Why be a brand in the crowd if playing hard-to-get works?

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Exclusion marketing is gaining ascendancy as our robust economy rocks on.

Of course, fancy restaurants and nightclubs have always practiced the fine art of excluding the less desirable from their very exclusive services; but now the practice is spreading to mainstream marketing.

This move comes at the same time marketers are slapping their corporate names on every possible square inch of space, including the bottom of golf cups and on gas pumps and supermarket floors. Sports centers and arenas have long carried the names of their corporate benefactors, and now Broadway theaters are succumbing to this over-flowing source of funds.

A cartoon on the op-ed page of The New York Times the other week envisioned the possibilities: Marquees become advertising billboards; tickets become coupons; ushers become hawkers ("Here are your seats. And, by the way, are you happy with your long-distance service?"); lobbies become fast-food counters ("Would you like to supersize your intermission McSnack for an extra $1.99?"); and stage sets become product placements (with the "Cats" cast eating a big bowl of Purina cat chow).

Because corporate monikers now appear on almost everything -- the U.S. government so far is a holdout, but think how the feds could pay off the national debt with money to spare if it allowed our national parks and memorials to have corporate sponsors -- a countervailing force was bound to emerge.

Exclusion marketing makes it difficult -- or at least appear to be difficult -- to obtain the product or service being sold. For instance, discount broker Brown & Co. runs TV commercials showing various people complaining because they don't qualify for Brown's low commissions. One guy, a private pilot, says he's got plenty of experience flying his plane -- he's instrument rated, for Pete's sake -- but not enough trading experience for Brown. Another spot shows a successful young businessman telling us he's a VP and his girlfriend models yet he doesn't meet Brown's requirement. He comes around his desk and gets his face right in front of the camera: "Does that make me upset? Hey, I asked you a question!"

You could call exclusion marketing the Groucho Marx school of marketing. Remember his famous line: "I don't care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member"? Some marketers figure that if you make it easy to get their product consumers won't want it.

American Express is an expert at playing this game. If you've got a plain old green card, you won't be happy until you trade up to a more prestigious gold card. And once you've got a gold card you won't be able to do without a platinum card, which I was under the impression was the ultimate in prestige and service.

But a couple of months ago I read an article in the Times about AmEx's new black card, available by invitation only. I read that they only send invitations to people who spend big bucks through American Express.

I know the whole thing is a gimmick, but suddenly my platinum card was only second best. The black card, for $1,000 a year, gets you your own personal concierge, ready to get you into that trendy restaurant that's always completely booked when you call for yourself.

I was a little hurt that AmEx didn't send me an invite. Maybe it was because I wasn't charging enough on my platinum card, so I am ashamed to admit that I started using my card at every spending opportunity. And that, I'm convinced, is one of AmEx's objectives. If they can get card members to up their spending, pathetically trying to qualify for the black card, they'll generate additional revenue far beyond the $1,000 a year they'll get from black card holders.

Oh, the cruelty of exclusion marketing. But I must say it works, and if business keeps booming, consumers will be able to acquire almost anything they want to buy -- except for what they want the most: What exclusion marketers won't let them have.

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