We have all been victims of a bait-and-switch marketing ploy, and baseball fans know all about a hit and run, but the new tactic that is infuriating so many people is the one I call bait and run.
Bait and run is the culmination of the separation of the marketing department from the operating side of the company, with the result that what is promised is virtually never delivered as advertised.
Probably the best example of this is the way that frequent-flier programs work. The airlines offer trips everywhere for the right number of miles, but try to use those miles: There are seldom any seats available to the destinations that look so attractive.
Sure, you can get two tickets to Buffalo on the red-eye in February. But if you want to go to Europe or Hawaii, the ticket agent asks, "What year are you thinking of?"
Similarly we have hotel upgrade coupons that offer executive-floor rooms at regular rates.
The problem is similar. First, when you try to reserve the upgraded room you are told, "This can only be done at check-in." And when you check in you are told, "This must be done in advance."
The bait and run goes further.
When you do find an upgraded seat, you are still not first class.
My wife, though ticketed appropriately, was denied access to a first- class lounge by the agent, who said, "This is only for real first- class passengers." And if the flight is canceled, the frequent-flier mileage user is not switched to another airline, as the paying passenger is.
In essence, the airline tells its best customers that unless they pay full fare every time, they're freeloaders. The result is that a program intended to make friends ends up making enemies.
It is not only service companies that are culprits here. I remember a promotion for National Geographic that offered an attractive rate. But to fill a quarter of my new subscription, they sent me a package of old issues they had lying around.
Is banking also guilty of bait and run? You bet!
*Banks offer a special deal on loans or certificates of deposit, but only for a short introductory period, after which the rate is a lot worse than that available elsewhere?
*We have seen dividend reinvestment programs that charge the shareholder for making life easier for the bank.
*Some banks, like mine in Summit, N.J., charge extra for automated teller machine cards, even though ATMs help the bank cut staffing and the cost of doing business. When First Chicago announced it would charge customers to see a teller if the account was too active and the balance too small, at least it was being honest in charging for actual costs involved. Those charging for ATM cards are like Tom Sawyer charging friends whitewash a fences for him.
*Most important: How many banks advertise friendly service and caring employees, but somehow never get the message down to the front-line troops who face the public?
What banks, airlines, and the rest fail to keep in mind is that people are not as stupid as the marketing experts think they are.
Delta Airlines announced, "We are eliminating food on all flights of two hours or less. We find the passenger would rather the attendants have time to provide personal service instead of running through the aisles with trays."
I'll take a sandwich over a smile any day on a flight to Atlanta from Newark.
"Don't ask the customers about their gripes unless you plan to fix them," Joe O'Leary, head of Arthur Andersen's customer satisfaction practice, told the Wall Street Journal. "Surveys have a role, but the intelligence from polls shouldn't get stuck in the marketing department. To work, it must be communicated to the front-line customer-contact employees."
Bankers, in particular, need to keep this in mind. And they also must remember that when they offer a promotional item that costs more than you would have to pay at a local discount house, they are making us skeptical of everything else the bank is telling and selling us.
For if there is anything the bait-and-run developers in marketing departments should keep in mind, it's the adage: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.