“Abuse” has come to be quite the fashionable buzzword in our relativistic, post-modern culture.

Two men who gun down their parents are acquitted of the crime by a juryby reason of their having been “abused” as children.

A woman who spanks her child in public is arrested and charged with “abusing” the youngster.

In fact, the list of prefixes attached to the word “abuse”–child, spousal, drug, alcohol, animal, emotional, physical, among others–is growing daily, and these terms are quickly becoming part of our lexicon.

Theres another kind of abuse, though, that rarely gets talked about, although it is likely experienced by anyone who attends a conference or seminar. Im talking about sponsor abuse.

Every year, people in our industry pay millions of dollars to attend such events, which are designed to expand our knowledge and, hopefully, help us do our jobs a little better. Sponsors do their part by providing much-needed funding for meals, refreshments or other amenities, which reduces the overall cost to attendees.

The sponsors, in turn, receive credit for their contributions in a number of ways, including recognition in the conference literature, mentions from the podium, distribution of sponsor literature, etc. Most of us, especially in the technology area, have come to accept this as normal, and in most cases, desirable.

But what happens when sponsors go too far in expecting recompense for their contribution?

Case in point: Last year I attended a technology conference that included many worthwhile sessions–at least they seemed worthwhile from their titles and descriptions.

One particular session, given by a prominent software company in the industry, started out with a promising premise, only to turn into a shameless commercial for the vendor.

As the content of the “course” became obvious, pens dropped, notebooks slammed shut, and some independent souls simply got up and left. Still, most of the audience was left behind, evidently not wanting to offend the speaker or, perhaps, the conference organizers.

When the pitch from the podium had mercifully reached its end, I sought out the conference chairperson and complained about the sessions lack of value and obvious hucksterism.

“We told them not to do that,” she confided sheepishly, “but theyre a major sponsor.” Translation: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sleep? Anywhere he wants!

Another session at the same conference illustrated yet another kind of intimidation. In this case, the speaker laid out in great detail some of the technological difficulties agents face in gathering and sending certain types of data. This sounded like a valuable discussion, one to which many in the audience could relate.

When it came time to talk about solutions to the problems, however, it turned out there was only one answer–you guessed it–buying the products of the vendor who was speaking. I groaned inwardly, then checked my program to find that this vendor, too, was a “major sponsor.”

My questions are these: Do vendors really believe we want to sit through a 45-minute commercial? And what is any conference organizer thinking when they award continuing education credits for this drivel?

In another instance, a conference meal was sponsored by a British software maker. The food was surprisingly tasty for conference center fare. The price we had to pay for this culinary gift? We were required to sit through the companys 45-minute commercial while we were eating our lunch.

And lets not pretend that this kind of thing happens infrequently. As travel budgets get tighter in this down-cycle economy, sponsor funds will be more and more important to conference-goers, offsetting costs such as meals that would otherwise be paid by their companies. Unfortunately, this also puts more power in the hands of sponsors, some of whom frankly dont give a damn about the needs of the people they are addressing.

Heres my advice to my fellow conference attendees. If an educational session turns into a sales pitch, follow the lead of the few brave souls in my first example. Put down your pen, turn off your tape recorder, slam your notebook shut and get up and leave–as conspicuously as possible.

Follow that up by complaining loudly and long to the conference organizers. Even if they cant do anything immediately due to the threat of sponsor abuse, they can be encouraged to seek other, more responsible, sponsors.

To sponsors, I would say the following. We really do appreciate what you do for us, and most of us are willing to find out at least a little about your products.

So get your exposure, post your company banners, put your name on the place mats and carve your corporate logo into every slab of butter.

But dont use your monetary influence to take over an educational session and make it a sales pitch for your services or products. We will only resent you for it, and well be much less favorably disposed to buy from you. Nobody likes a thug.

And now, for a message from our sponsors.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, February 25, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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