Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don’t go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one’ll hire you in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Those are lyrics from a song performed by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in the movie Ishtar, one of the worst (and sporadically one of the funniest) comedies ever made.
Whatever you think of the movie, you can’t argue with the message of that song. Telling the truth can be dangerous business, especially if you work in direct marketing.
It’s dangerous because clients with crappy products expect you to lie, and telling the truth can get you in hot water with people writing the checks.
But I prefer to think that telling the truth is good for selling and for the whole direct marketing industry.
Think about it. Have you ever wondered why some people are direct mail responsive and others are not? Why some buy from catalogs, the Internet, or home shopping shows, and others wouldn’t even consider it?
There are lots of reasons, of course. But I’m convinced that one of them is good old-fashioned distrust. And you really can’t blame people.
With all the phony sweepstakes, crooked charities, flimsy products, faux invoices, free offers with suspiciously large shipping and handling charges, and other rip-offs and slights of hand, people have good reason to distrust direct marketers.
For the record, I think most people in direct marketing are honest most of the time. And I’ve been highly fortunate to work with hundreds of businesses who make an effort to sell good products and services and treat customers with respect.
But in the rush to meet sales goals, and with growing competition, pressure mounts to start telling those little fibs and white lies to move the sales needle.
Of course, if you do that often enough, you start losing track of what’s true and what’s a lie. It’s a slippery slope.
So for those of us who want to stay on the straight and narrow, let’s take a friendly little refresher course in basic honesty.
In Telling Lies, Paul Ekman gets right to the heart of the matter, saying that you’re lying if you meet these three simple conditions:
- You know the difference between truth and falsehood.
- You choose the falsehood over the truth.
- You tell the falsehood without consent from or a warning to the other person.
He also defines two distinct ways of lying: concealment and falsifying.
Concealment is withholding information. You may not actually say anything untrue, but the omission prevents the other person from making an informed choice. Falsifying goes one step further and presents false information as if it is true.
From these simple concepts, we can create a short list of questions that we should ask about everything we do in direct marketing:
- What is the truth about this product, service, or cause?
- Am I telling the truth in my selling message?
- Does my prospect understand that this is a solicitation?
- Am I concealing or omitting any facts my prospect would want to know?
- Am I falsifying any information?
- Is any element of my message or format misleading?
- What is my intention with this technique?
- Does my success depend on trickery?
- What would my customers think if they knew what I was doing to get their business?
- What are the long-term consequences of what I am doing?
The ultimate question is: Can you be truthful and profitable?
Suppose you answer that question “no.” What does that say about you? There’s something seriously wrong if a business reaches a point where deception is a requirement for profit.
What happens if your search for the truth turns up a problem? Maybe your product stinks. Or the offer is lousy. Or the sales claims are unfounded. Well, that tells you something too, doesn’t it? It tells you that you need a better product, a better offer, or improved features.
I believe there is great power in the truth. Truth sells. When you set aside the tricky techniques and focus on a truth, you end up with a more cohesive and believable message. You preserve your credibility.
From a message point of view, truth is simpler, more compelling, easier. If you search for truth, you may even find buried benefits and reveal the true value of a product, which can help your message resonate with prospects.
Most importantly, truth is the only way to build and maintain trust in our industry and make more people responsive to our sales pitches.
Personally, I’ve turned away businesses hawking rip-off products. I’ve scolded clients for unethical offers. And I’m not at all bashful about quoting the DMA’s various publications on ethical business.
But you really don’t need an armload of reference material to decipher ethical questions. It’s simple: when in doubt, tell the truth.