Ethics Question In Sales Letters...

by Rachel Rofe 37 replies
Curious to know what your opinion is on this...

If someone writes a sales letter and makes the main character
someone who doesn't really exist...

("I used to have "X" problem, and it SUCKED! But I learned to do
x, x, and x... created this guide... and everything's awesome now!")

Do you find that to be unethical since that person doesn't
actually exist? Or would you consider the main character a
representation of the average buyer?
#main internet marketing discussion forum #ethics #letters #question #sales
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  • Profile picture of the author zapseo
    Did the "Marlboro Man" exist?

    I mean, as the image he portrayed -- the cowboy?
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  • Profile picture of the author waken
    Originally Posted by Rachel Rofe View Post

    Curious to know what your opinion is on this...

    If someone writes a sales letter and makes the main character
    someone who doesn't really exist...

    ("I used to have "X" problem, and it SUCKED! But I learned to do
    x, x, and x... created this guide... and everything's awesome now!")

    Do you find that to be unethical since that person doesn't
    actually exist? Or would you consider the main character a
    representation of the average buyer?
    There are more unethical methods employed in sales letter ie. Fake testimonials, fake proof, etc.

    Buyers have to be prudent themselves when making judgement as there is no way to control these people..
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    • Profile picture of the author Rachel Rofe
      Originally Posted by waken View Post

      Buyers have to be prudent themselves when making judgement as there is no way to control these people..
      Agreed... but me, as a copywriter... would it be wrong for me to
      make up these characters?

      (I agree testimonials, fake proof, etc. are worse for sure - but still
      don't want to do something that's "less wrong", you know?)
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      • Profile picture of the author chriswight
        It's not unethical at all. Every ad on tv that has someone extolling the virtues of a product they've supposedly used is just an actor- a made up character. They usually have a "*results may vary" or "dramatization" disclaimer in illegibly small text in a lower corner of the screen, just in case you thought Joe Customer just happened to also be really good on camera.

        I think creating a character as a representation of the typical customer is incredibly common, and a great way to tap into the emotions of the consumer. Just make sure that you really believe in what it is you're selling, that you're offering real value, and any moral quandaries should fall by the wayside.
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      • Profile picture of the author Alton Hargrave
        In general, when you have to ask if something is alright to do, it usually means that you already disapprove of it.

        Personally, I think sales pages should strive to be truthful. From testimonials to "proof of earnings". If the reader ever thinks that it is all fabricated, it is a lost cause.

        Alton
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        • Profile picture of the author Alexandre Valois
          Creating a character for marketing purpose is alright by me.

          The problem comes from attributing yourself of the person that you represent fake credential ...
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          • Brian's got it, Rach...

            It's all about keeping the creativity away from the facts. This is a big chunk of my business, so I know.

            And, as I often say... There is no Ronald McDonald... the CEO of Jack in The Box isn't an antenna ball married to a blonde human... When I crack open a roll of Pop N Fresh, a little doughy man in a baker's hat doesn't come out to assist me.

            Creativity isn't lying... and lying isn't creative. Stay creative and stay far away from the lying about the product... how good it is... and all that.
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        • Profile picture of the author James Liberty
          Yeah, I would vote against it.

          I mean, if you portraying the person in the sales letter as a real person... and he or she doesn't really exist... then yeah... uhhhh... that's a problem.

          That said, if I remember correctly, the word "imagine" can be a very powerful word in sales copy. So maybe instead of making-up a character and pretending that he/she is real, you could instead say something like...

          "Imagine what it would be like to be stuck working in an office building for 50 hours a week with no way out..."

          or

          "Imagine how embarrassed that girl in high school must have felt to always have her face covered in acne..."

          In this way, you can still create an effective story without having to... lie.

          Also, if you were to conjure up a story and portray it as the truth, how are you going to respond when you go to a conference and someone says, "Hey, how's your friend Paul doing?"

          To which your only reply could be, "Uhhhh.... ummmm...."

          At that point, you either have to admit that he doesn't really exist, sending your credibility down the tubes... or, you have to tell another lie, sending your credibility even FURTHER down the tubes.

          Anyway, I think I'm giving some good advice here... but I can't take credit for it: I learned this from Jay White.
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  • Profile picture of the author Chipt
    I'm with James...

    And I went through all JW's email content as well, too...

    But one thing that bothers and conflicts me about all this talk is the old adage that "If the truth won't sell it, don't sell it."

    So where do you draw the line when you factor in 'honesty?'

    That said, I have zero problem using the word 'imagine' because then I can craft any story I wish to use to make any point I want to make. I just never say or pretend that it is the truth or a fact...

    Chip Tarver
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    • Profile picture of the author SpeedDemon
      I think it also depends on what you're selling. The first thing that came to mind was the usual "make money online" guides where someone claims to have made $xxxx using their product.

      I'd have more of a problem with a fake story there than I would with someone claiming to have solved their bad breath problem or something like that. No idea if that distinction makes any rational sense though.
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      • Profile picture of the author ExRat
        Hi,

        I don't think it's unethical.

        What I DO find particularly interesting is this -

        This sort of question gets asked a lot, and every time a few people will suggest that it IS ethical BECAUSE this is what happens in TV advertising.

        I also understand the reasons why people make this analogy. But I wonder if anyone else has considered how absurd it is to suggest that because a technique is widely used in television advertising it is therefore an ethical technique?

        Does this stem from the subliminal power that TV has upon us due to it being an essential item of furniture in the living rooms of the majority of houses?
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        • Profile picture of the author Barry Plaskow
          Originally Posted by ExRat View Post

          Hi,

          I don't think it's unethical.

          What I DO find particularly interesting is this -

          This sort of question gets asked a lot, and every time a few people will suggest that it IS ethical BECAUSE this is what happens in TV advertising.

          I also understand the reasons why people make this analogy. But I wonder if anyone else has considered how absurd it is to suggest that because a technique is widely used in television advertising it is therefore an ethical technique?

          Does this stem from the subliminal power that TV has upon us due to it being an essential item of furniture in the living rooms of the majority of houses?
          Totally agree-as if TV is the bench mark for what is ethical! According to that idea,violence would also be ok since it is heavily portrayed on the box.

          Barry
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  • Profile picture of the author Barry Plaskow
    Originally Posted by Rachel Rofe View Post

    Curious to know what your opinion is on this...

    If someone writes a sales letter and makes the main character
    someone who doesn't really exist...

    ("I used to have "X" problem, and it SUCKED! But I learned to do
    x, x, and x... created this guide... and everything's awesome now!")

    Do you find that to be unethical since that person doesn't
    actually exist? Or would you consider the main character a
    representation of the average buyer?
    Great question Rachel-I am glad you brought it up.

    I was discussing with Harlan Kilstein on a pre recorded call for the "Marketing Masters" series exactly that question-what represents unethical usage of persuasion?

    I asked because I was incensed by a recent request I received from a marketer asking me to promote his product. I received zero information about the nature of the product just that it has brilliant copy and uses buzz words such as the recession to persuade people to buy.

    Harlan is very critical of many copywriting and IM practices such as forced continuity and
    scarcity especially when it is blatantly deceitful.

    I think this is the bottom line-does the reader recognise that the main charecter is fictitious or does the reader think that the charecter is real? I believe if it is the former,then it would be problematic.

    I am in no doubt that the net is changing and there will be little room for these tactics in coming years.

    It is refreshing for a copywriter like yourself to be asking such a question.

    Thanks!

    Barry Plaskow
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  • Profile picture of the author Chipt
    I'm seeing all sorts of rationale in various replies above when it is "ok" to stretch the truth [aka lie] and when it isn't.

    So here's the bottom line...

    Regardless of the reason or circumstance, is what you're saying is that you feel 100% sure, certain, and comfortable that it's ok to lie about a product or its spokesperson in whatever fashion to increase its sales?

    Yes or no?

    Or is it not ok 100% of the time?

    Or do you stick to the position that sometimes it's ok to lie and other times it isn't???

    Chip Tarver

    PS - I am excepting the 'imagine' scenario mentioned above because you are asking a person to imagine a situation, and that's all, if it is handled properly... as well as Betty Crocker, the Marlboro Man, etc. because IMO they are the 'imagine' equation brought to life...
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    • Profile picture of the author Jelasco
      ExRat, why is it so hard to understand that when a technique is widely used offline, people might tend to assume it is OK? I'm not saying that automatically means it is OK, just pointing out why people might think so.

      If someone hasn't read the rules of this forum, after a few minutes of reading they could make all sorts of assumptions about what is OK, some of which might be wrong.

      I often wonder why we self-employed small business owners are apparently supposed to have a stricter set of rules to follow than other companies do.

      Just about everything people will dismiss here as "unethical" is commonly done by offline businesses.
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      • Profile picture of the author ExRat
        Hi Jelasco,

        ExRat, why is it so hard to understand that when a technique is widely used offline, people might tend to assume it is OK? I'm not saying that automatically means it is OK, just pointing out why people might think so.
        It's not hard for me to understand, hence my comment -
        I also understand the reasons why people make this analogy
        I often wonder why we self-employed small business owners are apparently supposed to have a stricter set of rules to follow than other companies do.

        Just about everything people will dismiss here as "unethical" is commonly done by offline businesses.
        Lol.
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  • Profile picture of the author Rachel Rofe
    Hrmmm... interesting responses, guys.

    Thanks for all of them.
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    • Profile picture of the author Collette
      I think there's actually two parts to your question, Rachel.

      Making up a character to illustrate a representation of an average buyer is not a big deal (IMHO). Ad agencies do it all the time.

      But having the imaginary character say they used the product and it solved their problem (when in fact no such character exists and so couldn't have used the product), is leaning toward distinctly shady (again, IMHO).

      A way around this would be to use your testimonials from actual users to create a composite character (let's call him "Joe") with a composite, fact-based experience. And reveal to the reader that "Joe" is not his real name.

      Fine print can save yer azz.

      And, really, karma is a beyotch.
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      • Profile picture of the author MikeHumphreys
        Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV. Here's what I know but it's up to you to make your own choices.

        I've taken the time to talk to an attorney to make sure I was legally protected before accepting or declining any "grey area" copywriting projects in the past.

        Here's a quick way I usually explain it when asked:

        Creating a character = good (Ronald McDonald)
        Creating a story to sell the product = good (Wall Street Journal story of 2 men)

        Making up testimonials or other proof elements = bad
        Lying about what your product can or will do = really bad

        The last two can get you tossed in jail by the FTC or one of the consumer watchdog agencies in the U.S.

        The reason why you can be found criminally liable is that the US government considers you to be part of the "group" that defrauds consumers. That group can include web designers, copywriters, article writers, hosting companies, and more.

        Bottom line: If you aren't sure if you should accept a project of questionable ethics, then you probably shouldn't do it.

        Hope that helps,

        Mike
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        • Profile picture of the author Alan Petersen
          If it's backed up by real stats it's fine to have a character representation in advertising. The "I'm not a real Doctor but I play one on TV" syndrome.

          I was thinking about the same thing (ethics)in sales letter. I just read one that claims that 97% of affiliate marketers make less than $200 per month. There was no source quoted or anything to back it up. Although I believe that most affiliates do in fact make little money, I was wondering where did they get that stat. I even clicked the on their "disclaimer" link but nothing.
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          • Profile picture of the author John Rowe
            Three words...

            Bartles and James.

            Just don't get caught.
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            • Profile picture of the author Texas_Guns
              Stories sell - fact tell...

              I see nothing wrong with telling stories on a
              sales letter, but you should never start story
              telling when it comes to facts, like income,
              claims, etc.

              I have quite a few pen names like many
              copywriters and on all of the sales letters,
              I tell some pretty wild stories... but when
              it comes to facts, screenshots, testimonials,
              etc. I keep everything on the up and up.

              You have to. "They" are watching you and
              it'll be only a matter of time before "They"
              start going after people who lie and manipulate
              screenshots in order to sell more products
              or services. It's not worth the risk to do
              so.

              I told stories all my life to get myself out of
              trouble, told stories to get myself out of debt,
              now I'm using stories to make myself rich
              Stories are cash-generating machines online!

              One of the recently product launches I created
              was nothing but a huge story that had a ton of
              people guessing all the way up until the launch.

              It was a riot and showed that marketing with
              stories works like crazy - maybe even more
              so with social media if your story gets some
              buzz-action!
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              • Profile picture of the author MikeLantz
                Originally Posted by Brian McElroy View Post

                Rach, I think you should listen to Vin... he says I'm right
                What a great reason to listen to someone!

                Anyway, just thought I would chime in real quick here...

                As has been said, just because it is done in tv commercials, or because "ad agencies do it all the time" doesn't make something right. I mean, politicians lie all the time, so it must be OK?

                Its hard to know the answer to your question without knowing more facts behind what you are doing, so that is why I titled this reply "Don't believe what anyone says..."

                My point is this: If you don't feel comfortable doing it, then don't. Don't try to justify your actions one way or the other.

                I really think it is great that you asked this question. I think we all need to not get so caught up in trying to sell something that we compromise our core beliefs and ethics. Increasing sales is great, but at what cost?

                I think there is a fine line for you to walk here; you already know where the edge is, so don't cross it.

                Mike

                PS: Hope you are well, BTW. Great photo of you there.
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              • Profile picture of the author Rachel Rofe
                Originally Posted by Brian McElroy View Post

                Rach, I think you should listen to Vin... he says I'm right
                I KNEW I was going to hear about that at some point!!!

                Thanks Vin, you've unknowingly created a mini-monster. Don't ever back Brian up again por favor.

                Originally Posted by MikeLantz View Post

                My point is this: If you don't feel comfortable doing it, then don't. Don't try to justify your actions one way or the other.

                I think there is a fine line for you to walk here; you already know where the edge is, so don't cross it.
                Yeah... I actually originally thought along the same lines as Brian/Vin/Texas Guns/others. I know that stories sell well - REALLY well - and always believed that as long as the product wasn't misrepresented, a story helps people "get" things better.

                I never even really thought to question it, until I started working with a new client who made it a point to tell me how much honesty was important to him. Honesty's crucial to me, too.. well, I try to do my best at least... but while proofreading the letter I wrote him, the question just occurred to me. I don't know why I never questioned it before.

                Originally Posted by MikeHumphreys View Post


                Here's a quick way I usually explain it when asked:

                Creating a character = good (Ronald McDonald)
                Creating a story to sell the product = good (Wall Street Journal story of 2 men)

                Making up testimonials or other proof elements = bad
                Lying about what your product can or will do = really bad
                Interesting on what the lawyers said... I guess I agree, but it always fascinates me to see what the government's view on ethical-type things are.
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                • Profile picture of the author zerofill
                  This kind of depends on the niche too wouldn't you say? I mean you wouldn't want to make a fake cancer patient the topic of a fake story on how they got better doing such and such.

                  But then again...I could see someone writing a fairy tale for some golf page.

                  You copywriters have good imaginations...I think you can often bring things across as a story but still make people think...

                  Man that is something that could happen... Maybe it could happen to me.

                  Without being a liar...

                  Footer (the fine print way at the bottom lol)

                  The characters and events in the above story are not based on any real life individuals or real life events. Any similarity is purely coincidental. However the possibilities of this product are endless.
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                  • Profile picture of the author Kyle Tully
                    Originally Posted by zerofill View Post

                    This kind of depends on the niche too wouldn't you say? I mean you wouldn't want to make a fake cancer patient the topic of a fake story on how they got better doing such and such.
                    But you're NOT creating a FAKE cancer patient. You're not pretending that these people really exist, or that they had actual results. You're just painting a picture of what a cancer patient's journey might be like.

                    There are TONS of ads on TV that do this. Over here in Aus there are lots on smoking, one depicts a guy who had a stroke because of smoking... they show him in his wheelchair... he can't speak... the voice over person plays the part of the voice in the guys head... says he wished he never smoked etc.

                    Now is this story true? Is the voice over guy really the voice in the mans head? Does he actually exist or is he an actor?

                    And... does it matter? It's the message that counts.
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                    • Profile picture of the author zerofill
                      Originally Posted by Kyle Tully View Post

                      But you're NOT creating a FAKE cancer patient. You're not pretending that these people really exist, or that they had actual results. You're just painting a picture of what a cancer patient's journey might be like.

                      There are TONS of ads on TV that do this. Over here in Aus there are lots on smoking, one depicts a guy who had a stroke because of smoking... they show him in his wheelchair... he can't speak... the voice over person plays the part of the voice in the guys head... says he wished he never smoked etc.

                      Now is this story true? Is the voice over guy really the voice in the mans head? Does he actually exist or is he an actor?

                      And... does it matter? It's the message that counts.
                      Yeah that is why I said creative copywriters can make it be a story and still convince people without making it out to be fact.

                      And if Rachel feels badly still then she can put something in the footer like I mentioned above.
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                      • Profile picture of the author JFrost
                        Hello Rachel, I understand exactly your concern. The fictional writers that make up fake testimonials and build up products that they themselves have never even seen less alone used, justify their actions through rationalization. That way their conscious does not bother them and they can sleep just fine at night. To answer your question, This behavior is not ethical. It is devious and involves intentional damage through purchaser entrapment. This is not to be confused with a ghost writer that does not write fictional fallacies. Good Pluck
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                      • Profile picture of the author mindvalley
                        I do not think this is unethical. We have used fictional characters a lot for sales letters or newsletters.
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  • Profile picture of the author VegasVince
    Originally Posted by Rachel Rofe View Post

    Curious to know what your opinion is on this...

    If someone writes a sales letter and makes the main character
    someone who doesn't really exist...

    ("I used to have "X" problem, and it SUCKED! But I learned to do
    x, x, and x... created this guide... and everything's awesome now!")

    Do you find that to be unethical since that person doesn't
    actually exist? Or would you consider the main character a
    representation of the average buyer?



    Hey Rachel.....long time no hear....player!

    And I see you're still lookin' hotter then a bunny hoppin on a hot tin roof in August...in Arizona.

    I notice your OP contains a lot of " x x x ' s" in the body of your text.

    Glad to know you learned something from me back in the day.....when I almost had the nerve to "pop the big question to you". Try adding some ....... ......... ........ I think I invented those too. lol.

    Anyway....

    Just cuz you have a sexy avator, and write better sales copy then a lot of us boys......doesn't mean you need to THINK like a copywriter.....uggggg!

    You know...those guys who "hit on you" at copy seminars..... and bore you to death as they rehash the big account that "got away..." That's usually followed by the double bogey they made on hole number 7.....UGGGGG!

    Cuz word on the street is....you're kicking a little ass in the marketing department too! And ultimately, that's what it's all about.

    Ethics?

    Please. Your only obligation is that whatever product or service your copy is pitching delivers the results promised. Period. End of story.

    You know as well as I do...that your sales copy is just a medium to sell the product. Period.

    And so long as you deliver the customer what you promise.......then John Q. Client wont give a shit...so long as the product works for them.

    If your product or service (or your clients) does what ever the hell you say it does.....no one is going to bitch and complain....much less give it a thought...in terms of HOW you got that product into their hands...via your copy.

    They'll be too busy thanking you....looking for your upsells. True.

    If you market something valid and worthy....MY ethics dictate that YOU SELL IT TO THE MASSES....by any means necessary. I mean that with all my heart. And if that requires Mr. X......so be it.

    Example....

    If I wake up tomorrow with the "whisky DT shakes".... and you offer me a stiff shot of Jack for a "$5 dollar donation to your church".......do you think I give two shits whether you conned me or not?

    Nope! Cuz your pitch might not have been "genuine"...but your product sure was...cuz that was a good shot of whisky, Rachel Rofe. Thanks! True.


    xxx Vegas Vince

    p.s. Yo Rach...you and your homegirl Jaime should come to Florida and we can all wax nostalgic at my bar. xxx
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