Ethics and the Day of Reckoning for Direct Marketers

by Dean Rieck

This was written by special request for Direct Marketing Magazine back in 1998. While some of the examples are a little out of date, the point is still valid.

And it came to pass that direct marketing multiplied upon the face of the earth. And the vanity and wickedness of direct response advertisers became great. And the attorneys general looked upon the industry, and, behold, it was corrupt.

And in one voice the attorneys general spoke unto the sinners, saying, "I have given thee great persuasive power and thou hast used it not for good, but for evil." And a great cloud passed over the land. Lightning smote the mountain tops and the earth did tremble with thunder.

And the attorneys general said, "For thy wickedness I shall punish thee. Thou shalt offer up to me a portion of thy wealth. And I shall bind thy feet so that they may no longer walk in crooked ways. But wait, there's more! For I shall also twist and pull and hurt thy tongues, so that they may no longer speak lies except with a noticeable lisp so that all shall know thy deception."

And the marketing executives they did moan and wail. And the copywriters and consultants did gnash their teeth. And the creative directors did rend their designer shirts. And the nonprofit CEOs did wobble and faint upon the crush-resistant carpeting of their offices. And the publishers did find 27 quick ways to weep. And the telemarketers did cast down their predictive dialers and were struck dumb between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. And the credit card marketers were not at all happy, though they suffered less since they were so busy mailing 83 pieces of plastic to every man, woman, and creditworthy college student each day.

And the land grew quiet and the cash registers sat idle. And the attorneys general they did smile, saying, "It is good."

* * *

A joke or a prediction?

I think it may be a prediction. And the day of reckoning may come sooner than we think. The signs are all around us ...

The fast-talking boiler room bandits selling fictitious gold mines over the phone to poor little old widows.

The cleverer-than-thou crooks luring hapless would-be entrepreneurs with ads that bark, "Become a millionaire in a year. Just send $5 for information," and then mailing a letter that enthusiastically tells the suckers to place similar ads to get 200,000 other suckers to mail them $5.

The criminals running phony sweepstakes, fronting crooked charities, selling flimsy products, mailing phantom billings, and committing all manner of reprehensible rip-offs.

These are the shadowy figures that Americans see hiding their faces from the cameras of 60 Minutes. They are the villains that stain our good reputation and cause more and more people to distrust our practical and otherwise honest way of doing business.

But before we start feeling too holy, let me suggest that the problem doesn't end with obvious scams. Every day you can see reputable companies using what many people even in our own industry consider to be questionable techniques, such as ...

And what about the little things? The limited-time offers that aren't really limited? The enthusiastic testimonials that don't represent the average user of a product? The emotional stories that are fabricated for fundraising letters?

What about the doctored photos? The over-promising of benefits? The legal teeny type that conceals important information? The over-the-top language used in so many hard-sell promotions?

In the long run, we may be hurt more by all this over-enthusiastic selling than by overt scams, because it just keeps reinforcing the ugly old stereotypes of direct marketing.

The Legal Fallout

For the record, I believe most of us who make our living in this industry are honest, hardworking people. I think most of our techniques are both effective and ethical if used correctly. And I also believe — without any doubt — that advertising and marketing of all kinds have done more to make this a land of plenty than all the work of all the consumer groups and government regulators combined. Just visit any third-world country, without a strong, market-driven economy, and see the difference for yourself.

Furthermore, I wholeheartedly endorse the direct marketing philosophy. For many businesses, it's the smartest, most accountable way of moving quality products, generating productive sales leads, and raising funds for good causes.

But our blasé attitude toward ethics and the perceptions of the American public is hurting us. Just look at sweepstakes giant American Family Publishers. They pumped up the excitement in their mailings, implying in one that the contestant is competing against just one other person for the grand prize and urging in another that the contestant must respond in five business days to claim the prize.

Clever and effective. But also expensive, since AFP was pounced on by attorneys general in 32 states, resulting in a $1.25 million settlement and promises to reform their tactics. One expert has predicted that there will be a 30% to 40% decline in sweepstakes marketing next year, and publishers will lose up to 1.5 million subscribers.

And consider those telemarkers who thought it would be profitable to sell investments in penny stocks, foreign currencies, gourmet coffee shops, and ostrich farms. It was. They just weren't too concerned about how far they bent the rules to make a buck. So securities regulators in 29 states launched an attack of D-Day proportions. The body count is presently at 106 as state authorities fire off legal actions like a machine gun into the crowd of telemarketers.

And then there's privacy, always headline news and perhaps the biggest issue facing our industry today. Too many organizations have gone overboard in collecting data and have lost sight of the fact that the public neither understands how we use data nor approves of personal information being so readily available. The result? At last count, there were about 80 privacy bills under consideration in Congress and over 2,000 in various state legislatures.

Where Have All the Ethics Gone?

For an industry that thinks of itself as smarter than the average bear, we seem to be doing some pretty stupid things. And maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe we're too smart. Perhaps we've tested and psyched out our selling techniques so finely and for so long that we've lost objectivity about what we're doing, mistaking what works with what's right. Perhaps our techniques have evolved faster than our ethics.

The real question is not whether a particular technique is right or wrong, the question is do we consider whether it's right or wrong? Do we routinely make ethics part of our evaluation process?

Not according to one study. In the Journal of Consumer Affairs (Winter 1994), Joel J. Davis reported on a startling survey, revealing that most advertising professionals are influenced by legal issues, not ethics. A popular stance being "If it is legal, it is acceptable" or "If it is legal, why shouldn't we do it?" Granted, this was a survey of general advertisers, but I think you would get the same results with direct marketers.

Why do so many professionals think like this?

We've become so accustomed to judging everything with a calculator, ethics have gotten lost in our equations.

Ironically, while one could make a case that general advertising, with its slick images and culture-wide psychological impact, is more of an ethical problem than our "call us today for your miracle squeegee" sales pitches, I believe they are not in as much danger as are we.

The public seems willing to put up with the puffery and superlatives — even the outright lying — of mass market advertisers, because they consider it a form of entertainment. People enjoy talking frogs and pouting models. It's fun. And people know it's a kind of game.

But mention "direct mail," and people think "junk." Bring up "telemarketing," and people squeal "scam." We've always had a bad rap, but it's getting worse.

And the real irony? We're supposed to be direct. Personal. One-to-one. And when you wear that suit, any little stain shows. We say, "Trust us. It's just you and me." But when people find out you're anything less than totally honest, the game's up. And people have long memories.

Haven't you ever wondered why we so readily accept a percentage point or two as a good response? Why some people are "direct mail responsive" and others aren't? Why some buy from catalogs, the Internet, or home shopping shows, and other don't? It's because of distrust. And you really can't blame people.

Is Our Luck Running Out?

We have been successful with our techniques for generations because we have operated quietly in dark corners for so long. Now we're more visible. The media is shining a light on us. The public is getting wise. We're loosing the good will of potential customers. And we risk harsh government regulations.

We had a reprieve back in the 70s, when the consumer movement threatened nasty new rules for all advertising. Heightened attention and a few federal hearings on advertising practices woke up everyone, and we all fell in line with self-regulation. And, luckily, the FTC during the Reagan and Bush administrations accepted a go-slow approach to consumer protection, taking a "caveat emptor" stance.

Most, I believe, would prefer self-regulation. Walter J. O'Brien, former president and COO of J. Walter Thompson USA, advocated this view in the July 1998 issue of Nation's Business, saying that self-regulation is preferable to government regulation, where "there is always a wrongdoer." He is quoted as saying, "Our perspective is: What can we do to make advertising truthful and accurate? That's good for the consumer and the advertiser because if the consumer has confidence, it works for advertisers."

But this view is not shared by all, especially not by many of the businesses in the trenches fighting a daily war with competitors and increasingly fickle buyers. "I think the situation is out of control," says Russell Trenholme, president of Vision World, a chain of optical retail shops. "In the past 10 to 20 years there's been an enormous increase in the volume of advertising, and there are more extravagant claims and more deceptive claims than ever."

The result is that consumer groups have stopped relying on the Better Business Bureau and are starting to play hardball, turning to state attorneys general, who have the power to impose hefty fines and extract legally-binding agreements.

Making Ethics Part of the Equation

Perhaps we need to hop into the wayback machine and travel back to the age of two, when we were learning basic ethics, especially the difference between truth and lies. We didn't have too much trouble knowing the difference then, did we? You sneak a cookie from the cookie jar. Your Mom walks in as you take a bite. Does Mom think your story about an alien forcing you to eat sweets under threat of a ray blaster is clever? No. Because you both know it's a lie, no matter how believable and well-crafted your story.

We learn to lie young, but we forget how to spot the truth as we grow up. We become more practical. More worldly. We want results.

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:

  1. You know the difference between truth and falsehood.
  2. You choose the falsehood over the truth.
  3. 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 of everything we do, from the biggest promotion to the smallest technique:

Of course, 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.

Frankly, I believe there is great power in the truth. Truth sells. And it offers some very practical benefits:

When you set aside random techniques and key your message to a truth, your creative job becomes much easier. You will end up with a more cohesive and believable message. You preserve your credibility.

What happens if your search for the big truth turns up a big problem? Like 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.

And what if you can't do anything about the unpleasant truth? It tells you what reasonably intelligent prospects may think about your product anyway. So you'll be better prepared to take on the task of selling, knowing your real challenge. Or perhaps you can find another truth about your product.

Different Points of View

So, where do you stand on this issue?

Are you a pragmatist, concerned only with the bottom-line results of your promotional efforts? If so, you believe the end justifies the means, that little deceptions are okay as long as the overall results are beneficial for everyone.

Or are you an idealist, considering the rightness or wrongness of each of your actions in absolute terms? If so, you don't judge the means by the end, you demand that the means be right. No form of deception is ever acceptable no matter what.

Perhaps you're a relativist, with your ethics operating on a sliding scale, depending on the time, place, and situation you happen to be in. You just depend on common sense or experience to tell you if you've gone too far.

Or you may even hold the so-called "professional view." Your job isn't to ponder ethics, but merely benefit your employer. You have the same view as does an aggressive defense lawyer, who will do nearly anything to promote the well-being of his client, trusting the legal system to draw the lines.

I really can't say which view is best. But I do believe that we need to make a greater effort to make ethics part of the equation. It has to be more than attending an ethics seminar and feeling good about ourselves because we've done the "ethics thing."

Otherwise, we may one day hear a trumpet blast that signals the day of reckoning for us all. And there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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