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It is easy to sign up for a subscription service. Should it be equally easy to terminate it? As anyone who has tried to halt a gym membership might attest, companies work hard to keep subscribers in place, using various negotiation tactics and arguments to prevent them from leaving. But online, those tactics might become even more nefarious, prompting some rights groups to express concerns, largely focused on Amazon and its popular Prime service.

When a Prime member clicks to cancel the membership, the site brings up a host of warnings, cautioning the user that without a Prime membership, he or she will lose lots of benefits. It encourages them to keep the membership, and maybe switch to an annual payment plan, such that consumers have to take several steps to complete the process.

According to consumer rights groups, this multistep process is not just inconvenient. It also is an example of the “dark patterns” that online retailers use to play on consumers’ unconscious motivations and nudge them to behave in ways that do not match their actual preferences. For example, by framing the cancellation in loss terms (e.g., loss of benefits with Prime), Amazon appears to be trying to invoke people’s sense of fear. Humans dislike losses, even more than they value gains, so a loss frame can impose powerful influences on how they behave.

Although such dark patterns are troubling and questionable in their ethicality, they do not appear illegal per se. Amazon has the right to discourage people from leaving, and it also claims the cancellation process is appropriately simple, contesting allegations that the company makes it confusing and difficult to leave. Furthermore, it seems impossible, and even undesirable, to legislate a company’s right to do its best to keep customers.

But convincing customers to stay, by ensuring they realize the value of the offering, is much different from manipulating them to remain, by playing on their fears. Then the question becomes: Which is Amazon doing?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Which is Amazon doing? Trying to convince customers of the value of a Prime membership or playing on their fears of losing something by leaving?
  2. If you are a member of Prime or some other subscription service, start the process of cancelling (even if you ultimately do not complete it). How difficult is it? Is the company engaging in scare tactics to keep you?

Source: Isabella Kwai, “Consumer Groups Target Amazon Prime’s Cancellation Process,” The New York Times, January 14, 2021