Sunday, February 27, 2011

When money is no object

On Thursday night, I saw a movie about winning a lot of money, and it cost me no money at all.

However, it did make me question whether being free is actually reason enough to do something.

Those of you who rent from Redbox are probably familiar with their promotions. From time to time, they offer scenarios where you can get a free rental, or two-for-one, that kind of thing. This past week it was a free night's rental if you "liked" Redbox on Facebook. I'd already "liked" Redbox at some point in the past, for a similar promotion, but that didn't mean I was excluded from the promotion. Those who had already "liked" Redbox were also invited to use the promotion code.

The thing is, the promotion had very specific parameters -- it needed to be used on February 24th. Not a day before, not a day afterward.

This worked out well for me. My wife was gone for nearly five hours on Thursday, getting a Brazilian haircut up in the valley. (Which looks absolutely tremendous, by the way.) I could have actually watched two movies during that time, but I knew I'd get in at least one, even with feeding my son and putting him to bed.

So I used the code -- DVDONME -- and picked up Lottery Ticket. It wasn't my first choice. The display on the Redbox kiosk showed that Middle Men, the movie about the origins of internet porn, was available for rental, and I sometimes like to save these movies with unsavory subject matter for when my wife is out. But this particular kiosk wasn't carrying any copies of Middle Men, and many of the other movies available for rental were movies I'd considered watching prior to closing out my 2010 year-end list, but rejected.

Then I saw Lottery Ticket, which I'd wanted to see enough for it to be worthy of a free rental, for sure. It had its moments, but "free" ended up being about the right price for it. Let's just say I was hoping for a movie that intelligently looked at the dilemma faced by a newly minted lottery winner -- namely, that your relationship with everyone around you immediately changes, usually for the worse. I thought Lottery Ticket had the potential to mine comic gold from the way this phenomenon presents itself in the projects -- and if done properly, would avoid any really hurtful racial stereotypes. It did this last part well enough, but ultimately was a bit meandering in its plot, leaving me wanting. Marginal thumbs down for me.

The thing that really interested me about this experience was whether saving a mere $1.10 actually made it worth using the promotion at all.

The reason why Redbox is such a good business model is that the rental price is already basically free. I don't want to speak for every broke-ass person out there (apparently, the speech patterns of Lottery Ticket are still in my head), but for those of us who aren't wondering how we'll pay for our next meal, there isn't much of a difference between paying $1.10 for something and getting it for free. It depends what it is, of course. Paying $1.10 for a first-class postage stamp would drive us crazy. But the value of watching a movie generally seems to exceed that meager price, doesn't it? Even if the movie is bad.

So the question, when considering renting a movie from Redbox, is not whether you can afford it. It's whether you actually have the time to watch it before 9 p.m. the next night, so it doesn't end up costing you $2.20 rather than $1.10. If you do have the time, you'd be just as happy to pay $1.10 as to get it for free.

And to show you just how little Redbox was worried about the hit to their bottom line, you didn't need a unique promotional code, one that would become invalid once it was used once. The promotional code was the same for everyone: DVDONME. I could have publicized it on my blog, or on Facebook, or on Twitter, or in an email to all my contacts. And then hundreds of people who hadn't "liked" Redbox on Facebook could have picked up a free rental on Thursday. The rental fee on Redbox is so small, even thousands of people illicitly participating in a promotion wouldn't have meant much to their bottom line. And if it brought the Redbox experience to people who had previously been unfamiliar with it, all the better.

Because my wife was going to be out, I might have gone to Redbox, even without the promotion. The promotion had the value of sealing the deal for me, but for those who didn't have the available hours in their schedule, it probably didn't make any difference one way or another.

Except in the public perception of Redbox. A company that will give you something for free is a company you view with at least slightly more positivity.

Redbox is a perfect example of what a company has to do in an information age where everyone -- most notably the music business -- is competing with "free." So far, they're succeeding, where a company like Blockbuster isn't.

Having to spend only $1.10 on a movie rental, rather than $5 ... well, it prevents us from having to think twice about spending the money. It gives us that same freedom in discretionary spending enjoyed by ... say, a lottery winner.

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