It is one of the most important events in your life. You have just given birth and are recovering in a maternity ward. A friendly face arrives and offers you a child benefit form and asks you a few questions about yourself, offering help with early childcare in return. Sounds simple and reasonable enough. But over 60,000 people have now signed an online petition saying that the practice, carried out by Bounty UK with the full permission of the NHS and HMRC, should be ended.
They have three objections: mothers should not be bothered with these questions at such a vulnerable time, often just hours after the birth of their child; the field marketers do not always identify themselves clearly enough or make it obvious that providing personal information is entirely voluntary; and the forms are readily available online or at the Post Office.
An early-day motion has been tabled by MPs calling for the practice to end. That would mean a loss of £2.3 million in income and equipment which Bounty provides to the NHS for the privilege. Meanwhile, HMRC pays Bounty £90,000 to distribute its forms and claims the 8p per mum represents good value for money. Bounty UK made a profit of £11 million in 2012 on turnover of £30.3 million.
Anybody familiar with the world of commercial data collection will recognise the model which underpins the baby marketing company’s activities. It is the same one used by magicians – distracting the audience with one hand while performing a secret movement with the other. From product registration cards through to “customer satisfaction surveys” that are nothing of the sort, many lifestyle databases have been built by making it seem as if the provision of personal information is required as part of another action.
All well and good when consumers knew very little about what was happening and had no way to make their objections heard. Social networks have changed all of that, with Mumsnet leading an early charge against Bounty via a survey of its members which found 82 per cent objected, lately backed up by the petition on change.org. Sentiment can act like a snowball in social media – set it rolling and it can rapidly become an avalanche.
There is nothing wrong or improper in what Bounty does – it injects cash into the NHS, provides free products to parents and arguably saves them time and effort by providing vital information just when it is needed. Yet the model looks oddly old-fashioned and one-sided, despite the rewards which subscribers receive.
It is like the difference between an old-school magician (Paul Daniels) and one of the new generation (Derren Brown). Something has gone missing in the engagement process which might prove hard to get back. We are now in an era of much greater transparency and consumer control over their personal information. Companies which get ahead of this shift and operate a model based on clarity and consent have a strong future.
Bounty may yet ride out this current storm of protest and continue to help parents in return for their personal information. But any data owner hoping to rely on distraction to build a database risks looking more like Paul Daniels rather than Derren Brown.