Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Everyone’s a Mark

Ever idly browsed the internet of an evening only to find your peaceful reading experience disturbed by an alarming pop-up notification to the effect that you have been diagnosed with a computer virus?

Thankfully, the folks dutifully alerting you to your imperiled status are willing to provide just what you need: for $29.99 — or considerably more — they will happily outfit you with downloadable software guaranteed to purge your hard drive of all current infections and keep the baddies away for 12 months, after which a further $29.99 — or considerably more — is required to guarantee your ongoing ability to browse in peace. Since you so obviously need it, you ought to consider that perfectly reasonable. In fact, they will retain your credit card info and simply treat your purchase as a subscription so you’ll never have to trouble your little synapses about computer security again.

Isn’t that sweet of them?

Self-Serving, Manipulative or Fraudulent

Do you ever stop to consider that such a “diagnosis” might not be just self-serving but more than a little fraudulent? If there’s a more effective way to drum up business from the gullible and technologically challenged, I can’t think what it might be.

But these are the sorts of games even big, formerly reputable companies are playing. There are no more customers or clients: everyone’s a mark these days. Your vet requires an “ongoing relationship” of something in the neighborhood of $300 annually just to treat your sick dog. If you’re not careful where you click when making a purchase, Amazon automatically subscribes you to a $100 annual “service” you don’t need and which will not benefit occasional purchasers in the slightest. Check your credit card bill carefully, folks. And of course online offers of “free this” or “free that” are predicated on providing vendors with personal information they can turn around and flog to the highest bidder.

The Lowdown on Downloading

Christian businesses, sadly, are not immune from this temptation to manipulate their customer base — in our own best interests, of course. Ligonier Ministries, for instance, offers the “free” e-book Everyone’s a Theologian by R.C. Sproul on one of the sites in which they are partners. I’m not Reformed, but I like some of what I’ve read from Sproul, plus he stole my title, so I thought why not give it a go?

Ah, but you have to sign up. No “click and there it is” download process for Ligonier. Fair enough, I suppose. Except they want not just your address (which they don’t need, because it’s an e-book they’re offering, not a physical one) but also your phone number and credit card information. Yeah. That’s odd, and unnecessary — unless they need all that data in order to sell it or use it for some other purpose. (I should add in fairness that their Privacy Policy insists they do not do this, and I have no reason not to believe them, but it is still superfluous to receiving a “free” book.)

Anyway, I listed my phone number as (666) 666-6666, because I found the whole experience beastly. (Those of you itching to comment something along the lines of “Wait, doesn’t giving them a phony phone number make you more dishonest than they are?” should be advised my response to that one is already prepared.)

Claim My What?

But now comes the real fun. After providing all that irrelevant information, you click on the convenient “Claim my gift” button and find yourself “checking out” of the Ligonier Online Store with your credit card about to be tapped for $9.00 plus any applicable local taxes for your “free” purchase. That ain’t a “gift” by any definition of the term.

Were I feeling exceptionally gracious, I might not mention the box on the right side of the screen that cordially inquires “Would you like to add a donation to Ligonier Ministries to your order?” Needless to say, I’m not feeling gracious ... or much like donating.

This is not the kind of “ministry” I grew up with.

I suppose we are all going to have to get used to this sort of thing, but since in life you get what you are willing to put up with, my blooming relationship with Ligonier stops there. Despite the fact that I did not complete their checkout process and did not receive my gift, Ligonier has been spamming me ever since. To their credit, I suppose I should point out that at least their checkout procedure is “secured” by SSL Secure, so I can be confident my credit card number would not have fallen into the hands of Chinese hackers. Probably.

Now, as a fellow Christian, I am willing to concede that my online experience was probably not precisely what Ligonier intended. Probably there was supposed to be a discount code provided along the way that could be plugged into a box on the checkout page to make the book genuinely free, as advertised. I doubt they’re so far gone that they are actually trying to scam God’s people. That would be short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. But to the best of my knowledge no such code is anywhere to be found. Or perhaps I was intended to be redirected to a free checkout lane, and it simply didn’t happen. Either way, the whole process is far from intuitive. It leaves the would-be-reader not just disappointed but aggressively negative toward Ligonier’s methods, questioning both their goodwill and their business acumen.

Underhanded Ways

The apostle Paul says, “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning.” He’s talking there about the presentation of the gospel, not selling e-books, but the principle applies across the board. All our dealings as Christians ought to be open and forthright, not “hide the real agenda on the next page”, as so many secular organizations are doing. We should go out of our way to be trustworthy and transparent, not sacrificing our principles in the interest of more effective commerce. We should be frank with people about what our interest is, and let them decide if they want to play along.

Now, I’m not a hard guy. I’m not even dead set against the idea of Christians gathering data that helps them sell stuff to other Christians — at least not in theory. What I dislike is the bait-and-switch game, and all other forms of manipulation. And I’m all for transparency. In fact, I’m so for transparency that I’m prepared to remind you what transparency looks like, since you don’t see it around often.

A Truly Transparent Approach

It would read something like this:

Dear potential customer,

We would like your business, and the opportunity to send you regular ads for our e-books, some of which may really be a blessing to you, assuming you have time to read them rather than just sock them in a folder somewhere on your hard drive and forget all about them.

To keep from cluttering up your inbox with spam and causing you to think evil thoughts about us you’d just have to ask forgiveness for later, we promise not to inflict ourselves on you more than once a month.

In order to enable us to send you these occasional pitches, we need you to provide us with a little personal information. As an incentive for sharing, we’d like to offer you R.C. Sproul’s new e-book Everyone’s a Theologian. Full disclosure: R.C. founded Ligonier, and has been called everything from a “Reformed theologian” to a “raging heretic and blasphemer”. We like to think we offer a little something for everyone.

It’s a $9 value, but more importantly, it’s one of the clearest explanations of the importance of systematic theology available. Systematic REFORMED theology, we mean. We think you’ll find it useful. So useful you may want to order a couple of R.C.’s other books. We’d both benefit from that. We have kids we’d still like to send to college, notwithstanding the fact that higher education has become a hive of neo-Marxist propaganda.

Click HERE if you’re interested in free R.C.

See how easy that is?

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