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When Does Aggressive Marketing Become Unethical Behavior?

At a conference recently, a speaker confided to the audience that he often wrote articles about himself in the third person. In other words, he reported on his own accomplishments as if he were an independent interviewer or other third party. On other occasions, his wife would write about him or review a book without disclosing the relationship (they have different last names). He also self-published his books from his own publishing company, claiming they are commercially published.

Is this simply hard-nosed aggressive marketing, or does it cross the line into deceit? I can tell you this: A large part of the audience was enraged by his “confession” and several demanded an ethics investigation. I was impressed that so many people found his activities to be at least suspect.

I believe it’s absolutely correct to blow the heck out of your own horn if what you’re saying is factually true. In other words, volume alone is never unethical, though it may be annoying. So to say that you’ve consulting with 47 Fortune 100 companies or written 11 commercially-published books is fine if true. I think you’d agree that the statement “almost half of the Fortune 100” would be acceptable, and that “almost a dozen” is within bounds (though “more than ten” tells me immediately that it’s 11!).

However, if you were to say that you’ve been called by virtually every Fortune 100 company or that you’re one of the most prolific authors in the world (as I actually read one speaker claim, despite the fact he had written maybe a dozen, virtually unknown books), I’d have to draw the line. Yet even these are exaggerations, no matter how far-fetched and no matter the world-class poetic license involved.

The line is seriously crossed when we engage in fraud, deceit, and subterfuge. One consultant told me that he has two phones in his office representing his two companies, one of which refers customers to the other. He answers each phone in a different voice, pretending to be two different CEOs. That’s utter nonsense and, in my mind, quite unethical. Inventing clients is similarly way over the line: Another consultant I confronted, claiming to be active in one of my own clients where I had never set eyes on him, finally sheepishly admitted that he had actually gone to a sales meeting at the firm once, but had been unsuccessful. From that inauspicious beginning, the company made his client list!

I don’t believe we cross the line when we agree to provide a methodology which we have never previously delivered. (It’s one thing to say, “I can do that,” but another to say, “I have done that.” The latter is simply a lie, the former is a statement of intent and belief.) But it’s something else again to engage in the methodology poorly and simply invent the results (e.g., a survey sample which you report without proper scientific controls, or a market analysis without proper investigatory techniques which you simply guess about).

The range of marketing and promotion runs, therefore, from fact (I’ve worked with the Acme company), to exaggeration (I’ve worked with the likes of the Acme company), to unethical behavior (claiming a reference at the Acme company), to illegal behavior (using a competitor’s report from the Acme company as your own). I believe the test criteria are simple: What would happen if your prospects, clients, and friends found out the truth? (This is the famous “stink” test.)

That consultant who readily provided third person stories about himself doesn’t pass my stink test. I wouldn’t be proud of doing what he does, and would never allow my wife to review my books! (She might give them a bad review in any case…) All of us have to make these calls for ourselves. But I don’t think any of us would want a room full of listeners to be aghast at our practices.

That line in the sand doesn’t wash away with the tide. It’s amazingly constant.