I attended a seminar run by my law society at the end of October and discovered how the popular insurer, Professional Provident Society, is engaging in some deceptive personal information collection and direct marketing practices in order to build its databases and market to prospective customers.
This document was included in our pack of documents on arrival. What made this document immediately a little curious is that it purported to be an attendance register even though a law society representative confirmed our attendance on arrival at the conference centre by checking an attendance voucher we were issued in advance. PPS was one of the event’s sponsors and had a table set up at the venue to market its products and services, along with one or two other legal products and services providers.
Not only was this document slipped into the documents we received on arrival but the seminar was interrupted by a PPS representative who asked the presenter to have everyone complete and submit the “attendance register” in the middle of a section of the seminar because she and her colleagues were packing up for the day. A number of the lawyers present responded immediately; completed the form and sent their forms down the row to the PPS representative.
I tweeted about this at the time and I discovered that PPS has adopted similar tactics in different contexts including having students posing for a class photo complete a form with their details under the pretense of being identified in a key to the photo later.
This method of obtaining personal information for marketing purposes is problematic because the marketing focus of the personal information collection is so subtle. The form isn’t what it purports to be, at least not completely. While the attendance register did confirm the attendee’s presence at the event, the form’s purpose isn’t to do just that but to serve as a means of procuring the attendee’s personal information for marketing purposes. The reason why this is devious is because the form does include elements of a consent to receive marketing information where the form elicits a consent to receive “more info on the exclusive range of benefits available from PPS and its subsidiaries” and a reference to the attendee’s “Preferred method of contact” in the bottom third of the form.
What PPS doesn’t reveal is precisely what attendees’ personal information will be used for. Its implicit that the personal information you supply will be used to market to you but there is no indication what else will be done with the personal information collected. If the form was purely for an initial direct marketing contact, why the need for an identity number and details about the attendee’s qualifications?
The risk with tactics like this is that the consents marketers receive may not be informed. This presents a real challenge with the Protection of Personal Information Bill nearing finalisation in Parliament and its stringent requirements when it comes to collecting and processing personal information. At the moment this sort of tactic may pass muster under the Consumer Protection Act with its opt-out paradigm for direct marketing (although possibly not under the Consumer Protection Act provisions dealing with misleading marketing strategies) but they may constitute privacy violations under stricter privacy regulations going forward.
Leaving aside the legal implications for this sort of deceptive practice, it doesn’t portray PPS in a positive light at all. In fact it may do more harm to PPS’ reputation as prospective customers take note of how their personal information is being obtained and used. PPS would have been far better off adopting an honest marketing strategy that presented some of its products’ benefits to potential customers and inviting them to submit their personal information for further contact. I am sure many of the attendees at the seminar signed and submitted the form because they recognised the brand and overlooked the deception. The deception just undermines PPS’ reputation amongst professionals who may be interested in their insurance products and a brand’s reputation is fast becoming one of its most valuable assets. In an increasingly social and connected marketplace where customers talk amongst themselves with increasingly ease, brands gamble with their reputation at their peril.