Of Caveat Emptor and Fertilizer

2 min read • May 20, 2014 • Guest Post

A recent clinical study has shown that retaining the RESPONSE Agency reduces the risk of getting cancer.

I conducted the study myself. It’s poorly designed, shamelessly biased, and wholly unscientific. But that doesn’t mean I can’t slap on it words like “clinical” and “study,” and with the right weasels and disclaimers legally relieve the gullible of cash.

Put down your pitchforks and torches. I’m not serious about marketing my shop as a cancer preventive. I am, however, quite serious about how easy it is to mislead within the law. If you work in marketing, you can count on someday being asked to do exactly that. What course will you take?

Not all marketers accept responsibility for what and how they sell. They argue that the prospective buyer is responsible for checking facts. They call their position caveat emptor. I call it a bovine byproduct useful for growing crops. You cannot mislead people and then blame them when you succeed.

Extremes make for easy decisions. It doesn’t take much moral fiber to reject an overpromising headline like, “Our SBA loans cure baldness.” At the other end of the honesty spectrum, it doesn’t take much common sense to reject an overdisclosing headline like, “Get a HELOC and pray you don’t lose your home.” Moral dilemmas tend to pop up between the extremes, in those darned shades of gray.

Your tolerance for gray is your business. Not that you asked, but here are some guidelines that I recommend keeping in mind:

Do your homework. I’m embarrassed to admit to having created ads for products I later learned did not work as the client had represented to me. Now I double-check my clients’ claims. Not surprisingly, only the honest ones appreciate it.

Does small type contradict large? Small type, a regulatory fact of life for banks, is a problem only when it is used to weasel out of the larger impression an ad conveys.

Speaking of weasels, come on. You know when you’re using phrases like “as little as” and “results are not typical” to hedge versus to be responsible.

Testimonials are no excuse. I asked a would-be client, “Does the product work?” He replied, “No, but we have testimonials from lots of happy customers who swear it does.” I declined the client.

Twist not thy data. As demonstrated by my facetious cancer claim, numbers are easy to twist. Surely with a bit of work you can find something true to say about the product.

Do you use the product? I find it telling when someone who touts a product doesn’t or, worse, wouldn’t use it.

Would you recommend the product to your kids? How about to your aging, fixed-income parents?

I believe that most marketing is above-board and honorable. I also believe that marketers who venture deep into the gray often do so unwittingly. These I hope will take another look.


Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is the founder of the RESPONSE Agency, a 20-year-old marketing firm in Salt Lake City. He has been a featured speaker of the American Advertising Federation, Direct Marketing Association, American Bankers Association, National Postal Forum, James Randi Educational Foundation and others. Steve is the author of the books Prove It Before You Promote It and The RESPONSE Agency Guide to Direct Mail, and of over 100 of articles appearing in DirectMarketingIQ, Deliver Magazine, Adnews, and other publications. (Always one for variety, Steve is also the as-told-to author of Joanne Hanks’ book It’s Not About the Sex My A**: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon Ex-Polygamist Ex-Wife.) In his spare time, he enjoys forcing people to look at photos of his grandchildren. He invites you to contact him at [email protected].