An Interview with Howard Fienberg About Sugging

Howard Fienberg, PLC

One of the pleasures of volunteering on the Board of the Marketing Research Association (MRA) has been the opportunity to get to know Howard better. Howard Fienberg, PLC is the director of government affairs for the MRA and champions the needs of the industry to federal and state agencies and departments. I recently had the opportunity to interview Howard about sugging.

Q: First, what is the definition of sugging and frugging?

A: Frugging is “Fundraising under the guise of research” and sugging is “Sales under the guise of research.”

Q: Why is sugging bad for the industry?

A: Sugging discredits the whole research profession. We go to great lengths to reassure the public and policymakers that research is an activity distinct from sales and marketing, and every time a respondent encounters unethical mixing or masquerading, it threatens our ability to reach respondents and to protect ourselves from excessive government regulation.

Q: What is the Marketing Research Association’s position on sugging?

A: Per the MRA Code of Marketing Research Standards:

#7: “Commingling research with sales or advocacy undermines the integrity of the research process and deters respondent cooperation. In addition, the possibility of harm from data sharing – such as health insurance companies adjusting an individual’s costs based on information disclosed about their health behaviors or financial companies denying someone credit based on their propensity for online shopping – are the focus of growing public debate about Big Data and data brokers. Respondents should be assured that information shared in a study will only be used for research.”

#10: “Members will ensure that information collected during any bona fide research study will not be used for any sales, solicitations or push polling after the fact.”

Q: What can we do when we catch someone sugging?

A: As it is a discredit to the MR profession, it should be reported to applicable industry associations. For example, in the UK, it might be MRS and/or ESOMAR, while in the U.S., it should definitely be reported to MRA. If the violator is an MRA member, a formal complaint can and should be filed, as it’s a direct violation of numerous principles. The Standards & Ethics Committee (SEC) will then conduct an investigation, which might include a cease and desist order. If a non-member, as was recently the case with Caribbean Cruise Line, MRA (and likely other associations) will author a fraud alert to share with members and the public.

Q: What behaviors come close to the line but don’t cross it? For instance, is it okay to end a survey with a prompt for contact information if they would like to be contacted by a salesperson? Is it okay to end a survey with contact information to the sponsor if they want to request information?

A: This is a slippery slope and there is rarely any “close”–it’s either sugging or it’s not. Sales is never a function of MR, therefore, it’s NEVER okay for someone to collect PII [Personally Identifiable Information] for the purposes of passing it along to a salesperson, even if the respondent agrees to it. In terms of providing contact information for the sponsoring company, that’s not sugging. If the purpose of providing the sponsor’s information is to add legitimacy to the respondent’s participation, that’s perfectly acceptable — as long as the sponsor provided the contact list and the purpose is clearly stated as “if you have any questions about this research or your participation in it, please contact XXX.” Otherwise, it can (a) be construed as a dishonest way to obtain PII for sales purposes, or (b) get into an entirely different area of inappropriate use of provider databases.

Jeffrey Henning, PRC, is president of Researchscape International, which provides “Do It For You” custom surveys at Do It Yourself prices.  He is a Director at Large on the Marketing Research Association’s Board of Directors. You can follow him on Twitter @jhenning.

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