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

man with fishing hook and bank note

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

Smiling woman pointing at phone

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 definitely should be added to this category.


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 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 fake 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

Upset lady under time pressure

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

Image of an eraser removing 'un' from 'unsubscribe'

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

Money Guarantee stamp

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

Consumer Rights

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

Woman with cash

Yes, unethical 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.

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Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Owner, Translate Digital Marketing

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