Honesty Matters: 12 Marketing Tactics to Avoid At All Costs

Guest Post by Marcia Yudkin

You want to run an honest business, right? It’s easy to lose your moral compass when you hear prominent marketers talk up shady marketing tactics and see them hail the results they get through fakery, verbal sleight-of-hand, or outright lying.

So here’s a handy list of marketing moves to rule out when you want to have the trust and respect of long-term customers and the public at large.


One well-known information marketing guru laughingly told a conference that he gets lots of last-minute orders by telling prospects that only, let’s say, 5 product sets are left, when in fact, he’d gladly sell 500 more. Fake scarcity also crops up when someone says the price will go up after the next X units are sold, yet the marketer doesn’t raise the price, or when a sale is supposed to end Saturday, and it’s still there on Sunday. Clearly, all these examples show a lack of integrity. Even if you think “everyone does it,” you have the option of taking the higher ground.


Certain phrases enrich marketers by triggering guilt, shame, confusion or fear in customers. One marketer says you can reduce refund requests by saying, “and if you’re not satisfied, I’ll refund you out of my own pocket.” This implies the refund comes from the marketer’s money and is that right, to make the seller suffer because you weren’t happy with your purchase? Actually, it’s really the customer’s own payment that would be coming back to them when they return something for a refund. Don’t perpetrate twisted tactics like this.


The classic move in this category is getting photographed beside a Rolls Royce parked in front of a mansion. The car is rented, though, and the mansion belongs to someone else. Inflating your lifestyle, your credentials, your depth of experience – it’s all wrong and can boomerang on you disastrously when an ex-friend, investigative blogger, a lawsuit exposes you.


A whole industry flourished for a while devoted to the aim of achieving something that would be technically true yet highly misleading to the average person. If you engineer a relatively small number of sales in a short period of time, you can reach the #1 rank in an Amazon.com category and call your book a “bestseller.” The intention here is to deceive people into thinking thousands or tens of thousands of copies sold when the actual tally might have been less than a hundred.


Take a cold, hard look at your headlines. Are you promising results that your buyer desperately desires and probably will not get? “From Couch Potato to Beach Bikini Goddess Without Diet or Exercise!” “Become the Talk of the Town With Your Google Places Listing.” A little bit of drama to get attention might be okay, but over-the-top promises have no place in a respectable business.


Someone selling thousand-dollar home-study courses once gleefully described a new technique he’d come up with, designed to make it harder for people to return his products for a refund. It was impossible to open his mailing package without shredding it, so any customer would have to find or buy a box to send the course back in order to invoke the money-back guarantee. When your goal is having happy buyers rather than lots of unhappy ones who never ask for their money back, this kind of chicanery makes no sense.


Here the pitch warns that if you don’t buy the product, competitors who do will leave you in the dust. Do you have any genuine basis for that kind of a prediction? If yes, explain. If not, then it’s nothing but hot air, hype, and hoopla. Don’t go there.


When a marketing guru says you’re foolish to care about quality and that “good enough” wins the day, shut your ears. Never deliberately leave mistakes, oversights, glitches or holes in your work. If you have something you’re tempted to apologize for, fix it before you go to market. Remember that with today’s ubiquitous online reviews and social media, complaints are easier than ever to post.


Sometimes you’ll see two or even three emails in a row from the same source, with the second and third correcting an error in the link in the first email. Unfortunately, some marketers have figured out that those second and third emails get more attention for the message than the first one, and they occasionally create this sequence deliberately. Do this on purpose and then make a genuine error you have to correct, and you begin to look hopelessly incompetent.


Ever grind your teeth because you signed up for a webinar or conference to learn the featured content only to suffer through an extended pitch for a new product or event instead? Call a preview a preview, so customers understand what they’re getting into. Don’t invite visitors to your website to download a “report” that is little more than a promotion. Earn trust by setting up accurate expectations.


When you describe something as “free,” that means it has no cost. Period. Something that the customer receives only when they buy something else is not free. Marketers often fudge this because they understand the power of the word “free.” Customers get disgusted because they were attracted and then fooled by the word “free.”


Testing helps us determine what works better than what. However, some marketers go beyond the usefulness of testing to claim that whatever gets a better response is always the better tactic. A little voice inside you worrying that maybe a headline, a selling technique or a marketing spiel goes too far is irrelevant, they say. On the contrary, giving that little voice a fair hearing can often keep you from getting customer backlash and negative media attention. It also helps you maintain your self-respect!

All in all, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable having something be exposed on the front page of the newspaper, engraved on your tombstone or part of your entry interview at the pearly gates, don’t do it. Guard your reputation. Treasure your conscience.

marciayudkinMarcia Yudkin is a copywriter, marketing expert and business coach, as well as the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, now in its third edition, and 15 other books. She particularly works with introverts, social entrepreneurs, health educators, coaches and consultants. Learn more about no-hype marketing through her No-Hype Marketing Academy.

  • Justin Bonnet

    Love this, thank you Marcia!