Does Deceptive Marketing Work?

The cynics say, “Good guys finish last.” Does deceptive marketing pay off? The following three questions can help you determine which side of the spectrum you’re on and who really finishes last.

Does your marketing pass the what-were-they-thinking test?
On the 12th anniversary of one of the worst tragedies in American history when nearly 3,000 people were killed by terrorists, Tumbledown Trails Golf Course in Wisconsin offered a special promotion: Golfers could play the course for only $9.11.

Not surprisingly, people were shocked by the insensitivity. Furious complaints streamed in, and the company’s Facebook page was overrun with negative comments.

While huge companies may be strong enough to withstand the backlash from such major miscues, most small-to-midsized businesses can’t recover from damage to their reputations.

For responsible marketing, you need to know where to draw the line. So if you have a marketing idea that you think may be controversial, don’t rush into it. Check with your business adviser. And if your gut tells you that you are making a mistake, think twice before pulling the trigger.

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 QRay 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.

Eight years later, the Federal Trade Commission found that in that same study, a placebo bracelet relieved pain just as well. The company had to return nearly $12 million to customers who had purchased the bracelets.

And few years ago, Dannon’s Activia yogurt offered consumers various “clinically” and “scientifically” proven nutritional benefits. A lawsuit forced Dannon to pay $45 million to customers who believed they had been swindled by false health claims.

So before making claims, keep in mind (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln) that you can fool some of the people sometimes, but you can’t fool everyone forever.

Are your products really scarce?
Thirty years ago, the makers of the popular Cabbage Patch Kids said, “We really create the market. We create the demand itself.” Parents fought in toy departments, as they were led to believe that there were only a few of these “precious” dolls left for their children during the 1983 holiday season.

But the company soon found themselves facing charges of false advertising by the Consumer Affairs Department in New York. They were right, scarcity increases demand. But they were wrong, because they lied.

A very simple solution: Tell the truth. If you say there are only 15 of a certain item left, you’ll lose all credibility when consumers learn that your stock room had many more.

Truth remains at the core of marketing, not because you should worry about getting caught lying, but because marketing is about building trust with your customers.

It’s my fervent belief that you can be — and should be — creative, persuasive and honest in your marketing strategies. With the right tools and focus, you can be a good guy and still win.

Jon Goldman is president of Brand Launcher and a board member of Jewish Entrepreneurial Trust (JET). To learn more about JET or to get involved, contact

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