes. I think you brought up a great point how people give you things because they want you to feel obligated to give something back. It must be a very successful way of marketing or they wouldn’t be spending so much money to send stuff initially to you hoping you will buy. Nowadays, you can’t tell if it is a charity calling because they have people use their personal phones and they are so persistent sometimes.

    • I get so many labels that I couldn’t possibly use them all. My daughter takes the ones from environmental groups with photos of animals and plants on the them and uses them for play. I’m afraid it doesn’t motivate me to send them money, though. One campaign sent a nickle in their envelop once. Odd. I fundraise for my daughter’s school, and I’m looking forward to reading the book that’s mentioned in the post. I wonder what tricks I could use to get either more money or money more easily out of the other parents. (Bwa-ha-ha, she cackled.)

  3. Great post and so true. The only time I have actually asked for examples, was a month ago, when I was in the need of a specific facial cream. I asked for a sample of the one I used, and so managed to stretch my actual purchase for two weeks!
    Planning to do it in the future too.
    Usually I refuse to accept anything free offered, and am terribly upset with the extra cosmetic bags packed along when I buy something. What on earth to do with the fake snake cosmetic purses, etc.?
    The marketing method you wrote about is indeed an old one, and it is sad, that people fall in the trap.

    • I’m a bit bolder than some people, but if I didn’t want the free case with the lipstick, I’d take the lipstick out and hand it back to the saleswoman. I don’t care if she gives me a puzzled look.

  4. Had to comment on this one! 🙂
    Firstly I knew my attitude to ‘stuff’ had completely changed when watching a cosmetics commercial I was actually appalled to think you’d get a freebie cosmetics bag with your lipstick purchase. I couldn’t understand why after making a small (physically small) purchase you want to be lumbered with a huge bag? However I didn’t want the lipstick either – so definitely on the road to an uncluttered life!

    On the subject of charities, if I make a donation I express my wishes that I do not want a thank you letter, every action they take costs money so to make your donation go further the best thing to do is donate with no reciprocation (however small).

    • I usually ask to not be put on charity donation lists. I either intend to give to them and will again in the future, or I don’t. Either way, they don’t need to be soliciting me.

  5. About a year ago, I got sick of some charity or another ringing us up. Did you know that when you donate over the phone, the charity only gets 5% of the funds, 10% if its lucky…the rest goes to the company who was hired to phone you up which I think is just a form of legal theft really…

    Anyway each time a charity would ring up, I would say no and then I would find the charities contact details and ring them up and request not to be contacted anymore. It worked! Not only are we on the Do not call list so companies stopped ringing, now it is rare we receive a call from a charity.

    I do donate to a charity every month…I donate to Kiva because its interactive and my whole donation goes to help someone in need as Kiva raises its admin costs separately…

    • The calls I get are mostly political calls at home. I am pretty active politically but I would really prefer to not be called on a monthly basis by four or five different branches of my party’s fundraising machines.

  6. I hate the never ending barrage of address labels I get in the mail. I will never use them all if I live to be 100. Just more clutter to get rid of.
    I also hate the charities that ask for specific “suggested donations”. What if I can’t afford that amount?
    For the life of me, I can’t figure out the organizations that mail me stamps or nickels-how else are they wasting their resources?
    I donate to a great organization that helps ordinary people that would slip through the cracks and fall into poverty without a one time donation to help with rent or a needed car repair.
    They accept any amount and you can choose the family you want to help. Most often these requests are met by donors that only contribute a few dollars but when many people do that, these little grants get funded and a family is helped. In addition, they post the thank yous that are received from the people they help.

    • I’ve heard of Modest Needs. It sounds lovely. Last year I gave for the first time to Donors Choice, which supports school teachers in the US to fulfill a specific need / desire that they have. I gave money for basketballs for a school that had none.

  7. I could not agree more with this post! In particular, I dislike the way that some charities prey on the elderly, who, in my mum’s case, would never dream of returning their “gifts” with a “thanks, but no thanks” note on the envelope. She still forks out for completely unnecessary Christmas cards from two organisations, one of which is highly dubious. I have tried to explain modern marketing tricks to her, but it goes against the habits of a lifetime… and don’t they know it!

    • Oh that’s unfortunate. If we’re lucky, we’ll all be elderly some day and, unfortunately, more confused by the ever-changing tactics of advertisers.

  8. One charity used to send me packages of seeds. The gesture was nice–a person can always use seeds, but the administrative costs of sending seed packets to their mailing list must have been unreal.

    Even if I might have considered donating to the charity otherwise, when they mail me things like this, it makes me immediately think that they must not need my donation as much as they say they do, not if they can afford to be mailing out stuff like this.

    • I got a packet of seeds from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center recently. I imagine most of those seed packets got to waste. I hate that aspect of this marketing campaign too: the extra manufacturing of stuff that gets tossed.

  9. A great post. Even the TV Christian groups are doing this. “Send us a donation of any size and we will send you ______’s new book __________. Now, even though I know that the book probably only costs them $3, it still drives me nuts. If I want to give something I don’t need something in return.

  10. Yep. Free is never really free.

    Someone, somewhere, is paying for it.

    And why take it if it’s just adding clutter to your life?

  11. I got a batch of those ‘free’ address labels in the mail, and sent a small contribution. Now I am on the ‘sucker list’ and PV keeps sending me calendars and labels and stuff incessantly. I no longer respond, but have a mounting stack of labels to shred.

    So I caught up on the shredding last week–or tried. Somehow I got it in my head the shredder would tolerate label sheets (I think I got it mixed up with what is allowed in the ‘mixed paper to recycle’ bin at work). Anyway, my shiny new shredder got totally ruined–an entire shredder tooth got mangled to pieces, and of course the things are made to be un-serviceable and unfixable.

    So the cost of ‘free’ is over a hundred bucks and the loss of a useful shredder. I’m not going to buy another one, I’m back to wasting my time scissor-shredding.

    It made us so angry we set out to get off the lists. We did get off the phone list, we think. But the Direct Mail Preference people? They now allow you to submit a form online or on the phone, but they insist on having your social security number and date of birth! I’m sorry, the ONLY thing a mailer needs from us is the street address which no longer wants the mail, they barely need your name, and certainly nothing else.

    You can still make the request by mail, but in that case you must send a CHECK for a buck; apparently not because they want the money but so they can have whatever identity info and routing number is on your check!

    Hard to believe people have the ‘right’ to fill a mailbox with unwanted stuff covered with your name and address, and the only way to try to stop it is to give another giant organization even more identity-theft info.

    Apparently I have to sit down and write a bunch of letters to those sending avalanches of catalogs to us. As if I need another project in December.

    Anyway, freebies can really cost money and time, never mind the stacks of clutter.

    • Ruby that is incredible. I can’t believe they make it so hard but then again yes I can and it’s deplorable. WE have managed to eliminate all of this problem purely by circumstance. When we moved back to Australia we had a new address and a brand new phone number that no one else had ever had and we didn’t list it. We get no phone calls and went some company puts me on their list I phone them and tell them to quit sending me stuff and that seems to work (most of the time). One company asked for my name because they got around that in the first place by addressing the junk to our address as To The Resident. When I phoned them to stop their junk maid they asked for my name and I told them “You didn’t need it to send me this garbage so you don’t need it to stop it and it had better happen.” I think that was the last I heard from them. The lady wasn’t happy with me but I can assure you I was less happy with her. I can be a real B***h when provoked. 😆

  12. Very poignant post ! x

  13. I meant to say, not that I am trying to self-promote, but to learn more about the true meaning of christmas please visit my blog and thn click the link on my latest post…moving beyond words.

    • Hi Tassie Minimalist ~ Having almost lost my son and during the horrific experience of his serious brain injury, not knowing how the rest of his life would play out I can still only imagine what this family has gone through. My story, thank God, had a happy ending. My heart goes out to them but at the same time it has all most likely shaped how close and special they all are together.

  14. I could not agree more with several of the above postings. It really makes me fume when I open a charity’s letter (because I have previously sent a cheque for their cause) and get “Dear Ann …” followed at the end by a series of boxes so I can choose which suggested amount I will send them. I’ll be the one who decides if or how much I can give, or whether it’s a different charity’s turn this year. The story given is always very worthwhile, but my funds are only finite, and their expectation that I’ll give to each one of them, no once or even twice, but repeatedly throughout the year, makes me very uncomfortable.
    To get rid of the address label senders, and cards senders, I have previously returned these (no extra postage from me, with “gone, no address” written across the front of the envelope). Sometimes, it takes a while, but the message eventually gets through.

    • I meant to add: we’ve just decorated our Christmas tree (artificial, same one each year). We “said goodbye” to quite a few, that turned out to have no great emotional value for anyone. Those will go to the Hospice shop for others to enjoy on their tree, and some were too “tired” and went to kindergarten to be made into “treasures”. Nothing new this year. So how come the tree looks crowded and “busy” to my eye this year, when more didn’t, other years?! I guess something really is changing for me! Husband and daughter don’t think there is too much on, though.