The 4 Worst Lies Other Marketers Tell
From pay-to-play awards to fabricating a disaster, some marketing maneuvers are truly deceptive. Columnist David Rodnitzky explains why you should pass on these sketchy tactics, even though they sometimes end up driving sales.
While the best customer relationships are based on authenticity and trust, there are countless examples of companies making a ton of money through bold-faced lies. I’m not talking about mere exaggeration in advertisements (like a sugar-filled cereal somehow claiming it is part of a balanced diet for your kids). I’m talking about deliberate attempts to deceive customers.
These tactics are risky, but the odd and unfortunate upshot is that they do in many cases end up driving revenue. For the record, I’m not recommending these tactics, so don’t shoot the messenger.
Lie #1: Win (Or Create) A Fake Award
People care about awards. When a movie wins an Oscar, it drives tons of additional revenue for that film. Being named as a “best place to work” increases job applications. And of course, awards can be used in sales and PR to win more business.
But not all awards are created equal. The most prestigious awards are judged by distinguished panels who have no financial incentives. Others, um, not so much.
There are dozens of “awards” available to anyone who is willing to pay enough to win them. Almost all of these award programs are run by for-profit companies with names that sound impartial but are anything but.
Some of these programs have literally thousands of winners a year, which makes you wonder whether everyone who enters (e.g., pays) wins.
A couple of years ago, my company received a solicitation to enter an award competition for companies hiring a lot of people. We were then notified that we were one of the (many) winners.
Then we got invited to a special conference (for a fee). Then we were sent an offer to buy some trophies and plaques.
We posted the award on our website and added a link to the award’s site. Within days, we received a call from the award organization telling us that winners had to pay to use the award logo on their site — a classic pay-to-play scheme. And yet, for the right fake award, it might be worth every penny to pay (if all you care about is signing up new customers).
The lesson: People are influenced by awards. Even a pay-to-play award can influence a buyer to choose your company.
Lie #2: Create Misfortune
People are drawn to car crashes and train wrecks and seem to love it when a celebrity falls from grace. Normally, having a disaster befall your company is a bad thing, but some companies have found gold by fabricating a disaster.
In 2013, Chipotle’s Twitter account was hacked, and the company started sending out tweets like “Mittens13 password leave” and “find avocado store in Arvada, Colorado.” Of course, the news picked up on the story and thousands flocked to Chipotle’s Twitter feed.
Indeed, the company gained 4,000 Twitter followers in the immediate 24 hours after the hack — 16 times their normal follower acquisition rate.
The “hack”, however, wasn’t a hack at all but a planned PR stunt by Chipotle’s agency. Many retail stores have run with the perpetual going-out-of-business sale to draw in bargain hunters. And then there’s the fake outrage and protests against a new product.
The lesson: Bad news draws attention. Attention often drives customers. Faking bad news can often drive revenue, as crazy as it sounds.
Lie #3: Pretend To Make A Mistake
Businesses make mistakes all the time. For example, about once a year, a coding error on an airline website allows people to book thousand-dollar trips for pennies. (These are rarely honored by the airline.)
Some of these mistakes, however, are nothing more than disguised promotions. I did a search for “we goofed discount” and found a bevy of companies that had sent out emails that read like this:
Well… OK… WE didn’t goof up, THE TRUCK did! We just received several new Yamamoto baits in from the store — including 5″ SENKOS! And we did not want to wait to make them available. Get to the store NOW, and click on the “Yamamoto Sale!” link to see the new items. And… because they were not ready by Tuesday’s sale — we are extending the $1.00 OFF offer with the code below. And… because you were included in the offer and probably bought some already, and paid for shipping, we will take ANOTHER $6.95 OFF of any new orders… if you buy any Yamamoto item and spend at least $25.00 today or tomorrow.
I don’t know for a fact that this company made up this whole “error then discount” series of events, but I’m certain that many “our loss is your gain” promotions are in fact profit-centers for the merchant, taking advantage of people who think they are taking advantage of the merchant’s error.
The lesson: Making people think they are getting a “steal” can drive sales.
Lie #4: Give Back (But Not Really)
It’s always great to see a company raising funds for a needy charity, but sometimes the actual source of the donations is a bit unclear.
For example, Safeway — one of the largest grocery chains in the US — claimed in a press release that they had raised $14.5 million to support breast cancer research. But how exactly was that money raised? Well, it didn’t actually come from Safeway directly.
To raise the money that makes this sort of research possible, stores provide customers with an opportunity to donate at each checkstand and hold special in-store fundraising events to rally support.
For example, stores will enlist local celebrities, elected officials and representatives from top cancer research centers to act as celebrity grocery baggers and collect donations. Other stores hold drawings or contests and sell special “pink ribbon” breast cancer items.
In other words, Safeway’s customers donated the money, not Safeway. But in press releases and articles, the public sees a giant Safeway check presented to the charity by a Safeway representative — implying that this money actually came out of Safeway’s coffers.
I should note that Safeway is definitely not the only company to use this tactic. A recent study showed that more than $350 million was raised by “checkout charity.”
And again, it’s great that this money is going to needy causes. It’s hard to deny, however, that the companies running these campaigns are over-estimating their own financial contribution versus the efforts of their customers.
The lesson: Exaggerating your charitable giving increases your brand value.
Perception Is More Important Than Reality
All of these tactics are risky, but when a company executes the sleight-of-hand to perfection, the sad truth is that they could drive revenue.
That is, they can drive results in the short term. But in the long term, it’s dangerous to risk your relationship with customers, especially at a time when social media allows the disgruntled to spread negativity so rapidly. The blowback from such deception could be severe.
Don’t be tempted to deploy these sketchy tactics. Leave them for those “other”marketers and keep your customers’ trust secure.