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Tasteless & Deceptive Marketing Techniques

Tasteless & Deceptive Marketing Techniques

October 09, 2013

The cynics say, “Good guys finish last.” But is that really true?


Does being sly-as-a-fox pay off in marketing? Or do the honest marketers outlast the others?


Take a look at three key questions (and some eyebrow-raising examples) to determine which side of the spectrum you’re on -- and find out who really finishes last.



1)  Does Your Marketing Pass the “What Were They Thinking” Test?


“Only $9.11 to commemorate 9/11”


One month ago, the Tumbledown Trails Golf Course near Madison, Wisconsin rolled out a special promotion. On the 12th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in American history, a day in which nearly 3,000 people were killed, golfers could play the course for only $9.11. What were they thinking?!?!


Not surprisingly, people were shocked by the golf course’s insensitivity. Furious comments began streaming in, and the Tumbledown Trails Facebook page was overrun with negative comments. The owners of the course apologized later that day.


Another example comes from fashion designer Kenneth Cole. In 2011, massive uprisings in Egypt caused global concern. As protesters filled Tahrir Square, millions of people worldwide feared bloodshed.

 Amidst all this, Kenneth Cole tweeted "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo – KC."  


Twitter lit up with many angry responses. Cole later retracted his tweet. What was he thinking?!?!


These lapses in judgment can be costly. And while huge companies may be strong enough to withstand the backlash from such major miscues, many small-to-midsized businesses may never be able to recover from the damage to their reputations.


You are a Camel Driver and a Donkey Driver


You have to be in front of a camel to lead it, but you must be behind a donkey to push and guide it forward. Being a responsible marketer means that you need to get attention while remaining trustworthy.


How can you do both?


You need to know where to draw the line when it comes to making a Big Zig.


If you have a marketing idea that you think may be controversial or raise concern, don't rush into it. Ask a colleague. Sleep on it. Check with your business advisor. And if your gut tells you that you may be making a big mistake, think twice before pulling the trigger.


2.  Are Your Claims Simply Too Good to be True?

It’s been said that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”  

Between 2000 and 2003, an Illinois company sold their Q-Ray bracelets to thousands of people claiming the bracelets would alter the body’s energy and relieve pain.  The company cited a study showing that wearers had less pain.  

Fast forward eight years, and the FTC forced them to return nearly $12 million to customers who had purchased the bracelets. The FTC found that in the study cited in the company’s claims, a placebo bracelet also relieved pain just as well as the Q-Ray bracelet.


Talk about deceptive!


Snake-oil salesmen have always sold products to instantly cure anything from aging to hemorrhoids to vertigo -- at least until their claims catch up with them. Even major companies get caught.  A few years ago, Dannon’s Activia® yogurt offered consumers all sorts of "clinically" and "scientifically" proven nutritional benefits as touted by celebrity spokeswoman Jamie Lee Curtis.  A class action lawsuit resulted in Dannon paying $45 million to customers who believed they had been swindled by the false health claims.


The solution is simple. Before making claims, keep in mind that (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) you can fool some of the people sometimes, but you can’t fool everyone forever.  


3.  Are Your Products Really Scarce?


Thirty years ago, the makers of the popular Cabbage Patch Kids were quoted as saying, “We really create the market. We create the demand itself.” And did they ever! They created a demand that had otherwise-rational adults practically beating each other senseless in the toy departments of major stores. Consumers were led to believe that there were only a few of these “precious” dolls remaining to buy for their children during the 1983 holiday season.   


But the company soon found themselves facing charges of false advertising by the Consumer Affairs Department of Nassau County in New York. They were right but they were wrong. They were right - scarcity increases demand. But they were wrong - because they lied. And you can’t lie (whether you get caught or not).


I had a client who once crossed the line on this issue.  They ran a “scratch & dent sale” where they discounted products with slightly damaged packaging. That part may have been real. But then they claimed there were only a few left… and they lied. You simply can’t say there are only 15 left when it’s not true - or you’ll lose all credibility when consumers learn that your stock room was full of 300 more of the same items.  


I find it especially amusing when businesses sell online products such as digital downloads and they claim scarcity - only 20 remaining! Sorry; there’s no such thing as scarcity on such products.  


Scarcity can create a sense of urgency, which is excellent as long as it’s the truth.  For years, eBay has been touting limited quantities of auction items for a limited number of days, and Groupon has been selling a limited number of vouchers to restaurants that have a a limited number of seats.  


A Very Simple Solution… Tell the Truth


“Truth” remains at the core of marketing.  And it isn’t just about ‘not getting caught.’  It’s about building trust with your customers.


There are two levels of truth. Sometimes the words that are spoken are technically accurate, but the overall implication is misleading.  And is that really the truth?


Consider this. This is an email I received yesterday.


“Dozens Of Invisible 'Trial Closes' That Will Have Prospects Begging You To Buy!”        


(Wow. Prospects “begging” me to buy. Is this really true? What if it’s a complex long-term sale?)       


“Creating Endless Qualified Leads Machine Using Powerful (But EASY) Copywriting Tricks, So You ALWAYS Have Eager Prospects Waiting In Line!”


(Creating endless leads is EASY. Is this really true? I’ve always found lead generation takes work, time, and investment. I will ALWAYS have eager prospects. Is this really true?)


The point is not to criticize everyone else’s marketing. If you play Devil’s Advocate and ask yourself such questions when reading your own copy, you’ll get the idea of what readers are actually seeing and what they might be thinking.


So, Does Your Marketing Pass the "What Were They Thinking Test?"  Are Your Claims Simply "Too Good to be True?"  Are Your Products Really Scarce?


If you even hesitate when answering the above questions, you may want to re-think your marketing strategy. It’s my fervent belief that you CAN and should be creative AND persuasive AND honest. If you feel that you have to push beyond the truth boundaries to get a certain customer, then maybe you’re not meant to get that customer. Send me your most challenging marketing opportunity and/or materials to run it through the two-part filter of persuasiveness and truth.


With the right tools and focus you can be a good guy and still win.


Taking you from where you are to where you want to be,