One of the funniest and disturbingly delusional denials of an ending is the lifetime promise - a guarantee for life or a promise that something will always be free. Businesses seem worryingly comfortable making this enormous commitment. Using it flippantly despite all manner of evidence against remotely achieving it.
On August the 31st of 2018, Dominos Russia made a promise on VKontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, to its customers, that if they got the company logo tattooed in a prominent place on their body and shared it on social media, they would enjoy Domino’s Pizza free for life.
Domino’s has been alive 59 years. Founded in December of 1960 in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The life expectancy in Russia is 66. So another 7 years they will have business life parity with the average Russian.
The #DominosForever campaign was successful in marketing terms. Hundreds of people permanently scared their bodies with the fast food chain’s logo. The take up of the campaign worried executives and the campaign was pulled after just five days. Domino’s attempted to halt the ink in this panicked Tweet.
"An urgent message to all those sitting at the tattoo artist's right now: We'll include you in the list of participants, but we're waiting for photos up to midday today,"
In terms of commercial and consumer experiences of endings, I find the #DominoForever campaign mind-boggling. Many aspects of it juggle with short-termism adjacent to permanency.
Domino’s promote convenience throughout their business. Not only for the speed and efficiency of delivery, but behind the scenes they are an industry leader in digital and service systems. This long term obsession operational efficiency has seen them become market leaders on reliable and speedy deliveries.
In contrast the thoughtful consideration of getting a tattoo - sitting in a tattoo lounge for hours enduring needles in your body, not mention the permanence of the results, requires long term thinking and endurance.
And finally, the speed of the promotion’s withdrawal perceived the ‘lifetime promise’ as flippant, undermining trust in the brand.
Darn Tough Socks
Darn Tough make socks. They are equally proud and famed for their lifetime promise.
“Our unconditional lifetime guarantee is simple and without strings or conditions. If our socks are not the most comfortable, durable and best fitting socks you have ever owned, return them for another pair.”
Its a 40 year old company. Started in Northfield, Vermont where life expectancy is 77.6 yrs, 12th highest in the Union. So the business is just half a human life old.
Their socks do seem to go above and beyond what people would usually expect from a sock, exampled rather extremely by this anecdote from one of their customers.
“Yesterday while riding my bike to work, I had mechanical trouble. I was still 5 miles from work, but I needed to get there. I was wearing bicycle shoes at the time, and I cannot run in those. So i took them off and ran in a pair of Darn Tough socks. I ran 5 miles from Cutler Corner in Barre Town to City Place in Barre. To my utter amazement, those socks are still in tack. Happy Friday.” Dave K.
The Darn Tough promise has a clear sub-clause of replacement without question. This gives me faith that they have tested, and actioned the ‘lifetime promise’ and its consequences over that time. Unlike the flippant promise from Domino’s.
Virginia Commonwealth Bank
Its one thing to make lifetime promises with a tangible physical items like socks, but it becomes harder with less tangible things like services, that by their nature are experienced individually and subject to varieties of delivery.
In 1971 Robert Whitten opened a checking account with Virginia Commonwealth Bank. As part of a promotion the account came with ‘Free Checking for Life’. Which is usually about $10 a month.
Over the years with mergers in the banking sector it changed its name to Commonwealth of Virginia, to Virginia National Bank, to Sovran Bank, to Nation's Bank then eventually, and somewhat inevitably, to Bank of America (est: 1904).
Amazingly the ‘lifetime promise’ lasted throughout those years of acquisitions and mergers, until finally Bank of America in 2012 bought it to an end. Total savings for Robert Whitten through 41 years of free banking where approximately $4920.
Bank of America said to Robert Whitten when he questioned its removal “Well, yes you did have free checking for life, but that expired.” He responded “But I thought it was free checking for my life, not the life of the promotion”. He decided to fight for the definition of ‘life’. Which in Virginia life expectancy is 76yrs by the way. He had only experienced a little over 40 years service at that point.
He contacted ABC7News, who investigated the issue directly with Bank of America. Who then reversed the decision and wavered the fee permanently on his account.
Whitten said “Of course, I'm not sure how permanent the 'permanent' waiver is. I'm hoping it's pretty damned permanent.”
American Airlines AAirpass
From the mid 1980s American Airlines (est: 1930) offer an Unlimited Lifetime Travel pass to its AAirpass membership program. Steve Rothestein, signed up. The $250,000 price was out of most people’s dreams, but not Steve, an Investment Banker from Manhattan, who saw the opportunity as paying forward a lifetime of international travel and even bought a companion ticket for $150,000. He flew a lot, 10,000 flights saw him clock up over 10 million miles. He cost American Airlines $21 million. Until they withdraw his pass in 2008, citing fraudulent behaviour for booking under a variety of names.
Another Unlimited Lifetime traveler, Mike Joyce from Chicago bought his ticket for $1million in 1994 and made impressive use of it. In one, 25 day period he flew round trip to London 16 times. Just those flights alone would cost $125,000 at normal rates - an eighth of the original $1m price.
In a difficult time for the business, American Airlines started to investigate potential abuse of the scheme in 2007. Just two of their biggest flyers were costing the company more than $1 million a year. Their conclusion was that the scheme had been a ‘huge disaster’ for the company. In an interview with Bob Crandall, Chief Executive between 1985 to 1998, the corporate assumptions about a ‘lifetime promise’ and its permeance were revealed. "We thought originally it would be something that firms would buy for top employees. It soon became apparent that the public was smarter than we were."
The AAirpass still exists, but offers discounted fares to frequent travellers for $10,000 per year. There were 66 AAirpasses with Unlimited Lifetime Travel conditions. There are 64 still alive and being honoured.
Usage of Virtual Private Networks comes with some long term sinister psychology. Customers don’t want their location or identity revealed and they don’t want their browsing history stored. Which I would assume meant people would be cautious about ‘Lifetime Promises’. Not so. There are lots on the market.
One of which is the VPN Unlimited Lifetime deal. This is offered by KeepSolid Inc. Who were established in 2013 with a couple of servers, one in the US (life expectancy 79yrs) and one in the Netherlands (life expectancy 81yrs).
KeepSolid are well thought of in the VPN community, with many trade publications giving pretty good ratings. They are certainly confident with their ‘Lifetime Promise’ by pushing up-sell options after the initial lifetime period has ended “KeepSolid will gladly extend this period by your request.”
Customers can get the Unlimited Lifetime deal for $99.99, which seems amazing for such a lot of infinite promises. Of course, people should do their due-diligence and look in to the Terms and Conditions, which rarely use such open ended language as ‘forever’ or ‘unlimited’. There, KeepSolid Inc, brings the consumer back to reality with the statement - “We generally charge Fees on a pre-paid subscription basis, but we may, in our sole discretion, change our Fees and/or Fee structure at any time by updating the Pricing Plans”.
Boom! Ambiguity of the future restored.
Forever Storage (est: 2012) is a digital storage company that promises to store your digital files - photos, videos, important documents, for “at least your lifetime plus 100 years”. That is quite a commitment given the pace of change in the digital world.
The offers vary in size between 10gb for $199 for a “Single Payment, Pay once & own for generations. No hidden fees, no annual payment” to a $6,999 offer for a terabyte forever. Strangely though the monthly package of $699 for a terabyte seems ridiculously expensive given the cost parity within 10 months.
The promise focuses around a financial model, where much of the upfront payment is placed in an investment called the FOREVER Guarantee Fund. This pays for the recurring costs - storage, but also migration to new digital formats over time. Which I commend as an unknown expense. At least they thought that through.
However, one thing, I don’t think they thought through is the changing perception of ownership. Even in the last couple of decades the ownership model has changed enormously with digital assets. Media experiencing one of the largest shifts. Its one of the reasons social networks have such ambiguous terms over ownership of content.
The language Forever Storage use in their communication has a traditional style. This isn’t surprising as the target audience is obviously an older generation who want to capture their memories for the younger. I guess younger generations will be looking to erase Instagram pictures and hoard Bitcoin.
I could not consider the theme of promised infinity in consumerism without considering cryogenics. The Cryonics Institute (est: 1976) is one such company offering its customers an infinite life via cryogenics.
Dodging the mundane health problems in this world, to be ‘re-birthed’ into a future world where you are cured of your time limiting life, can seem pretty exciting. Some of the promises made by the Cryonics Institute are…
• Cryonics offers the chance to live a renewed life in the future.
• Don't just imagine the world of the future - personally experience space travel, virtual reality and the other incredible things to come.
• The possibility of an unlimited lifespan to live all your dreams.
The company offers a membership model of $75 initiation fee plus $120 yearly. Or a Lifetime Member pays a one-time fee of $1,250. That doesn’t include getting frozen to death. Cryopreservation costs between $28,000 to $35,000.
Lifetime membership in this particular business seems like an oxymoron. The ‘lifetime promise’ is made in a ‘possible’ future in which the customer awakes, then lives. Which comes closer to a Heaven promise, which triggers many emotions.
Business culture misunderstands emotional endings. Instead it focuses on mechanisms and materials at the end. We see this in the approach to sustainability initiatives and in terms and conditions agreements. Resulting in businesses becoming hardened and blind to benefits of emotional endings.
Consumers in contrast, will over index emotions around potential negatives or positives of the aftermath. Delaying or making rash decisions without thinking of the material, mechanical consequences. We can see this in cluttered homes of consumers not able to dispose of un-used products. Or the quick simplicity of pay-day loans.
Businesses that over promise the infinite are often fumbling with emotions of consumers. Its hard to do cost analysis on a promise forever. But, having a sub-clause in the promise, like Darn Tough, which clarifies the alternative arrangements helps not only consumers believe in the brand, but also presents a collaborative offer if the ‘forever promise’ fails.
What is vital is working with endings collaboratively. The worst thing to do is flippantly over promise an infinite future. Promises tend to be emotional. A lifetime is surprisingly tangible and very long.