Common Lies and Half-Truths Businesses Use in Marketing

The first Monday of each month, I dust off a favorite post from the Bennis Inc Blog archives and give you another chance to enjoy the wit and wisdom that’s been shared. Enjoy this month’s treasure – and if it inspires you – be sure to share it with family and friends!

If you love me…don’t tell me lies. Alas, those little lies and half-truths so often find their way into surprising circumstances. And in this instance, I’m talking about marketing content. I truly believe most businesses don’t intend to lie or mislead customers (at least the good ones!) but it does happen, little by little and over time. Mostly, these begin with claims that aren’t really based on data and can’t be proven or disproven. Think of “The World’s Best Cup of Coffee” scene from the movie Elf. A lot of these success-flaunting claims that businesses make are not inherently dishonest, but they’re also not completely honest either. I write this as I stare at my “Best Mom” mug and have to laugh at the irony.

I get it; really I do. It’s tempting to use such marketing tactics when you feel like everyone around you is getting a leg up by spinning data, claims, and accomplishments in a favorable light that might not be an entirely accurate representation of the truth. Next thing you know, what you’re promoting gets so muddy with data and numbers that it’s hard to extract the truth, or back it up. That’s when the real problems set in!

To illustrate my point, I’m shining a light on some of the most common misleading claims that I’ve seen businesses mold into their marketing messages. Keep reading to learn what these are and why they will always catch up with you – sooner or later.

“Record-Breaking Year”

The question this begs is what record, exactly, was broken? We could set the bar really low and make this claim. It sounds impressive! Surely if something is breaking a record it must be doing big things – but not always. I’m sure you can formulate a ton of records in your mind right now that you could break today that would take little to no effort. For me, I could break my record of eating 2 bananas instead of 1. Earthshattering! You get my point. In all seriousness, this is a worthy claim when it can be validated truthfully and when it carries weight. See my advice on how to get the media’s attention. If the record your business has broken falls into these categories, surely promote it! Just be sure to clarify somewhere in your messaging what the record was and why it’s a big deal. Otherwise, you’re only perpetuating the problem. 

“Fastest Growing Business”

This one is tricky because when you see it on a website, social media, a billboard, or on the front of any marketing material, it seems like a really big deal. But all growth is not created equal. Plus, what are the parameters for such a claim? In my first year of business, I doubled my income in year 2 compared to year 1. But this was an incremental growth compared to other PR businesses who could eat me as a snack – and maybe still can. While it’s understandable that a business wants to celebrate growth, just know that growth doesn’t always mean success. And how do you even define success? I’m learning this is unique to each and every person. The next time you see this claim made by a business, and more commonly validated by a nonsense “award” (which is a blog for another day), be sure to do your research and ask the critical question of….compared to who or what?

“Award-Winning Work”

Ah, the term “award-winning” – what does that really mean nowadays? I have seen so many awards created and cultivated over the years. I would be mad if I wasn’t actually impressed with the audacity of the business model. Media outlets, industry organizations, and membership-driven sites have all made a huge profit on selling “awards” to anyone who wishes to pay to apply. Of course, the pay-for-play model really diminishes any sort of value from the award. There are very few industry awards anymore that are 100% based on merit and not swayed by someone’s network or ability to pay or sponsor something for the entity that is giving the award. So when businesses who receive such awards flaunt their title proudly, but with no real accountability, it becomes a problem with honesty and integrity. In advertising, marketing, and PR there are so many industry groups that will give the same award to anyone who pays to submit a project for consideration. So who cares then? Well, a customer could be misled into caring because they believe they’re hiring a truly award-winning firm when really they’re just hiring someone who charges a larger overhead to cover the cost of such marketing foolishness. I’ll get off my soapbox now.

“100% Donated to Charity”

Again, the operative question to ask is “100% of what?” Sadly the answer is almost never 100% of gross sales/income. I’m not faulting businesses for this. Afterall, they need to pay their bills, and part of the income they generate goes to this important line item. Otherwise, why be in business if you’re not even covering your costs? My gripe here is over honesty and transparency. Simply say “of net profits” or “net proceeds.” Even simply saying “proceeds” is tricky because the common person doesn’t understand that this term commonly means “once we’ve paid all our other bills.”

This brings me to part II of my complaint, which is businesses can take as much as they want away from what’s considered “net” and leave merely the leftovers to go to their charitable cause. The IRS would be quick to point out that business owners get themselves in trouble all the time with unbelievable business experiences that they claim. So while it’s a wonderful idea to donate money to charity, be wary of businesses that give very little and gain a whole lot of marketing as a result!

I’m sure this will be a controversial topic for business owners. So, what do you have to say about this? Is stretching the truth OK in certain instances or is it always a big red NO? Make your case by commenting below!

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