Faking it: 4 manipulative marketing techniques to avoid (and how to get your money back)

Image of two magicians from Canva, symbolising manipulation and trickery

Following my previous blog post on unethical marketing tactics, marketing expert Shona Chambers and I have been working on a 2-part blog series about manipulative marketing techniques. Read Shona’s thoughts and case studies about bad marketing techniques here, and check out my thoughts on manipulative marketing and what to do about it below. We look forward to hearing your opinions!

1. Fake or paid recommendations for products and services

A huge number of products and services are marketed to consumers via social media every day. Some of these are good and worth the money. Many, however, are not. They are also often not sold ethically.

As discussed previously, prompts or offers that aren’t in the consumer’s best interest are known as ‘dark nudges’. Selling products or services via fake or paid recommendations are manipulative and definitely should be added to this category.

Examples:

a) Certain affiliate marketing practices

Some products and services are highly praised in certain online communities. Let’s take the example of a social media marketing course. The course in question, however, may actually not be as good as expected – especially for the money paid.

Even worse, alumni may receive high incentives to recommend this course to others in their social networks (say, £100 for each successful referral). Now, if course participants are genuinely happy with the course and if it is reasonably priced, this could be a win-win situation.

Often, however, that’s just not the case. Receiving £100 or more for a manipulative recommendation may, nevertheless, be very tempting. Many marketers know and exploit this.

What consumers can do to avoid this: make sure you do your research thoroughly. Avoid buying from affiliate marketing links unless a) you completely trust the person and course provider you’re buying from and b) it is very clear how much the person will actually get for this referral. And, if you refer anyone: would you honestly recommend this course to your best friend? If not – don’t.

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: ask yourself whether your course provides real value for money. Having tested your (affordable!) pilot course, ask your course participants for detailed anonymous feedback, so you get more honest reviews. Don’t bribe course participants to market your course for you. A small reward that is openly declared to prospective buyers may be ok. Much more than that seems fishy.

b) Fake positive or negative product reviews on websites

There are also instances of manipulative product reviews on online sites such as Amazon. Some company owners will actually buy competitors’ products in order to display a ‘verified purchase’ tag. They then go on to leave dishonest negative reviews in order to force their competitors out of business. Similarly, friends of unethical product providers may buy a product and leave fake positive reviews.

What consumers can do to avoid this: always do your research on more than one site. Check out products that have a large number of verified reviews. Extremely positive or negative reviews may not give you the whole picture – usually, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: don’t leave or commission fake reviews – whether positive or negative.

c) Networks that enforce recommending their members’ services to others

There are a number of ‘professional’ networks that actively enforce recommending their members’ services or products to consumers – even if network members have no idea about the service providers’ quality.

What consumers can do to avoid this: again, research thoroughly. Ask questions – has the person recommending the third party actually used the service or product in question? Do you know the person recommending this well?

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: don’t recommend anyone unless you have personal knowledge of their service or product, or are very sure that this person is trustworthy. Avoid paying large sums of money to network groups. There are good free/ affordable alternatives out there.

2. Under pressure: increasing prices day by day

Recently, I’ve also come across a course whose cost increased daily during a week-long sale:

  • Monday: £100
  • Tuesday: £200
  • Wednesday: £300 etc.

By Saturday, it had reached an eye-watering £600-price tag. Here, the marketer increased the sense of urgency and FOMO (fear of missing out) daily – a new record!

Another manipulative technique along the same lines is to sell a course at a “one-time-only reduced offer” of, say, £599. An Instagram acquaintance of mine bought a course like this, thinking it would be a good offer. Not only was it a bad course, but she realised that the same “one-time-only” offer was made again and again over the next year.

What consumers can do to avoid this: don’t buy if you’re obviously being manipulated. There are other course providers who offer fairer deals.

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: don’t use tactics like these. Set a fair price with a generous deadline (if any) and stick to it.

3. Manipulating unsubscribers

I stumbled on a Facebook ad the other day that promised to reveal yet another “secret”: how to make money from people who meant to unsubscribe from your newsletter. The lengthy ad copy promised to spill the beans on how marketers can “profit when people unsubscribe from emails”, including reasons “why ‘Manipulation’ is a GOOD word in email”. (Urgh.)

What consumers can do to avoid this: don’t fall for special offers that are shown to you just after you hit the ‘unsubscribe’ button.

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: just…don’t do it. People who unsubscribe from you are unlikely to be your ideal client anyway. Make unsubscribing pain-free and fast. This is also best from a GDPR point of view.

4. Fake ‘Money-Back’-guarantees

An Instagram connection of mine gave me another example of serious malpractice. Reassured by a course provider’s influencer status and money-back guarantee (apparently “for any reason”), she signed up for a digital marketing course at a whopping cost of £1,500. The course turned out to be very poor and it was impossible to get the money back. The course provider simply claimed that they had delivered the course. Sadly, my contact and some of her fellow course participants felt that this provider was simply “too big” to fight:

“What a waste of money. […] They promised so much, but delivered very little. Total hype.”

What consumers can do to avoid this: Do your research carefully. Influencer or celebrity status doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality. In terms of money-back guarantees, if you have proof that a service or product did not fulfil its promises, you should first contact the provider with your grievances and any evidence you can supply. Certainly, if the provider claimed that you could get your money back “for any reason”, you should have a good case. It’s wise to keep screenshots of what the provider promised you initially to back up your claim. If this doesn’t work, please follow the steps in the next section on how to get your money back.

What ethical marketers can do to avoid this: again, ensure you provide value for money. Take complaints seriously. Not only could consumers give you a bad reputation through negative online reviews, but they could take you to court. (Of course, concrete evidence of malpractice has to be provided in all cases to justify any action against you.)

How to get your money back if you have a good case

Always contact the service provider politely first to try and resolve the situation directly. Ensure you have plenty of evidence why their product or service didn’t fulfil their promises. Unsuccessful? Try the following:

If you paid with certain credit cards, you may be able to provide evidence of malpractice to your credit card provider and get the money back through them if they agree with you (this is called a “chargeback”).

If a “chargeback” is not an option and if the provider doesn’t refund your money directly, contact the Citizens Advice Bureau in the first instance (for UK consumers). European consumers who bought a service abroad could try the UKECC helpline. US consumers may be able to file a consumer complaint.

Each country will have its own way of settling disputes between consumers and service providers, so make sure to check online how to do this.

Summary: it’s not all about money

Yes, unethical and manipulative marketing tactics sell. That’s why they’re being used. But it’s not all about money, even in marketing.

Building your target audience’s trust is worth more in the long run than any quick sale you could have achieved with these unethical tactics.

There is a way of marketing ethically. As long as you keep your consumers’ and your own best interests in mind, you won’t go wrong:

  1. Create the best possible product or service.
  2. Make sure you don’t under- or oversell it.
  3. Market it without any dodgy tactics.

You will reap the benefits in the long term. 😊

Have you enjoyed this blog series? Are there any unethical marketing tactics that make you despair? Please let us know.

Shona can be reached at shonachambersmarketing.co.uk.

You can contact me (Claudia) via translatedigitalmarketing.com/contact, or use the social media channels below.

If you’d like to learn more about dark nudging, woke washing and other unethical marketing tactics, also check out my previous blog post on ‘Leaving the Dark Side’.

Finally, make sure to visit the Ethical Move for more ethical marketing ideas.

Enjoy my blog? Why not buy me a virtual coffee? Thanks! ☕🙂

Image of scale, balancing windmill and CO2 on planet Earth.

How do you become carbon literate?

An overview on how you can become carbon literate through special training courses—for business or private purposes.

Image of a note book. Text says: 'Manifesting', with an empty list (Canva.)

Can we really ‘manifest’ business success? Toxic positivity and other red flags

Unhappy with how your business is going? Not to worry – just think positively, visualise your end goal and manifest your happy future. But is it really that easy?

Person with glasses looking up at a "GDPR" icon on blue background

3 quick tips to ensure your business isn’t breaking data protection rules

Whether you’re just planning to start your own business or you have already launched, ensure you follow these great tips to make sure you’re ready for processing your clients’ or web visitors’ data.

Image of an alarm clock next to the following text: "FOMO" and "£99"

Leave the Dark Side: 6 common unethical marketing techniques (and how to ditch them)

Ever heard of ‘sludging’, ‘confirmshaming’, or false scarcity? Learn more about unethical marketing techniques that are widely used.

Image representing an ethical copywriter through letters in a vinage press

5 ways an ethical copywriter can improve your marketing

Why should you use an ethical copywriter and proofreader to improve your existing marketing materials? Emma Hewlett and I will show you.

Image of pieces of paper, labelled "wrong", "right", and "?", symbolising business ethics.

10 tips for running a more ethical business

Learn about ethical marketers, courses, podcasts, apps, tools, and much more that will help you run a more ethical business.

Image of international flags on a globe that has been placed on a keyboard (Canva), symbolising that international marketing translators are key to success

10 reasons why you should hire a marketing translator

A good marketing translator can increase brand awareness and potential sales in different target markets. We’ll explain here how and why.

Image shows the words "SEO" (standing for "search engine optimization"), "blog" and "media", together with some ethical symbols.

Why SEO is important for your ethical business

A quick guide on why SEO is important for your business, how you can use it ethically, and what else you can do to become more visible.

Image of a cup of coffee, a notepad and a pen. List on notepad says: "Be kind - do good - show love". Image by marekuliasz (Canva)

5 tips to make social media a better place

How to use social media to make the world a kinder, positive, more inclusive place. A guest post by Alexis Bushnell.

Image of the letters "PR" (for "Public Relations") on a newspaper (Canva)

5 things to think about before you start your PR outreach

Even small organisations or solo business owners can generate brilliant PR coverage. Melissa Hobson shows you how to get started.

Image of a cute blue-and-red toy robot

Spending too much time on admin? Try these 3 free and easy automation hacks

Small daily tasks can add up and slow you down. Don’t despair! Here are some free and easy tools that’ll automate your business processes.

Distressed young lady looking up at a pile of paper on her desk. (Canva)

Overwhelmed? 9 simple productivity hacks that actually work (and they’re free!)

You’ve launched your business and have what feels like 1378 tasks to do each week. Don’t worry, you’re not alone! Here are some quick, free and easy productivity tips that really work.

Get in touch for a free discovery call in English or German 🇬🇧 🇩🇪

Want to reach a wider market for your products or services?

Is your web and social media copy not as effective as you'd hoped?

Not sure how to keep on top of your social media channels?

Let me help you.

Choose from a wide range of marketing and editorial services, including SEO copywriting and digital marketing translations of your social media or web content (English/ German).

You’ll benefit from my:

⭐ Experience in senior communications and publishing roles at the University of Oxford.

⭐ High-quality English ⇄ German translation services (DipTrans, MCIL).

⭐ Ethical content writing and copywriting skills (SEO content writing and copywriting certificates & Surfer SEO expert).

⭐ Practical knowledge of social media marketing (Credly).

⭐ Continuing professional development (e.g. via the CIM).

⭐ Friendly, reliable service and competitive rates.

 

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Owner, Translate Digital Marketing

I especially love working with ethical, fairtrade and green small businesses.

GDPR