The $8 billion story/scam
In case you had any doubt that human beings are irrational creatures, driven by stories, consider the case of the gift card.
Christmas has become a holiday about shopping, not about giving. Case in point: the $100 gift card, now available from banks, from stores, even in a rack at the supermarket.
Last year, more than $8,000,000,000 was wasted on these cards. Not in the value spent, but in fees and breakage. When you give a card, if it doesn't get used, someone ends up keeping your money, and it's not the recipient. People spent more than eight billion dollars for nothing... buying a product that isn't as good as cash.
Along the way, we bought the story that giving someone a hundred dollar bill as a gift ("go buy what you want") is callous, insensitive, a crass shortcut. Buying them a $100 Best Buy card, on the other hand, is thoughtful. Even if they spend $92 and have to waste the rest.
The interesting thing about stories is that the inconsistent ones don't always hold up to scrutiny. Consumer Reports and others are trying to spread a different story. One that sounds like this:
Gift cards are for chumps.
If enough people talk about this new story, people will be embarrassed to give a gift card. It's a waste. It's a scam. It's a trap for the recipient.
The irony is that the gift card companies could easily spend, say, half the profits and create a wonderful, better story... where every $100 gift card also generates two or three dollars for a worthy cause. That would resonate with a lot of people... But I think it's unlikely.
If I were a creative non-profit, I'd start marketing alternative gift cards. They would consist of PDF files you could print out and hand over to people when you give them cash. It could say,
"Merry Christmas. Here's your present, go spend it on what you really want. AND, just to make sure we're in the right holiday spirit, I made a donation in your name to Aworthycause."
Stories come and go. It's up to marketers to spread the good ones.