If you’ve read the Federal Trade Commission’s new 81-page Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, you might think the FTC is a really nice bunch of guys trying to do the right thing by consumers — which, for the most part, is true.
And yet, I just don’t think they give most consumers enough credit.
Maybe fifty-odd years ago, when many people believed everything they read or saw on TV, a bit of paternalistic condescension might have been advisable.
Today, who believes anything anybody has to say?
We are a nation of cynics, skeptics, and disbelievers.
Does anyone believe politicians will keep their promises — about anything?
Would anyone stake their life on what they just read in the New York Times, The Washington Post, or saw on CNN or FOX?
And can we honestly believe that actual adults at football games really wear sleeved blankets with their butts poking out the back?
So I’m not sure the new guidelines are doing all that much for consumers.
For us marketers, though, that might be another story.
On the brighter side . . .
Thanks to the FTC, your competitive landscape, along with the Internet and your mailbox, won’t be so cluttered.
Thousands of fly-by-night marketers will simply stop marketing — because they’re unable or unwilling to tell the truth.
No longer permitted to manipulate facts in their favor or influence perception by playing fast and loose with various forms of social and statistical proof, they’ll seek less-regulated fields to till.
For example, marketers who rely on spectacular testimonials must now clearly state the substantiated generally expected results, too. Not just the one, two or three over-the-top results from a few outliers.
And if marketers can’t substantiate their generally expected results, well, they’re now limited to testimonials that don’t quantify results but merely display a common level of customer satisfaction.
Of course, if those testimonials are not exactly awe-inspiring, many marketers will simply quit including testimonials altogether.
Affiliate marketing comes out of the closet, too
Slapping up a sales page and posing as an impartial reviewer won’t be so easy anymore.
The laziest affiliate marketers who’ve been relying on fast and easy clicks to make a living will probably disappear.
Not only will affiliate marketers be required to disclose that they’re getting paid or compensated to review or endorse a product, they also need to actually be a user of that product, too.
Obviously, affiliates who advertise hundreds or thousands of products will either have to limit themselves to a personally manageable handful or hire a huge back office.
Either way, their free lunch is over.
Of course . . .
If you’re an adept and capable marketer you’ll thrive
First, there won’t be as much “marketing noise” emanating from your less-ethical competitors.
The threat of an FTC-imposed $16,000-per-day fine should help quite a bit with that.
And with less competition, your market share should grow, if only by virtue of being one of the businesses in your niche to survive the marketing shakeout.
But increasing your business is far from guaranteed — even if you satisfy the new FTC guidelines and are indeed the last man standing.
Adjust your message accordingly
Just deleting testimonials or coming out with a weak marketing message will obviously not increase your sales.
Marketing isn’t a cut and paste job. You can’t treat it as a series of mix and match templates. New approaches to sales and marketing will have to be created, or old ones brought to the fore and refined.
Creative marketers and copywriters will still be the ones getting rich in this new and evolving FTC environment — though many of the individual faces may change.
Marketers, to survive and thrive, will need to return the selling discipline to what it should’ve been all along: an honest and transparent offering of genuine benefits.
If the FTC were completely successful (which, of course, isn’t likely), hype in all its empty guises would disappear.
Deceptive manipulation of facts and statistics would disappear.
Unrealistic claims and one-in-a-million results would disappear.
Hidden self-interest and undisclosed compensation would disappear.
Now I don’t think the FTC can usher in some new utopia of honesty online. But they will have an effect, and that effect will be to push many marketers to more candid and honest communication with their target market.
Marketers and copywriters will need to work, maybe not harder, but certainly differently, on a more open and higher level to acquire new customers.
Marketers will need to employ sales copy that is straightforward, transparent and realistic — yet still compelling and persuasive.
They’ll need to make disclosure into a selling point, using transparency as a sales tool.
This will require an inordinate amount of marketing skill and savvy.
(And, in many cases, it will simply require better products.)
Transparency’s net effect: better products, better communication
Clearly, confessional and authentic sales copy can’t rescue bad products. Some products just aren’t well-served by that much honesty.
But creating a remarkable marketing and sales approach, even for a quality product, isn’t just about embracing FTC guidelines.
The guidelines have raised the bar, it’s true. The new killer copywriters will be as ethical as they are persuasive. Those who can rise to the occasion will succeed and thrive.
Those who can’t meet the new standard . . . well, there’ll be many of those indeed. And you can be sure they’ll be searching for loopholes to keep old practices alive.