How to Sell More Ethically

image of sleazy salesman

I keep running into this little conundrum.

One of the most important goals of copywriting is persuasion.

In fact, it’s kind of the most important goal, because if you’re not trying to get your readers to do something, you’re probably going to stop calling yourself a “copywriter” and just go for “writer.”

Writers can write without a call to action, but then writers also get to mull their words carefully while drinking tea. Copywriters can’t do that. They’re on deadline. They need high-octane espresso.

But if you write copy for long enough, eventually you’ll get to the point where you start to think, “I’m good at this. I can fill text with benefits and pain points all day long. I can write copy that will sell snow to Eskimos — but should I?”

It’s the Yin and Yang of marketing. On one hand, you want people to take a specific action, and the first stage of that action is usually to pull out their wallets.

But on the other hand, you don’t want to rook people into buying something they don’t need or can’t afford.

It can be hard to walk that line. If you learn to write good copy, it will be full of compelling reasons for the reader to buy. It will promise solutions to readers’ problems. It will remind them of their pain, and promise that your product will solve it.

It will do so for four easy payments and be endorsed by Jack Lalanne, who has got to be like two hundred years old by now and can still pull trains with his teeth.

But most of us aren’t snake oil salesmen, and don’t want to be. Most of us want to get readers to buy or take action, but we also recognize that the $3000 home-study firefighting course probably isn’t the best choice for the elderly widow down the street whose house is in foreclosure.

So where’s the line between selling well and selling too hard?

How to write ethical sales copy

Remember: Ethical selling is about convincing people to spend money on something they need. Sleazy selling is about convincing people to spend money on something you want them to buy.

Tip #1: Put the buyer’s needs first

Most people need a nudge even to buy things that would benefit them.

The mother who worries about her teenage son’s whereabouts? It’s probably in her best interest if you convince her to buy a cell phone for him. The struggling minimum wage worker? He could probably benefit if persuaded to take a course to be a paralegal.

In ethical sales situations, everyone wins. Your copy pushes the customer to do something he’s been neglecting, but that he needs or wants.

If you find yourself thinking only about your income and not about the true benefit to the customer, then congratulations — you’ve crossed over into Sleazytown.

Tip #2: Tell the truth

As Lionel Hutz once said on The Simpsons, “There’s [stern voice] ‘the truth,’ and then there’s [smiling, happy voice] ‘The Truth!'”

If you want to sleep well at night while still doing your job, try to tell a bit less “technically correct but sort of misleading truth” and lean more toward “real person no-BS truth.” It may actually earn you bonus points for honesty.

Take, for example, my own social experiment. On my blog, I want to see just how far I can go toward telling the whole, unvarnished truth in my copy. To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a particularly ridiculous excerpt from a post I wrote called You Can’t Do It:

The simple truth about life is that not everyone is going to succeed. Not everyone will win. Not everyone is able to do it.

I’m tired of people claiming that anyone can be a success. It’s not true. If I could find a turn-the-crank formula for success sufficient that anyone who used it would become successful, I’d be more rich than Bill Gates’ sophisticated one-liners.

Not everyone who tries will achieve what they set out to do — even under the best instruction and with the best of intentions. Many will fail. Many people will attempt to build something and will not. True fact of life, here, people. Everyone cannot do it. DAMMIT, EVERYONE CANNOT DO IT.

Now, that post was written to promote a product. I discussed the product’s benefits and sung its praises, but also pointed out the ugly. In short, after I wrote it, I could sleep at night.

The moral of the story? I ended up being the top-selling affiliate for that product.

Tip #3 (optional): Selectively dissuade

This is the hardest, so it’s not for the faint of heart. I’ve had people ask me if they should buy X course or join Y program and then they’ll tell me their story.

Sometimes it’s obvious that they wouldn’t benefit. If they say they’ve bought every course and none worked, chances are this new one won’t “work” either, because they’re looking for a magic bullet.

In that scenario, I’ll actively try to convince them not to buy. I figure I can do without one more sale if it will allow me to look myself in the mirror tomorrow.

If I’m not sure if something will benefit a person, I’ll usually turn around and put the onus on them. I don’t know their personality; I don’t know their situation; I don’t know what they’ve tried in the past. Everyone is different.

So, Johnny, should I invest in this product?

I don’t know, dude. Up to you.

Ethics isn’t rocket science (and I know this because I’m considering working with a rocket scientist — true story).

All it comes down to in the end is telling the truth. Sometimes that’s harder than it sounds, but we can all remember how to do it if we try.

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant builds ethical websites and blogs of all sorts and does ethical consulting at JohnnyBTruant.com, while dressed ethically and eating ethical Wheat Thins. By contrast, he’s actually a real sleaze on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Hi

    Good article. I am personally turned off my most sales copy probably because I put such a high value on being genuine. The problem is that too much “genuine” doesn’t seem to sell.

    I suppose using the word “FREE” can also be dicey. Is there really anything that is for free?

    I would add though that there also needs to be ethical buying. I have an eBook and the number of people who try to hack it!

    Thanks,
    Juliet

  2. I work in the natural health industry, an industry that by law you pretty much can’t say anything in regard to benefits of the supplements we sell. Thus, I’m afraid that my copy comes off as sleazy because I’m forced to tip-toe around the benefit statements.

    BTW, is it just me, or does the photo at the top look like Rand dressed up as a “Sleazy Copywriter” on Halloween?

  3. I am a HUGE Coppyblogger fan but was turned off by the Headline. Here’s my point: You either sell “ethically” or you don’t. What’s “more” mean? Sorry, but my Dad raised a good German boy and we weren’t allowed to operate in fuzzy shades of gray. So, while I get the point of the article and enjoyed with the content, I found the headline a REAL turn-off.

  4. Congratulations.

    By writing this blog you’re in the Top 5 People I Trust The Most on The Internet List… at least when it comes to Internet Marketing. :)

    People should be more concerned about things like this. Somehow they think their customers can sort themselves out. I think the biggest factor behind all the world’s problems is the gap between what humanity wants, and what humanity needs- and how we choose the former over the latter each time.

    Marketers… and I know you’re marketers because you’re reading Copyblogger… let me tell you that you have a huge responsibility. Sell without losing your soul.

  5. @Steve Hartkopf
    You said “You either sell “ethically” or you don’t. What’s “more” mean? ”

    I think many people have good intentions to be ethical but don’t know how to carry it out, or aren’t aware that some of the things they do are in the grey as you put it.

    The truth is, we’re all in the grey trying to be black or white. Show me a man who has never compromised in his life- in the area of selling. I think we all have, no matter how “nice” we try to be or say we want to be…

    “More Ethically”.. hurts the ears… but I think there’s a point to it.. :)

  6. the truth is entirely key. when i was in sales i always kept in mind that everyone has a lingering doubt about something. i would sense what it was and address it by using my experience of the product, both good and not so good. i wanted to make sure that if they did make a purchase that they weren’t looking for a cure all, but just something that would make one particular area in his/her life a little bit better!

    sales went way up! and i felt like a whole human after.

  7. Great article – one of the things that I struggle with ethically in the Internet Marketing game is that many of the “techniques” that people teach in Internet Marketing are way over the line of being a good internet citizen.

    I buy a lot of internet marketing programs, I am at a point in my business that I can afford them even if they only sometimes contain theories that I actually adopt. It seems to me that 99% of the copy written to sell these programs are lies just to get sales.

    Take the concept of scarcity, this can be a real hot button but doesnt it need to be true ? The most recent program I bought was something called Google Sniper, I bought it on launch day and the sales copy at that time said only 41 copies left ! 2 weeks later guess what there are only 41 copies left at that price. Now its that just lying – right ?

    That guy never intended to sell 41 copies at $77 each with all the hype around the launch – I dont care if he sold 41,000 copies good on him but doesnt his copy need to tell the truth ? selling 41 copies from day one is commercially impractical.

    Here is my opinion – If a digitally downloadable product is good you dont need hyped copy. ( I am not talking about physical product here )

    If a product is really good it should be able to use the “free line method” – software products have been doing this for years they offer a free trial demo with an upgrade option if you like the tool – information products should follow the same rule – a free download that contains the first 30 odd % of the information for free, if the reader is hooked then they will buy access to the last 70% without lies and without over hyped copy and you will be able to sleep at night.

  8. great article, but the picture is the best!

  9. Thank you for this. I am personally so turned off by sleazy marketing. If I keep getting emails telling me I have one last chance to sign up and get my free x,y, z I distance myself from that company.

    I want the truth. Yes, sell me the benefits and tell me why this would work for me but treat me like an educated consumer. That pic is priceless for this post!

    This is where I sit with my own services–trying to nail my sales pitch with truth and ethics, but still draw my audience in. Thanks for the thoughts.

  10. I’m pretty sure the picture at the top is actually “Kip” from the movie Napoleon Dynamite.

    @ Steve – I totally see your point. The thing is, though, that there are many sales tactics out there that are pretty borderline… and a lot of budding internet entrepreneurs ready to drink that Kool-Aid. Like it or not, there’s a lot of “[smiling, happy voice] ‘The Truth!'” out there, operating in those shades of gray. Your point about there being ethical and non-ethical is definitely part of what I’m trying to say.

    @ Stefan – Thanks… that means a lot!

    @ Victor – Yeah, that tactic sounds not just dishonest, but also really stupid. Did the guy not think that maybe everyone who bought a copy when there were 41 left would figure out that saying there were only 41 left later was stretching the truth?

    In the defense of “tactics” writing, though, I do think people need a push. Naomi Dunford has said it exactly in a way that makes sense to me: “You’re not going to convince people who have decided not to buy to buy. You’re not that powerful.” Her point is that all you can do is to nudge people who are “maybes” to buy. And if it’s done ethically, what you’re doing is to get the people who are waffling to get off their asses. Hence some of the tactics — also useful, incidentally, in motivating people who fully intend to buy but who just plain procrastinate… FOREVER.

  11. @ Everyone else – I don’t specifically respond to every comment but appreciate them all. So major props, and thanks.

  12. This is exactly why you should only sell widgets that you truly believe will add value. If you are forced to sell something that you don’t believe in, then you will either 1) be the worst salesperson in your company or 2) spend your days convincing customers to buy a widget that adds no value.

    Once you represent something you believe in, focus on finding the right prospects so you don’t ever have to worry about sleazy selling.

  13. There’s also a weird phenomenon where people start out very Kumbaya and squeaky-clean, then realize with horror that they need to make at least some money. And then they dive feet-first into the most aggressive copywriting techniques (covering all the shades of gray up with yellow highlighter), without trying to find the path that lets them promote their product without being scumbags.

    You really don’t have to be sleazy to sell, but looking around at what so many are doing, it would be easy to think so.

  14. IMO people use these sleazy tactics because they feel they are ‘smart’ to know what the average person does not know. But in the long run skepticism reach an all time high and affects everyone involved.

  15. Nice tips, Johnny. #3 (Selectively Dissuade) is like reverse psychology and we also know it as the “take away”. There have been times where I knew that the product I was selling was something the customer either didn’t need or couldn’t afford, and out of good conscience backed off from the close. It’s about that time that the customer can’t understand what just happened and now really want it because you just stopped trying. If they buy, I almost feel bad, but in the end I did what I thought was right…the decision was theirs.

    One of the biggest lessons I learned in sales is to get rid of the need mentality. Once you stop really NEEDING to make a sale and just relax, they start coming to you. Focus on how to help people and they see that instead of a salesperson needing to make a sale.

  16. Thanks for talking about the elephant in the room. If you truly believe in the value of what you’re selling it’s easy to be authentic and persuade ethically. Otherwise, it’s snake oil.

  17. So Johnny, are you saying when a certain very high profile and successful marketeer said in one of his audio programs he was “Praying for a rapist not to be caught” because he was selling personal alarms at the time, that’s bad?

    @ Sonia – Damn you, I was just about to kick off my Stage 2 – Kumbaya marketing strategy,now you’ve ruined it for everybody.

  18. Sandra Ormandy :

    That’s exactly why I had to dump network marketing. There was NO WAY I could look family & friends(or even strangers!) in the eye & tell them they’d make lots of money when I knew it was unlikely that they would. Profit at any cost is way too expensive. This article about marketing & ethics came at perfect time for me & my newbie efforts online. Thanks!

  19. @ Tim – It’s only unethical to pray for bad things if God pays attention to you.

    Which actually reminds me of another Simpsons quote, from Reverend Lovejoy: “Once something has been approved by the government, it’s no longer immoral.”

  20. Spot on, my friend. I wrote for the federal government, actually politicians, for almost a decade. I remember asking, “How do you want to present this?” After 25 years, I left to write for myself. Now I have the option of keeping sincerity, heart and ethics in my writing.

  21. I believe ethics are definitely something that can be learned. If you feel like your selling/copywriting/etc is dishonest in any way, you can change. Being ethical is not only the best thing to be, but also one of the greatest ways to increase and retain business.

  22. It’s the only way I know how to sell. :)
    Adding the honest salesman would possibly generate more income from those customers spreading the word.

    Great read man!

  23. These are good tips. I get so tired of seeing sales pages that are filled with bogus praise of their product. I love genuine honesty and I’m more likely to go after a product when the author appears to be coming at me with honesty and not over-the-top sales.

  24. This is tough, because for many of us achieving the balance between being profitable and being helpful is difficult. It’s not that the product isn’t helpful, but it can be difficult to create an audience in a hurry. This is where people find themselves using aggressive tactics.

    I try to write from the heart (awww) and convey value, while also remembering that no one loves my products as much as I do. I think this is why pro copy guys/gals are so valuable.

  25. I would also like to add that being great about offering your customer’s money back within your “guarantee” window if they ask for it is another way to sleep well at night. For someone who is on the fence about buying your product and they ask you, “Should I buy this in my position?”, you can respond with the “I don’t know… but you can return it if you find it’s not for you.”

  26. @Sandra, you are a smart cookie. Too few people pay attention to that little message coming from their gut.

    @Nathan, that’s a good point, the objectivity is very helpful to put the customer back into the equation. Writing from passion but without a real feel for the customer’s needs & wants doesn’t do much good for anyone. You see a lot of that with the social media crowd, alas.

    @Tim, good lord, you have to DM me and tell me who that was. #dang

  27. I concur – Jack Lalanne is one tough SOB, but I digress…

    Nice article, Johnny & I agree with many of you points – especially truth when it comes to your buyers.

    One final thought – if you know your buyers well & have done a good job with your content marketing strategy you should have developed a good relationship with them & it makes writing copy & selling to them almost automatic.

    That being said, your tips are important to creating sales copy – but also creating valuable content…

    Well, I’m off to order one of Jack’s Power Juicers – peace out, Fellow Copybloggers

  28. Alright, I’ll bite – how did people get custom images in the box to the left of your name?

  29. Brilliant advice!

    Marketing is as much a part of life as brushing our teeth is (or should be!). You have given some great advice on how to approach marketing ethically and still promote your product and, as you say, “sleep at night.”

    Will consider these approaches for marketing my wellness company! Thank you!

  30. @ Mark – Gravatar.com…. dig on it! Just make sure the avatar is associated with the email address you use when you post blog comments.

  31. I like to start with an ethical client who sells ethical products and services. The rest pretty much takes care of itself.

  32. Really good article. This very thing is why I have such a problem with sponsored posts. I know quite a few bloggers are in the business of selling and that’s fine. It’s just that sponsored posts seem so cheesy and insincere. I always wonder if the person has actually used the product like they claim or just pitching something at you to make a quick buck.

  33. Johnny – Thanks for the tip!

  34. Thanks for the post John.
    I applaud your courage by bringing the topic up with the headline that you used because it has the potential to offend people. I haven’t met a person yet who admits to being unethical.
    I really like your thoughts about finding yourself focused in writing about benefits and pain points.
    The thing I try and keep in mind all the time is that there is a human being on the other end of this copy and I need to treat them as a human being not simple another potential customer

  35. Just name your site, theethicalwhatever.com. Reminds me of all the SEO service sites I’ve seen. Besides targeting the word SEO the more crappy ones for some reason like to target ethical. I know…I will be the ethical usability testing guy.

    People want or need. If they need they will buy, if they want you must convince. How do you convince. You either give real reasons why you think they need it or you lie. I would have to agree with the little German boy who commented earlier. There is no “more” in this equation. You either are, or are not.

  36. @ Mike Consol – How do you determine who is ethical & who isn’t until you work with them?

  37. @Sandra Ormandy
    Your comment was golden. I say everything is worth trying at least once and so I’ve tried Network Marketing too… Just like you I spent all day and all night analyzing what I was supposed to be doing and what everybody else said I should be doing. Most of the time, the people who succeeded did so at others’ expense. And at usual the weapon of choice was- sleazy sales tactics. I only contacted three friends of mine before I realized that I didn’t want to smear my name and burn my real friendships… more importantly I didn’t want to rip people off and make it seem like I had the magic answer to their financial woes… I still have all the unused product in a brown paper bag stashed somewhere in the house.

    It seems that these days, the number one thing that people are selling is the prospect of getting rich. At what point are we exploiting others’ needs?

    Gary Halbert on Network Marketing: http://is.gd/4uJRW

  38. @Stefan, thanks for that Halbert letter, that’s an excellent resource. I really like his central point, that if you’re going to sell via MLM, you might as well just directly sell.

  39. This is the #1 reason why my life’s purpose will not be fulfilled by web marketing. Well, first, I typically don’t believe 100% in most ANY product or service.

    It’s pretty obvious I am cut out for ministry, where I don’t pedal anything I don’t believe in.

  40. Man, I hope that nobody’s life purpose is fulfilled by internet marketing.

  41. Unfortunately, the gold rush mentality on the Internet keeps the flood of unscrupulous marketers in business. It is time for anyone who wants to market on the Internet to wake up and realize there is no magic bullet.

    By using strict ethical SEO methods, any company can become successful on the Internet. This does not mean that every one can learn SEO, you may have to hire someone to do it.

    Recently I’ve seen the term Gray-Hat SEO on some Internet forums. Sorry, but that term is a sham. There is only White Hat, follow the rules Google sets up, or Black Hat, break the rules, and run the risk of being taken out of the search engine results by Google.

    The attitude that if it makes money it is OK, just does not fly anymore. I’m pleased that in my business of SEO, there are well defined standards. I prefer to sell picks and shovels, not fool’s gold.

  42. The internet has given many folks a medium to do some crazy selling, much of which is unethical. The phrase “buyer-beware” couldn’t be more relevant today.

  43. @John, I’d argue that the gold rush mentality isn’t just online, there’s a general lotto mentality in the culture. Giant payoffs for tiny output seems to be the expectation of many people.

  44. Great article Johnny.

    Here it the UK sales has a really sleazy stigma attached to it. Even though I’m now establishing myself in business it has been really hard to push myself to promote and sell my services.

    Then I have to remind myself that it is my duty to promote my good quality professional services and warn of the potential dangers in buying from rogue traders. Talking about my services in an enthusiastic but honest way helps me feel better about selling. They are looking for someones service to buy and why not mine especially as I honestly believe mine to be better than most in my target area.

    I think that makes me an ethical copywriter.

    Pat
    PatB Wedding Photography

  45. Love the article and the comments. (Reading Jack Lalane’s new fitness book now – so that made me smile – he’s 95!)

    I’m kinda’ new to the affiliate/internet marketing ‘thing’.
    I’m amazed at all the hype-y, in-your-face “pitch” pages on Clickbank. (Despise the word ‘pitch’ – when you’re pitching you are 30+ feet away throwing something at someone…)

    Hard to find real, authentic value – that’s why I always read and breathe freely and with no tension when I read Copyblogger (Lateral Action too).

    Real, funny, honest, revealing, caring and with solid-meaningful products and people. Everything I want to be when I grow up – the ‘cool’ crowd.

    Thanks.

  46. “If they say they’ve bought every course and none worked, chances are this new one won’t “work” either, because they’re looking for a magic bullet.”-
    You’ve said it again!That’s the truth and the reason behind

  47. In Business 101 you learn that the purpose of marketing is to create a need in the mind of the consumer, but I like your approach even better. To find the need that already exists and fulfill.

  48. How to sell more ethically? Just listen to that little guide called the conscious. Greed, fear, and hope tend to drown it out at times. Ignore the screaming of your ego and do what’s right. When you do what’s right AND feel great about it, people will have no problem finding and buying your product or service.

  49. Hey Johnny,

    The best selling is recommending.

    How would you recommend something to a close friend? Do the same in your sales copy.

    You’d spell out the benefits no-hype, tell them how its helped you, and why you think it’s the bomb-diggity. You’ll also honestly explain any shortcomings of the thing. “It’s awesome but the one thing I don’t like about it is…”

    Chris Guillebeau and Steve Pavlina I feel are great examples of this no-hype approach. Like you mentioned, they can sleep at night because they’re exposing any ugly truths in anything they “sell,” and they spend just as much time recommending as they do writing out who it’s NOT for and why you shouldn’t buy.

    The honest truth makes people trust you more since you’re a human being genuinely recommending something, rather than a mechanical salesman.

    Great article as always Johnny,
    Oleg

  50. @ Ryan – I think the trick is not just to be ethical, but to manage to SELL ethically. So I hope that people didn’t read this just as a list of “do nots,” because I think most of us have a sense about which behaviors are not ethical. I also want this to include some “do’s,” because the challenge is still to persuade… but to do so in a way that lets everyone win… including the people who are making the money.

    @ Oleg – Another trap, though, is that affiliate marketing is all recommending. I do a fair amount of it, actually. And you can recommend unethically just as you can sell your own stuff unethically. So additional tips would be to recommend only stuff you ACTUALLY LIKE AND APPROVE OF, and to not shill for absolutely every affiliate opportunity that crosses your desk.

  51. You are so right about this. I’ve turned down substantial paid reviews on my blog because it did not fit with my value system and what I believe would benefit the readers of my blog. I have to live with myself and I’m accountable to God.

  52. Forgotten, or summarily dismissed by many copywriters is the full meaning of (2).

    Many tell the truth . . . but conveniently omit the truth that should or could be told. They are not lying, just deceptive and, taking the heading into consideration, I don’t think that is “Ethical Marketing”. Some of your stars write great blogs but get a failing mark when it comes to ethics.

  53. @jennifer888, I’m of the school that you can’t create desire, you can only harness it. Which makes marketing a matter of building beautiful sails to catch the wind, rather than engines to propel the boat where you think it ought to go.

    Frank Kern has a very entertaining example to illustrate this, but it’s a little too rude to share on Copyblogger. :)

  54. I particularly appreciated your tip on dissuasion. As a writer, it’s not easy sometimes to decide if what you offer will benefit your client. I have people come to me ready to mortgage their house just to get their project going. That’s usually an easy one. But how does a copywriter fashion his words so as to produce an “copy” within ethical bounds? Part of the answer is, I guess, as long as you don’t try to sell a fridge to someone who lives in an igloo.

  55. First consider what your visitors want to and whether they will be ready to pay for that or not.

    If you can understand that than money will come. But here problem is you will have to think about masses not about one visitors.

  56. @Stefan- I want to thank you for that link to the Gary Halbert letter, and @Sonia- for bringing it to my attention. And Naomi Dunford who sent me back to read comments 39 and 40, so I saw Sonia’s comment referring to Stefan’s comment, and then the letter. It jut rocked the house.

  57. @Mark Silver
    You’re welcome! Good stuff huh?
    You’ll probably also like John Carlton and Dan Lok… Just Google em both… they both offer free stuff to read. Of course pick and choose what to follow.. some stuff they teach is a bit too “grey” for me… but good stuff to know about nonetheless..

  58. Good presentation. I enjoyed it.

  59. Bravo! I’m so glad you brought this up. I am new to learning about the business of Internet Marketing and recently made not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 recent purchases from the same company in quick succession that turned out to be largely a waste of my money and time. (It’s not my style to say who – but I will say it’s not anyone I’ve seen you have any online connection with.) 

    I feel pretty stupid about even getting sucked in the way I was because I’m savvy in the offline business world. The reason I didn’t see it coming was because I didn’t understand how affiliate marketing works. It’s sad because, like in everything, the bad apples can spoil it for the people who are operating from a place of sincerity, heart and ethics like I think you are. 

    I thought I was purchasing an ebook directly from a well known author I had bought before. I already had a couple of his hardback books on my shelf. Unfortunately I bought the ebook from an affiliate without realizing it and, in response to their quick follow up emails offering more products, I handed over money three more times in the same week.

    Speaking from personal experience, their marketing claims aren’t the least bit congruant with what they actually deliver and their claims of customer service are an illusion. I thought about informing the author I originally thought I was buying from, but probably won’t. I think I’d be better off focusing on building an ethical presence of my own online.  

     It’s been a hard, unexpected lesson. I’m glad you’re shining a bright light on ethical selling vs sleazy selling in this forum. Sorry for being so long-winded.