Why free lunch can make you a sucker

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

A NAÏVE prospective participant asked if our public seminars being promoted via the social media were for free. “What?” My blood pressure went up for a few seconds. I’m at a loss on what to say, but I managed to maintain my composure by giving the most decent answer I could find from Barbara Pachter’s “The Essentials of Business Etiquette” (2013).

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“I’m sorry, Mam! We don’t have a sponsor to make this event accessible for free to the public.”

Really, there’s no such thing as a free meal, free coffee, free seminar, free book or what have you. The closest example you can find these days to a free lunch is what they offer in supermarkets, when a new product is being introduced. The trouble is that they offer only minuscule samples for free tasting, that if you really want to have a full stomach, you’ll have to go back and forth at least 4,321 times to the merchandiser’s kiosk!

The same thing can happen with the so-called “free seminars.” Chances are, the organizers and sponsors only want to attract as many people as they can to their presentation of condominium units, life or health insurance protection, mobile phone, an internet service, among other things. It’s an effective marketing approach directed at the general public, regardless of whether they can afford to buy the products or services being sold.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch” is an economic theory that suggests it’s impossible to get something for nothing. If by chance you got something out of nothing, then we’ve no other word for it but—thievery, if not downright immorality.

The “free lunch” originated from a 19th century marketing practice in American bars and saloons where one got free lunch if he bought drinks. The trouble was that the lunches being offered were cold (ham and crackers) and high in salt content that you ended up buying more beers and liquors in the process of washing down the saline.

I can imagine, even tap water has a price tag. Or if you drink lots of it free of charge, you’d tend to lose your appetite for lunch after such water therapy. Not only that, your stomach has a limit on what it can take, which is the principle behind the proliferation and profitability of buffet restaurants.

Event organizers apply the same principle when offering “free” public seminars. Let’s see how it works—try being a sucker here. Attend a free seminar and be bombarded by tons of marketing flyers. The difference with buffets is that here, you could throw the flyers in the bins behind the sponsors’ backs as soon as you leave the seminar premises. Now, who’s the sucker?

My wife has an excellent interpretation for this phenomenon—“tanga lang ang nagpapalugi” (only fools allow themselves to lose money). Well … not exactly. Sometimes, it can be seen as a win-win situation for all. The sponsors can tap the wealth of experience of the event organizer in attracting people and, of course, in organizing public events. The sponsors also get a captive audience willing to listen to the commercial pitch of products or services being offered to potential customers.

The customers, who participate in such seminars without paying for anything, get some information or insights; never mind the commercials in-between. It’s an old marketing trick, like they do on free TV. If you like a certain program, then be patient and endure being bombarded by a good number of commercials, except that this has been tempered by one of man’s greatest inventions—the remote control.

Some media people are not immune to this. When companies offer to pay for their foreign trips, the uninitiated members of the press find out later that there is an apparent, but unwritten rule that they have to write something favorable about a certain product or service being promoted by the sponsors. Even religious groups offer counseling and motivational workshops “free of charge”—no collection of money from the participants—until they are hooked.

Drug pushers often do the same. They give out free samples in the hope of getting people addicted to the drug (shabu, for instance, the poor man’s cocaine, or marijuana and whatever else.) You know what happens next.
Therefore, in conclusion, if someone offers you a free lunch, chances are—the motive is not limited to the obvious.

If and when that happens to you, prepare to reciprocate by buying lunch some other time for the one who made the offer to you, to prevent any perpetual indebtedness. Or do a Dutch treat next time, which is the more sensible thing to do.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management specializing as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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