17 replies
I may have just encountered my first ethical dilemma in my copywriting career, but I need to make sure it's ACTUALLY an ethical dilemma.

I closed a deal with a new client to write a VSL for him that loosely follows a VSL he wanted me to model from another company.

I asked him if he wanted to start out the VSL with testimonials, like the other company's VSL did. And he emailed me back:

"Yes it will start with testimonials in the same way, but you can word the testimonials differently with more impact." I thought he already HAD real testimonials he was going to use.

It gave me the impression that he would be hiring actors to recite them in the VSL, since the one he gave me to model after had the "actual people" giving the testimonials from their "webcams at home".

The thing is, this is a guy who has a lot of credibility, pictures with Richard Branson, testimonials on his website from credible people in the IM space (and I'd assume if he made THOSE up they'd be found by said credible people's teams... and he'd be forced to take them down). So he doesn't appear to be some random scamster.

So part of me wants to email him back and make sure he's being legit. But on the other hand he may know what he's doing. It may be legal to do that as long as the fake testimonials are also coming from "fictional" people... and you're not claiming a real person said something they didn't. It DID strike me as a BIT sketchy at first though.

But I realized--a lot of classic sales letters involve speaking in a "fictional" character's voice... so where is the line drawn there? Is it unethical when they're presented as testimonials?

What are your thoughts on this?
#ethical
  • Profile picture of the author Raydal
    Originally Posted by drewcer View Post

    The thing is, this is a guy who has a lot of credibility, pictures with Richard Branson, testimonials on his website from credible people in the IM space (and I'd assume if he made THOSE up they'd be found by said credible people's teams... and he'd be forced to take them down). So he doesn't appear to be some random scamster.
    99% of the times when you are impressed to ask that question, it is because
    the answer is, "No". If you are using fake testimonials, then that's not just unethical,
    it is WRONG and even illegal. There is no such thing as "fictional testimonials".
    It's either true or a lie.

    So I would clarify what he means by rewriting testimonials.

    And simply because someone is successful, doesn't make him ethical.
    As my mother always said, "Don't be jealous of anyone for what they have
    because you don't know how they got it."

    -Ray Edwards
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    • Profile picture of the author warm sunshine
      Banned
      Hi! Here's the way I see it:

      Someone once said, "Truthfulness is the foundation of all human virtues."

      In today's business climate, where there is so much unethical behavior, so many scams, so many lies, this standard of truthfulness can be hard to apply.

      And, in my opinion, unethical behavior of any kind, is still unacceptable.

      If it's not true, it's a lie or half truth. If the words are not the original words, this feels like deception. If the testimonial is not written by a real customer, this feels like a lie because the real customer didn't say it.

      I know this sounds black and white, and for me, it is.

      A counselor once told me, "It's not what you do in life that's important; it's who you are."

      If a person makes a million dollars by being the slightest bit unethical, he has been successful, but in my opinion, his character has been damaged.

      Someone once said, "The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun and the radiance thereof."

      I'd rather die penniless and be ethical, then die a rich person and be unethical. Why? Because this is who I try to be: honest with strong integrity. It ain't easy! But this helps me feel better about myself as a human being.

      This is just my two cents. There may be other Warriors who feel differently.

      The bottom line is that you need to do what you feel in the inmost being of who you are: your deepest gut feeling; what you'll feel okay about doing after you've done it.

      Follow your heart, and be willing to accept and deal with the consequences of your actions.

      warm sunshine
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      • Profile picture of the author marciayudkin
        Based on what you told us, it's quite possible there's a misunderstanding here. Before you draw the conclusion that this famous marketer is asking for something unethical, ask for clarification and write your question in such a way that you imply that the marketer is an honest person. Or, in such a way that you prompt him to behave like an honest person.

        Such as, "You mean feel free to reword the testimonials that you'll be sending me? I'm not sure how that would work if these are video testimonials from actual customers."

        Marcia Yudkin
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    • Profile picture of the author RichBeck
      Originally Posted by Raydal View Post

      99% of the times when you are impressed to ask that question, it is because
      the answer is, "No". If you are using fake testimonials, then that's not just unethical,
      it is WRONG and even illegal. There is no such thing as "fictional testimonials".
      It's either true or a lie.

      So I would clarify what he means by rewriting testimonials.

      And simply because someone is successful, doesn't make him ethical.
      As my mother always said, "Don't be jealous of anyone for what they have
      because you don't know how they got it."

      -Ray Edwards

      Ray,

      You were blessed with a VERY wise Mother.

      My grandfather used to ask, "Is that a lie or a true lie?" That was his "gentle" way of calling someone out. :-)

      All The Best,

      Rich
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      • Profile picture of the author MikeHumphreys
        This should not be considered legal advice. I'm not an attorney and do not have any aspirations of playing one either.

        Having said that, here's my take on testimonials as a copywriter:
        • It's illegal for you to create testimonials for your client's product. That's a FTC violation and makes you personally liable for consumer fraud on that product. If you're dealing with an investment or health-related product, then there's additional U.S. government agencies that get involved with phony testimonials. So don't ever create phony testimonials. It's not worth risking massive fines and/or jail time on behalf of your client.
        • It's okay to shorten a product testimonial as long as you follow industry standards. Meaning the part removed is represented by ellipses and the entire testimonial is in quotes.
        • It's okay to fix typos or misspelled words in a testimonial.
        • If the product has changed names since the testimonial was given, then it's okay to change the product name mentioned in the testimonial to the correct one. BUT the client has to have in their records when the original testimonial was given (i.e. a copy of the email which had the testimonial), the name of the product then and the date when the product's name was changed.
        • If a testimonial is be rewritten, then the testimonial giver has to be shown/emailed/mailed both versions and they must agree to the changes.

        Hope that helps with your current issue,

        Mike
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  • Profile picture of the author shawnlebrun
    You'd be amazed how many people do this.

    I've worked with some big name marketers that most people would know... and several of them asked me to "write testimonials" for the product.

    Thankfully, having been online for so long, I have several ways you can get testimonials for a product, fairly quickly, without making them up or going the dreaded Fiverr.com route.

    In fact, you may want to mention to your client how Amazon is cracking down on these fake Fiverr.com reviews... and nudge them into doing it right. Again, it's not that hard to let others try out the product, and give real, legit feedback.

    But it's ultimately your call, depending on if you have a signed contract, what's worded in it based on liability... you could be dragged into a suit should this end up going down that legal road.

    The most amazing thing about this?

    If you watch most of the big infomercials online these days... and I'm talking those that run continuously... if you look close when they bring up "success stories"... you'll often see in the smallest of writing under the people "Actor portrayals, these are not real customers" or something of that nature.

    so, you have huge infomercials that cost tens of thousands of dollars, being run on national TV, and they're using actors to portray success stories.

    Could that be thought of the same as using fake reviews or testimonials? I think so, but again, it's ultimately up to you, whether or not you'll do it. It's not my call to say "right or wrong".... but these days, with so many other ways to get testimonials, I don't know why marketers still have their testimonials made up.
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  • Profile picture of the author 1Bryan
    Originally Posted by drewcer View Post

    Richard Branson,
    Do you know how many people on the web have pics with Richard Branson? Tons. Just because you can get a photo with a celeb, doesn't mean they know you or endorse you in any way.

    Now that you know he's into faking it ...

    Don't you think he got a cheesy photo-op with Richard Branson and is just using it to try to imply some sort of relationship with a billionaire?
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  • Profile picture of the author drewcer
    Thanks for all the GREAT feedback. This reaffirms my original thoughts on the matter. I think I was rationalizing a bit there. But my integrity is much more important than this job. Don't want any "marketing demons" to come back and haunt me later. Or be held liable in a litigation.

    Just sent him an email to clarify what he's doing... and if he wants me to make up testimonials, and it's a deal breaker, I'll refund him the money.

    "Don't be jealous of anyone for what they have
    because you don't know how they got it."
    Thanks for that, Ray. I've definitely been guilty of that in the past and it will be a new affirmation for me.

    Drew
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    • Profile picture of the author Raydal
      Originally Posted by drewcer View Post

      Thanks for that, Ray. I've definitely been guilty of that in the past and it will be a new affirmation for me.

      Drew
      Oh, we all have at some time or the other. The grass always looks greener on the
      other side.

      -Ray Edwards
      Signature
      The most powerful and concentrated copywriting training online today bar none! Autoresponder Writing Email SECRETS
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  • Profile picture of the author onehalf
    Fake Testimonials – A lot of people are doing it, but it doesn’t mean it is ethical. I’m happy to know that conscientious copywriters like you still exist these days.
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  • Profile picture of the author EelKat
    Originally Posted by drewcer View Post

    I may have just encountered my first ethical dilemma in my copywriting career, but I need to make sure it's ACTUALLY an ethical dilemma.

    I closed a deal with a new client to write a VSL for him that loosely follows a VSL he wanted me to model from another company.

    I asked him if he wanted to start out the VSL with testimonials, like the other company's VSL did. And he emailed me back:

    "Yes it will start with testimonials in the same way, but you can word the testimonials differently with more impact." I thought he already HAD real testimonials he was going to use.

    It gave me the impression that he would be hiring actors to recite them in the VSL, since the one he gave me to model after had the "actual people" giving the testimonials from their "webcams at home".

    The thing is, this is a guy who has a lot of credibility, pictures with Richard Branson, testimonials on his website from credible people in the IM space (and I'd assume if he made THOSE up they'd be found by said credible people's teams... and he'd be forced to take them down). So he doesn't appear to be some random scamster.

    So part of me wants to email him back and make sure he's being legit. But on the other hand he may know what he's doing. It may be legal to do that as long as the fake testimonials are also coming from "fictional" people... and you're not claiming a real person said something they didn't. It DID strike me as a BIT sketchy at first though.

    But I realized--a lot of classic sales letters involve speaking in a "fictional" character's voice... so where is the line drawn there? Is it unethical when they're presented as testimonials?

    What are your thoughts on this?



    You know what this reminds me of? I'll tell you...

    I had a neighbor who wrote a book a few years ago, he'd talked about it for ages and was really excited when he finally had a vanity press print up 10,000 copies of it - which he kept in his garage. He gave free copies to every one on the street, so I have a copy of it, and I read it, and... ooohhh my!

    The first thing I noticed was on the cover was a photocopy of the gold seal book award from Oprah. Yep, he photocopied it and slapped it on the cover, and in the description on the Amazon book page BOLDLY lied and told people the book had been featured on the Oprah Show!

    Iiieeee!

    Next I'm reading the introduction that was "written" by Pres. Bill Clinton... Wha?

    I immediately went over and asked him, "How did you get Clinton to write an intro for your book?"

    His answer?

    "I hired a ghost writer to write it for him, but I knew he'd love the book, so I knew what he'd say."

    WOW!

    A few days later, I'm actually READING the book and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse...it does...

    It turns out that what he called "writing a book" was him taking all of his "how to make money" books and writing notes and highlights in the margins, than photocopying those pages - yep - full blown plagiarism here - and compiling all his favorite pages from a half dozen of his favorite books. In most cases his "notes" consisted of him simply underlining or circling passages, and then writing in the margin "Great Advice!" or "Be sure to do this!". And the book was 700 pages long.

    At no point did he make any notation of the author name or book titles of the books he photocopied, and so anyone who hadn't read them, would have thought he had actually written the words on the pages. I owned two of the books and recognized the pages immediately, and was able to track down the other 4 and found that in the case of 3 of the books, he had copied every single page.

    And this wasn't some kid - he was a 54 year old Intelligence Officer - a Major in the Air Force, with an office in the pentagon! He knew better then to do something like this and he did it anyways!

    Well, I told him this was wrong, what he was doing. Wrong and illegal on so many levels.

    He said, t wasn't wrong because he had mailed copies to Oprah and Bill Clinton and knew they'd be thrilled to see him advertising them on his book, and said, photocopying was okay, because the real authors had written stuff he agreed with and would have written anyways, so he didn't have to bother writing it down.

    Than he pointed out his author picture on the back (which I had not noticed was also fake until he pointed it out). It was a picture of him in a very real NASA astronaut uniform, sitting with very real NASA astronauts. It was a real, un photoshopped photo, from a trip he had taken as a TOURIST to NASA and because of his military rank, he'd convinced someone to let him wear a space suit and get photos with some real astronauts.

    Any one who looked at the photo and was unaware of the event, would have immediately assumed it was a group of astronauts taking photos before going into space.

    Here's the thing - his author bio covered the entire back cover of the book (there was no "about the book" blurb) and t read like a pick up bio off eharmony, right down to listing his age (which he put as 34 not 54), height (adding 3 inches), weight, favourite hobbies, what he liked to do on dates, what he was looking for in a woman, blah, blah, blah, AND listed his job as "NASA astronaut turned best selling author of Oprah recommend book"

    I said: "This isn't an author bio, it's a blurb for a dating site!"

    He says: "I know isn't it great, I'll have women lined up at my door."

    I'm going: "What?"

    Next he tells me, he's been going on Russian dating sites and found out Russian girls are hot for astronauts and authors, and that this entire book project was a great plan of his, to land a "hot Russian mail order bride". He says he's become penpals with a few dozen girls from these sites (adding that he's waiting for them to turn 18 so he can legally start dating them) and had to make this book so he could mail copies "to all the hot girls in Russia".

    *sigh*

    About a year later, he went to Russia and returned with a barely 18 year old Russian wife, and brought her over to meet me and said "See it worked?"

    I asked him: "What are you gonna do when she finds out you're 20 years older then you said, don't know Pres Clinton, never been on Oprah, never set foot on the moon, and aren't the millionaire your "book" claims you are?"

    He laughed and said: "She can't even speak English, how's she ever gonna find out?"

    Well, there was a flaw in his plan...Russian girls are not dumb illiterate bimbos, like he very obviously believed his wife to be...and while he was at work, she was secretly taking adult education classes to "surprise him" with her new found ability to speak and read English.

    Needless to say, three yeas later, she divorced him for deception and fraudulently getting her to marry him.

    When she left him, he immediately went back to the Russian sites to do it again, and told me that she was a "bad apple". He was MAD because she had learned English! He brought several other women to the USA from Russia in the next couple of years, but in every case, they left him. He eventually ended up switching from Russian to Ukrainian girls, stating that there were to many deceptive girls on those Russian site (I'm thinking - REALLY - you're calling THEM deceptive?) He wanted a girl that could speak English and would NOT want to learn English. He couldn't find one, because they'd always want to learn English to speak to their "future husband" and it infuriated him! I was so blown away by this guy's very demeaning attitude towards these women.

    The book remained on Amazon for 5 years, before Amazon noticed what it was a took it down for ToS violations.

    When they took it down, he wrote ANOTHER one! This time it was a book about religion/spirituality/etc instead of a how to make money book, because he said Ukraine woman were "into that sort of thing". He did the exact same thing all over again, fake aware seal on cover, fake intro by famous person, and this time a fake picture of him as a priest; but this time he didn't put it on Amazon saying: "I learned my lesson with those cheats!"

    I think this event goes down as the weirdest encounter I've ever had with an "author". What amazed me was that after talking with him, (several times, because he was a neighbor and I saw him several times a week for decades) it was very clear that he knew what he was doing was wrong, unethical, and illegal - he just didn't care. He laughed and joked about it and acting like it was all a big game.

    The thing that really upset me, was his whole attitude was like, he was the greatest thing to walk the earth, he was gods gift to EVERYONE, and so he was above laws and ethics. He simply dd not care that he was lying and stealing, and what was worse, was, he didn't care about the women he was doing this to get to, either. He acted like they were dime a dozen toys, and he acted like, there was nothing wrong with plagiarism and fraud, so long as it got him what he wanted in the end. He was an out right scam artists, stealing the hard work of other authors and trying to use it to pick up women.

    And you know what really troubles me? the fact that this guy, is not the only one doing stuff like this. It just seems like there is always somebody out there trying to pull a scam on somebody else. It bothers me a lot that those kinds of selfish people are taking advantages of others.
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    • Profile picture of the author HealthBuff
      LOL I think you should flesh this story out and publish it yourself!
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  • Profile picture of the author marks2424
    Like so many others have said ask the guy what he means, if he says he wants testimonials to be written from scratch then you know, you could word your question do you want me to rewrite the testimonials because the people that gave them to him sound uneducated and aren't using good grammar and aren't using good descriptive words. You could come up with something that would make him think you aren't accusing him of something.
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  • Profile picture of the author drewcer
    EelKat, that's crazy, that guy might have been a sociopath, and maybe NPD as well.

    Cleared it up with the client. He said not to worry about it, they have testimonials they can use. If they do end up making up the testimonials, I won't be a part of it.
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  • Profile picture of the author iSixty
    Fake testimonials are a hot button with the FTC. Even real testimonials are strictly regulated under the latest FTC rules. It wouldn't hurt to ask your client if he or she has considered the endorsement and testimonial rules before putting something out there that could potentially grab the FTC's attention. This is especially true for someone who is a "bigger" player.
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  • Profile picture of the author kk075
    Originally Posted by drewcer View Post

    I may have just encountered my first ethical dilemma in my copywriting career, but I need to make sure it's ACTUALLY an ethical dilemma.
    While I read your entire post, I really didn't need to move past the above comment. Is it an ethical dilemma for you or not?

    If it is, then turn down the job. If it's not, then do what the customer asks. But it's really not for me or anyone else here to decide what your conscience tells you...because we have absolutely no idea.

    Now, if the question was if I would personally write the page copy, it all depends on the product and the client. I have no problem writing a fictitious review that says a skateboard is lots of fun to ride, but I will NEVER make up facts that would deceive the end user into making a purchase that they ultimately won't want. Or even worse, harm them in some way. I just don't need the money that badly.

    Again though, that's for you and you alone to decide- somebody writes all that smut out there and there's no reason why it can't be you. The only real question is whether you are okay with it or not.
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  • Profile picture of the author PollyPotter
    Banned
    Personally, if I feel uncomfortable you should go with your gut feeling.

    Your name is attached to the copy piece that you are writing and you probably do not want the word liar attached to you just because you got paid for a job.

    Always trust your guy instinct. Turning down work sometimes is essential to ensure that your career grows and so that you can sleep at night.
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