Editorial: AARP Must Clean Up Its Marketing Act

  • AARP warns seniors about deceptive direct mail and other dubious marketing come-ons, but the huge lobbying group’s own aggressive efforts to coax seniors to join or renew their memberships also has drawn criticism. (Dreamstime/TNS) Dreamstime

Published: 4/6/2018 10:11:17 PM
Modified: 4/6/2018 10:11:28 PM

Raise your hand if you get one of those red-and-white AARP mailers every few days. Now raise your hand if the first thing you do is toss them into the recycling bin. Thought so.

For some folks, that’s all they need to do. Others, however, even some AARP members, aren’t so lucky. For them, the mailer is a vector for the sort of deception usually associated with Nigerian princes and Canadian boiler rooms. The people it hurts the most are senior citizens with cognitive problems — the very people the organization has spent nearly 60 years defending.

It’s a terrible look for the AARP, and the tax-exempt, nonprofit organization needs to clean up its marketing act.

Formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP is infamous for this direct-mail bombardment, which begins the instant one hits 50. (In a commentary on the Huffington Post, former Playboy editor John Blumenthal complained that the organization’s name is misleading: “American Association of Retired Persons? Who retires at 50?”) The object of the bombardment, of course, is to recruit new members, who pay $16 a year for a variety of benefits, including discounts on hotels, cruises and rental cars. Members also have access to auto and health insurance plans, AARP The Magazine, and there’s even an AARP dating site.

There’s no question the recruiting effort has been a smashing success. AARP counts almost 40 million members. It has assets totaling nearly $4 billion and operating revenue of $1.6 billion. Based in Washington, D.C., the AARP is a powerful lobbying force, working to protect Medicare and Social Security, for example, supporting the Affordable Care Act and opposing GOP efforts to gut it.

Naturally, that kind of activism is going to attract attention. In 2011, the organization faced intense criticism from conservatives for what they considered its self-serving support of Obamacare. (One report said the AARP lost 3 million members that year.) In 2016, the organization came under fire from the left for its sponsorship of the annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, as it’s known, is affiliated with the Koch family and offers its members — typically conservative Republican state lawmakers — model legislation they can introduce back at home. AARP responded by saying it engages with people and organizations across the political spectrum.

Then in February came the class-action lawsuit, filed in Florida, alleging that the AARP is reaping millions by charging unsuspecting seniors and disabled people artificially inflated prices for Medicaid supplemental health insurance policies. AARP has denied the allegations.

And now, some of the people receiving those red-and-white mailers are starting to see mostly red.

As the nonprofit investigative news organization FairWarning reported last week, hundreds of angry AARP members have complained about what they say is overly aggressive solicitation efforts and a barrage of deceptive social media posts. In one case, a member received a sponsored post from AARP in her Facebook feed telling her that her membership was about to expire and that she had to “ACT FAST” because “Time is running out.” Never mind that she’d renewed her membership through 2020.

Worse is the case of Wendi Fein, whose parents are in their 80s and have cognitive issues but always pay their bills on time. More than on time in the case of their annual AARP membership, which they renewed five times last year — once for each mailing they received. Fein said the extra payments were eventually refunded, but the mailings haven’t stopped.

Consumer help websites feature other complaints: a come-on to “RESTORE your active membership” and “REINSTATE all your benefits” sent to someone who wasn’t a member; difficulty canceling a membership; misuse of an automatic credit card payment; a flood of insurance sales calls after searching for insurance information on the AARP website; the list goes on.

A spokesman told FairWarning that the AARP has dropped some of the objectionable social media language and changed the way it handles renewal notices. That’s a start. The AARP does a lot of good for a lot of people. Its advocacy and education programs touch millions of lives. But it’s in danger of undermining all that good work by employing ham-handed marketing and social media techniques that make it look like a Russian spambot.

Grow up, AARP.




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