Marketing in the time of COVID-19

Published: Apr 25, 2020, 04:54 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

Where there's an opportunity for crass exploitation, there is always someone with an MBA waiting in the wings

It takes a special kind of individual to profit from someone else's misery
It takes a special kind of individual to profit from someone else's misery

picI don't really have a problem with MBAs. I don't take them seriously, of course, because so much of what passes for an education in most business schools is amusing at best and puerile at worst. What I do take seriously is the ability of executives armed with these inane degrees to wreak havoc on anything and everything that is valuable or significant. This year's pandemic proved this hypothesis time and again.

The emails were my first sign. They came from all kinds of businesses, across sectors, all mentioning COVID-19 prominently in a bid to get me to click through, and all poorly disguised attempts at trying to profit from our collective misery. After a point, I didn't need to open them to know they were cheap attempts at marketing a catastrophe for profit. 'We know this is a difficult time,' they read (because getting an MBA is the opposite of studying rocket science), 'but here is how we want to help. We care about you, provided you continue to be our customers. And this isn't about greed at all because we are just human beings like you. All it will cost you is...'

Around the world, people working in financial services — the men and women who get paid the most to do nothing of any importance for humanity whatsoever — met in virtual conference rooms, desperate to do whatever they could to make sure their bonuses wouldn't be affected by the inconvenience of people dying. They read the news, rushed to placate company shareholders, and debated answers to that all-important question: 'How can we convince our customers that we care, while making sure they don't stop paying us more and more, over the coming quarter?'

Phone companies were worried about the possibility that young people could stop handing over 90 per cent of their meagre salaries for their next version of smart devices because death should never get in the way of new features enabling better photographs for Instagram.

I understand that businesses need to carry on, of course, because people need to get paid. I also understand that marketing departments can't stop functioning because money needs to come in for companies to survive. What I can't fathom is why the line that separates need from greed is crossed with such impunity so often, and with no consequences. There were a million opportunities for all kinds of companies to do the right thing, and many of them did. Alcohol firms began using their distilleries to manufacture hand sanitizer, for instance, while textile firms began making face masks. All of these companies managed to react to a disaster that made them useful while ensuring their employees were taken care of.

At the other end, a million firms chose to use a global tragedy to try and get people to focus on money instead. Prices of essential commodities were hiked to such an extent that watchdogs had to step in with threats of prosecution. The poorest among us were immediately priced out of access to basic goods because we are taught to treat them as expendable rather than as living beings with families just like our own. Those who couldn't pay exorbitant prices for products online simply had to do without.

Customer Relationship Management solutions went into overdrive, trying to get banks to use technology that ensured the continued presence of high net worth individuals on their client lists. Banks condescended to defer EMI payments by a few months only after being forced to by governments desperate to prevent chaos. And con artists of all shapes and sizes began crawling out of the woodwork to prey upon the weak and vulnerable.

It takes a special kind of individual to profit from someone else's misery. As the pandemic spread, so did warnings from regulatory agencies the world over, about fraudsters using global events to lure victims into their schemes. Investors were asked to remain prudent and be cautious of investment opportunities tied to the virus, especially those based on claims that a company's products or services could help stop it.

It's easy to think of all humans as inherently selfish, ready to place themselves and their families before everyone else. I wish we had more selfless people though, like the thousands who chose to give rather than take. I read about an old woman in Belgium who reportedly gave away her ventilator to a younger person because she said she had lived her life. She is the kind of person I aspire to become.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira
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