The Trick of Offering without Giving

Like most children, my daughter loves bedtime stories. She enjoys them so much that she overestimates how much of it she can take by a large margin. So, every day before going to bed, she’d insist that I tell her 5 stories (sometimes 10 or 20) , but by the time I finish the first or second one, she would fall asleep. It would be easy for me to offer to tell a hundred stories knowing very well that she wouldn’t stay awake beyond the first or second. Instead, I make it clear each time that I will only tell as many stories as it takes for her to sleep, and she would agree to it grudgingly.

“Children are like that”, is what one might be tempted to say. The interesting observation is that grownups aren’t much different. Our love and desire for something can often cloud our judgement of how much of it we need. This psychological vulnerability is systematically exploited by many clever marketers to boost sales and profit margin through virtually limitless offers that will seldom be utilized.

Ultimate example of the trick of offering without giving
An extreme example of offering without the slightest intention of giving

Take the case of all-you-can-eat food services. These thrive on the an often misplaced confidence that people have in how much they can eat. How much a person is willing to pay depends on his appetite and how much he actually eats depends on their capacity for food. The gap between the two adds to the profit margin of the eatery. Restaurants often take a two-pronged approach to further improve margin. On one side, they’ll make the food visually appealing (more colours, better arrangement, etc.) and aromatically irresistible. On the other, they’ll limit your capacity through cunning means such as serving sweet or aerated drinks at the beginning and proactively refilling your glasses as soon as they’re empty. (Some may even use chemical additives that make you feel full even before you’ve eaten much, though that would mean crossing the line between smart and evil). Even without resorting to any such tricks, the fact remains that there is a limit to how much one can eat and that doesn’t depend on how many different varieties of food are on offer.

I know I am digressing, but this reminds me of my late grandfather used to say. When someone approached him for money saying they were hungry, he would offer them food. A man can never be contented with money, but almost everybody can be satiated with food, he would say. This is also part of the reason why annadaanam (giving food) is considered the highest form of daanam (charitable giving – roughly). The only case that I am aware of in which the tables were turned (quite literally) was when the mythical lord of wealth (Kubera) invited Lord Ganesha to lunch.

Coming back to the trick of offering without giving, I have seen this technique being employed successfully by telecom companies. As an exaggerated example, take a look at these two fictional offers from a mobile service provider

  • Offer A – 1000 minutes talk-time @ Rs 50, validity 1 day
  • Offer B – 2000 minutes talk-time @ Rs 70, validity 1 day

The second offer is much more attractive since you’re getting the next 1000 minutes for just 20 rupees. However, the fact remains that there are only 1440 minutes in a day and it is unlikely for a person to exhaust even the 1000 minutes. The success of the second offer depends on customers’ greed – their desire to get as much as they can without even pausing to think whether they will actually need that much!

The promise of money is, in general, to offer and not to give. Some think that if they have enough money, they’ll be able to eat all the food they want. But if they eat too much, they’ll lose their health, and money cannot help there. This is very similar to the trick involved in the all-you-can-eat offer we discussed at the beginning, except that here we are playing the trick on ourselves!

Knowing the difference between how much we need (or can put to good use) and how much we wish to have helps in more ways than not falling for such schemes. It frees us from having to work for all that money that we’re never going to use. It saves us from feeling bad about not having all those things that we want for no better reason than that others have it.

There is a story about how Mahatma Gandhi once felt sad about using an extra cup of water to wash his feet. Nehru comforted him with the observation that there was plenty of water in Yamuna. Gandhiji reminded Nehru that it didn’t matter how much water there was in Yamuna. What mattered was how much he needed. Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the message it conveys is as valuable and relevant now as ever before.

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