How ethical is your marketing?
NOTE: It takes courage for a trade journal to risk offending readers by challenging unethical practices. My compliments to Deliver for running this piece. Click here if you prefer to read it on the Deliver website.
A recent clinical study has shown that hiring my agency reduces your risk of getting cancer.
I conducted the study myself. It’s poorly designed, shamelessly biased and wholly unscientific, but that doesn’t mean I can’t slap words like “clinical” and “study” on it. And though I’m no attorney, I’m pretty sure that, with carefully chosen weasels and the right disclaimers, I can use it to relieve the gullible of cash while I avoid fines and jail.
OK, OK. I’m not serious. At least, not about offering my shop as a cancer preventative. I am quite serious about the ease with which one can mislead while remaining technically within the law. In fact, if you work in direct marketing, you may someday be asked to execute such a strategy. What course will you choose?
I hope and suspect that most of you would decline any product that relies on blatantly false claims (“Take this pill tonight and wake up a millionaire tomorrow”). I think we’d also dismiss as foolhardy anyone who insists upon full, unvarnished disclosure (“Please buy our cologne, but face it, nothing short of overhauling your looks and personality will get you dates”). The real dilemmas lurk in between, in those darned shades of gray.
It doesn’t help that each shade is only slightly lighter or darker than its neighbor. One person’s “OK” may be another’s “not OK.” I recently declined a prospective client whose product was popular, legal and backed by testimonials from happy customers. I turned it down because blinded tests showed the product to have no effect. Colleagues accused me of being too stringent. If customers are happy, they argued, no harm done. They would have taken the account. I would have thought no less of them for it.
Six ways to keep direct mail ethics in check
How much or how little gray you’ll abide is your decision. What’s important is to draw that proverbial line, and to draw it well before you need to refer to it. Ethical challenges seldom seem to come along when declining is convenient. One well-funded company has a habit of reappearing and asking me to reconsider their flimflam products only at times my shop needs business most.
As you ponder which products to accept or decline, and which tactics to embrace or reject, here are six points to consider:
- Does the small type contradict the large? Not all fly type is underhanded. Much of it is useful and appropriate. But when what’s buried in fly type is the antithesis of what’s conveyed in headlines, subheads and body copy, it suggests something about the overall integrity of the piece. Not to mention of the advertiser.
- How many weasels will you indulge? Here’s a revealing exercise: count the use of terms like “may,” “can,” “believed to,” “said to,” “no claim is made,” “not evaluated by,” “not intended to,” “not typical,” “may vary,” “not verified by” and so forth. See if the total falls within your personal limit.
- Get real. Come on. You know when “results may vary” means “works nine out of 10 times in properly conducted, controlled tests” vs. “works no better than you’d expect from randomness.”
- Does evidence back the claim? If your client and 1 million passionate customers assert, but cannot demonstrate, a claim — on demand and repeatedly — you have testimonials, but not evidence. Given the power of testimonials in direct mail, that’s good reason to check the evidence before using them.
- Do you use the product? Does the client? When a company selling a get-rich-quick scheme contacted me, I found it telling that none of their employees — even those who were great at selling the product on the phone — used the product themselves.
- Would you recommend the product to your kids? How about to your aging, fixed-income parents?
Not everyone agrees that marketers bear responsibility for what and how they sell. The prospective buyer, they say, is free to check facts. But search the how-to literature of direct mail. It brims with advice on building credibility, winning trust and giving readers information for taking immediate action. We cannot urge readers to buy now and then blame them when they do.
Most direct marketing is aboveboard and honorable. But I’m painfully aware, as I’m sure you are, of glaring exceptions. I hold no delusion that drawing a proverbial line will bring such practices to an end. But there’s no need for you and me to take part in them.