Rafflegate: Infertility Marketing Gone Wild or Much Ado About Nothing?

Yet another infertility “scandal,” but this time it’s occurring across the pond and concerns those “ugly American” advertisers and infertility marketers! The brouhaha erupted after an American fertility clinic and its British partner organized a patient education seminar in London where they raffled a free egg donation cycle as a way to attract participants. The lucky winner would receive treatment in the United States rather than Great Britain, where there are long waiting lists for egg donors since it is illegal to compensate them for their time and effort under British law. According to one of its doctors, the American clinic had run similar raffles on U.S. soil for the last five years without any criticism or complaints.

But hyperbolic headlines condemning the marketing practice blared in British and U.S. media outlets: IVF Clinic Raffles Human Eggs, Human Egg Raffle Gives Birth To Controversy Between U.S. Infertility Clinic and European Law. In addition, opinions are flying all over Facebook and the infertility blogosphere about what has become a sensitive subject. So has infertility marketing and the drive for ROI stooped to new levels, breaching good standards and, perhaps, skirting the law?

A Cautionary Tale About Perception
I don’t purport to know the reality versus the hype behind the “Human Egg Raffle” scandal, also known as “Rafflegate;” I surmise those phrases were coined by the notoriously sensational British press. I also am not trying to debate the ethics of IVF raffles/scholarship contests, their merits as marketing techniques or be a Monday morning quarterback. But there is an important, teachable marketing moment we can learn from this situation: American clinics must thoroughly vet the social, cultural, ethical and legal implications of conducting a marketing campaign in another country. What plays in Peoria may not turn out so well in Paris.
This American clinic’s experience is a powerful example of how the media, public and authorities in another country may have entirely different perceptions of marketing infertility services than we do in the U.S., especially when they are not accustomed to it (the British have a national health service), and when using the marketing technique is considered flouting or mocking the law, though not breaking it. Though I do not represent it, I am sure this was not the clinic’s intention. Even in the United States, health care marketing is a relatively new professional discipline that is often criticized. And let’s not forget that the British press has a well-earned reputation for savoring the sensational.

Flashback to the 1990’s
In 2010, IVF and donor egg cycle raffles are pretty much the norm in the United States. Clinics and nonprofit organizations often use them as promotional tools or as ways to serve their members and fund raise. Many families have been created as a result. Please read AFA Development Director Corey Whelan’s very thoughtful blog post about a happy ending for one of the families who was a raffle winner, as well as her views about this issue.

Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with raffles ever since I first heard of a competitor holding one 10 years ago. My initial reaction was mixed; I was concerned it would be perceived as a gimmick that transformed infertility treatment into a commodity, such as a television or trip, but a small part of me wished I had thought of the idea first because I knew the lure of a free cycle for couples who were struggling to pay for treatment would be very compelling. Fast forward a decade and I had not really thought much about the ethics of raffles since. They have become commonplace and, save for the occasional critic, no one blinks at them. But recalling my initial thoughts on this marketing tactic, I can’t say I am too surprised by the British reaction.

Would a Raffle By Any Other Name Smell Just as Sweet?
Though I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion of any publicity being good publicity, I don’t think the American fertility clinic in question will suffer any irreparable public relations damage from this event. For most people, it’s already yesterday’s news. But the rest of the infertility field, especially those providers marketing to overseas patients, can take away some valuable lessons from this experience, one of which is that our actions in the infertility field — including how we advertise and position our brand — are highly scrutinized, making it difficult to stay under the radar. The second lesson is that each customer group is unique, deserving its own marketing plan and consideration.




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