Ethics in Marketing: The Web of Lies

This has been an interesting past few weeks. Twice, I’ve seriously questioned the ethics of some companies who do quite a bit of advertising online. One was a big red flag, and the other was just a downright scam.

The Not-So-Neutral, Supposed-Third-Party Keyword URL

A few weeks ago, my neighborhood was hit with a rash of robberies. That prompted my search to have a security system installed. There are a bunch of companies online selling a variety of services, and they all aren’t apples-to-apples comparison.

In my search, I contacted the top 5 companies I had seen listed on numerous comparison review sites. Most of the companies have the same thing – a landing page with the call-to-action: complete the form and someone will call you. No problem – easy enough. I was actively looking, so I wanted to talk to people.

After I completed the online form for one of the “leading companies” (according to them), no sooner had I hit send than my phone was ringing. I hadn’t even had a chance to read the offer proposition to know what I would possibly be buying. And 10 minutes into the conversation with the sales guy, I STILL didn’t know. He was so busy with the script and sales pitch, that I had no idea what tangibles would be installed at my house. I told him I needed time to digest the information (at this point, I knew he had been trained to not let the customer off the phone), and he said, “Well, Margaret, I’m here to answer any questions you have.” I actually hadn’t had a chance to compile my question list to know what to ask, and when I told him, he got defensive and told me to check out the online review sites.

Ok… I did an organic search and found a bunch of “consumer review” sites and “comparison” sites. But I need a little time to read these reviews, right? He then told me, “Don’t focus on Yelp! and Google+ reviews, look at the review websites and you’ll see our company gets top ratings.” He was steering me to some of these organic results and “proving” to me through these reviews that everyone loves the company. The one particular review site sounded just like a sales pitch. And it was very similar to the sales pitch the guy was giving me. At this point, my marketing brain had strong suspicions that the company’s marketing team had created their own product sales page with their own reviews under the guise of this being a legitimate third party reviewer. Since anyone can buy just about any vanity URL, that’s quite a possibility. The sad thing is that these types of marketing people think they’re clever. And for the most part, lots of people will fall for that type of scam when keywords like “consumer review” are part of the URL.  We marketers know companies can clearly optimize for organic search, so just because there’s a review page, it doesn’t mean these are legit, right? What was the red flag? The language in the reviews on top of the direction away from more legitimate review sites (Yelp! and Google+). BTW, the Yelp! reviews were abysmal.

  • End result? I went with another company: Vivint. While the price was a bit higher than other companies, this company had the exact offering I needed.

Shopping Cart Stuffing

I was browsing my Facebook feed recently, and one of the pages I follow (supposedly All Natural Foods) had a sponsored story in my feed. I confess, I’m a huge K-drama fan, and when I saw the headline about one of my favorite Korean show couples, I clicked. I knew it was click-bait, but I wanted to get behind the headline: “[EXCLUSIVE] Staff Sees Song Couple Fighting In The Dressing Room!”

OK, now I know Song-Song (named so because they share the same surname) has better manners than this, but I figured it may be something silly or funny – not an actual scam. My red flag SHOULD have been the sponsoring page “All Natural Foods,” but I bit the hook. The faux story discussed how leading man Song Joong Ki outed his co-star Song Hye Kyo’s beauty secrets during an interview (and, yes, she’s stunning, so who wouldn’t want to grab her beauty secrets!). They claimed that Joong Ki supposedly said Hye Kyo used one particular product all the time on set, which supposedly upset her because she has a contract with another leading cosmetic company. On a side note, the scam company cleverly stated who that cosmetic company was so they could go head-to-head comparison against the big guns.

The article itself simply had a link embedded on the name of the product, and when you clicked on the link, you could get a trial offer for $2.95. No big deal. No Terms & Conditions, no commitment, nothing – just $2.95. Anyone can do that, right? I looked at this site up and down before signing up for my trial. When I got to the page before checkout, there was a “But wait!” image that said other people loved this product as well and it was only $4.95 trial. There was no radio button to click or unclick, and I proceeded ahead anyway without ordering this product. The checkout page said I was ordering $2.95, but I didn’t think to take a screenshot of that.

Then I thought to myself, let me do a google search (you would THINK that I would do this before ordering, right?). I pulled up several websites that say the trial automatically enrolls you in a program of $90/month… per product! There was no mention whatsoever of this supposed commitment. The scambuster site also said the company adds products to your cart without you knowing it. They also had some of the scammers customer service numbers, which went into oblivion – that endless loop of “we’ll be right with you”… not. To add insult to injury, they state the scam company will charge you a $9.95 restocking fee.  When I checked my credit card activity online, lo and behold – there were TWO charges from TWO different companies (sneaky little guys!).

  • End result? Thank goodness for Chase credit cards where they will happily issue you a new card number so the scammers can’t continue to charge. And they also make disputing a charge easy. Now if you click on the link to the article – it’s a 404 error code, and there is no sign of the trial offer website either.

A Rose by any other name

My plea to those of you in Digital Marketing – please keep your ethics close to your heart. Don’t get excited about pulling one over on consumers. Be responsible with our marketing. Marketing is about sharing your product’s or service’s key benefits to those who need them. If you know in your heart that you are “winning” or manipulating consumers, don’t call yourself a “marketer” – call yourself exactly what you are:  a scammer.


Ethics in Marketing: Bigger, Better, Best – It’s not that simple

New marketers are the key to consumer trust

As marketing professionals, we all want to promote our products and services as the best. It’s our job to increase revenue or bring in more clients, but many inexperienced, new marketers don’t realize that using superlatives such as “we’re the best” or “we have the highest quality” can be very dangerous. You hear it all the time on radio and TV. You see it on billboards, online and in print. This is a very common mistake when you rely on a radio rookie or television intern to write your script. These media companies don’t hire marketing professionals – they hire sales staff.  They don’t know the laws in your industry. They don’t know your products or services better than you do, so they oftentimes just say the only thing they can come up with… unsubstantiated claims that your product is superior. It’s a slippery slope that is best to avoid.

When you claim your company is the best, you may have to prove it or face consequences. In many industries – healthcare, legal, pharmaceutical, for instance – it’s not just frowned upon, but your company could face significant fines…or worse… losing their license. And whose head do you think will be on the plate if you, as the professional marketer, let that happen? So does that mean we have to say our company is lousy or second best? Not at all.

Find the niche

The most important thing you can do as a marketer is find out what your company’s competitive advantage is. Where does your company excel?

  • Did your company establish a produce or service in the industry? (If you were the first one, be sure to use “premiere” rather than “premier” to avoid claims)
  • Does your company serve a special population, clientele, geographic location?
  • Is your company’s culture something unusual where you can use a different voice or strategy to stand out?
  • Is your customer service or return policy something that removes buyer angst?

You don’t have to be the top dog in your industry to gain a loyal following and build a successful company. Look at Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. They didn’t have to go head to head against Breyers when they started. They simply sold small batches of unique flavors at a hefty price, and consumers gobbled them up and demanded more. And in doing so, they created a subset within their industry: micro-batch ice cream. Have you seen how many micro-batch companies have popped up now?

You’re the best, so back it up

But you really ARE the best, right? Some ranking agency has told you so. J.D. Powers & Associates or U.S. News & World Report has dubbed your company the best in a specific category. Just about every industry has an organization that recognizes outstanding companies in the field. In those cases, it’s perfectly find to toot your horn. When you promote your company’s achievements, do so ethically and transparently:

  1. Use the exact verbiage used by the accrediting organization to promote your accolades
  2. Provide a link to how their methodology came about to determine your company’s ranking
  3. Disclose in footnotes whether or not you paid the company a fee or were required to pay for membership in the organization to be included in the ranking
  4. Be mindful of the dates for which your company received the awards
  5. Never, ever, ever Photoshop an award banner/logo to update it from a previous year to another year even if your company qualifies for that year

He can huff and puff, but don’t let him blow the house down

Avoid puffery, even if your CEO is pressuring you to do so. Writing content that makes claims you can’t back up can cost you customers. If you’re a smaller company that has current technologies but your competitors have new technologies, don’t say you have the “highest quality” …because you don’t. It can be a tough pill to swallow especially when that higher quality technology costs millions of dollars. You may have the highest quality in your town, but if a customer can easily venture to the next town to get better technology, then you’ve lost.

I’ll give you an example. When I worked at one of my hospitals, my CEO asked me to promote our new 16-slice CT scanner to the community saying we have “the most advanced technology.” Our competition who was 30 miles away had a 64-slice CT scanner. Out-migration patterns proved that patients sought medical care in the competition’s area because they had a higher level of care. Therefore, I couldn’t promote our technology as the “most advanced” because our clients’ out-migration pattern determined our market-share included that competition’s geographic location. More “advanced technology” than what we offered was within reach for our patients, and they were willing to drive to get it. What’s the answer then? Promote the benefits of what you DO offer as well as your competitive advantages.

Remember, customers and competitors are watching. If you don’t think someone will report you to the Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, the Better Business Bureau or your licensing agency, just wait until you get your first warning letter. I learned about ethics in marketing early in my career when I touted our company as offering “the best” (our competition didn’t like that). I can guarantee you that I never repeated that mistake.

As the marketing professional, YOU are the one that needs to protect your company. Stick to your ethical guns, provide evidence why you shouldn’t go down that path, and provide an alternative to your boss.

The American Marketing Association has a Code of Ethics that marketing professionals vow to uphold.  One of the key tenets is “Represent products in a clear way in selling, advertising and other forms of communication; this includes the avoidance of false, misleading and deceptive promotion.” This is essential because so many times, consumers lose confidence in companies based on what we do and say as marketers.

Be the best – at your job as a professional marketer.

When I was learning marketing 20+ years ago, there were no stand-alone courses in college about marketing ethics. We learned on the job, through trial and error, and by professional organizations teaching us values. Maybe, just maybe a college professor mentioned it in class one day.

There are still plenty of unsavory marketers out there, scamming people, breaking the rules and shattering customer confidence. Don’t be one of them. Rise above it all and be ethical, transparent, and trustworthy as a marketing professional. If you’re reading this blog, you are taking the first step at becoming the future of ethical marketers.