The Con – How Internet Con Artists are Abusing Marketing Techniques

Unethical marketers and just plain terrible marketers have always existed, but it seems in recent times there has been a splurge of unethical activity. Because it’s now easier than ever to market cheaply to a wide amount of people.  

I myself am exposed to numerous scams. I can’t go a day on Instagram without some poor woman direct messaging me to ask me to join her MLM (multi-level marketing) scheme. And on YouTube, I am inundated with ‘free’ courses which will instruct me on how to become earn a 6 figure monthly salary through my business in 8 weeks. (That sounds like an awful lot of work…)

Seeing as I have recently been writing about the A-Z of persuasion techniques for marketers, I thought I would go over some of the more common unethical techniques I see frequently. I think it’s important to discuss how persuasion techniques can be misused.  

Let’s get started.  

Abusing social proof

Social proof is a massively powerful tool. Social proof lets other people know that your product or service is widely in demand. This is used by Amazon in the forms of reviews and the ‘frequently bought together’ section on each items page. It’s used by most of us, including myself, in the testimonials area of our website.  

It’s a very human instinct to feel more comfortable buying something if many other people have bought it and found it helpful.  

However, there are many people who misuse this by getting fake testimonials and reviews. When someone is starting out it can be helpful for them to do certain small projects for free in exchange for testimonials, but outright faking is just wrong.

I get how hard it can be to get testimonials and reviews. Asking a client for a testimonial can be like pulling teeth, it’s just extra admin to them. It’s hard for me myself to get numerous reviews because certain customers don’t want it to be known who they use. But one should never fall into the trap of paying people who aren’t even customers for reviews, buying reviews from unethical websites or simply making up testimonials.  

If someone is hosting an event where they’re trying to flog their success coaching package or course, it is known that paid shills often attend these and pretend to race to buy their services at the end, to make it look like the product is in high demand.  

This isn’t much different from the old card trick con artists. They use shills to make it look like their game is easy to win. Guess where the ace card is and win £10, this guy just won 5 times in a row.  

Abusing Price Benchmarking

Benchmarking is comparing a cheaper price to a higher one. It’s extremely effective, as everyone loves to feel like they’re getting the best possible deal.  

Depending on your product or service, you may decide to benchmark your price against a competitors, or put something on sale. Say you’re selling an app subscription, it may be useful for you to market it as £7 per month for a limited time instead of £10. You’re still making a profit, and the reduced margin you get is compensated by the increase of customer numbers.  

This is commonly abused in the way that people are selling items or services at a discounted price, that were never the higher price to begin with.  

So you come across a course which is usually £2,000, but you, on today only, can buy this course for only £400. The course was never £2,000, nobody in their right mind ever has or ever would buy it at this price. It’s just simply… a magic trick, giving you the illusion that you’re getting an amazing deal when the course isn’t even worth the £400 you’re paying for it. Go on and look at how many of the courses are discounted. There are a LOT.  

Faking the lifestyle

It’s not my ‘thing’ but it’s common that agencies want to have sales staff who look their best and drive a nice car. It shows the business is doing well to be able to afford such things, and people often prefer to work with the people who are established and getting regular work from others. The social proof thing coming up again. It’s a little riskier to work with someone who is broke and looking for a chance to get started, even though we’ve ALL been there. (And I am very grateful for the people who gave me my first opportunities.) 

But it’s easier than ever to put on a front that you are the guy with the designer suit and the brand new Audi when you’re not. This came to my attention after I was ‘wowed’ by a lady not much older than me at a talk she did at a local baby group. With two kids in tow, she had managed to quit her day job, earn that ‘5 figure per month’ salary and earns more in one month than her husband does all year. Amazing right? By paying her £50 per hour, I too can learn to be this successful.  

Except for when I thought about it, the figures didn’t add up. She would need to be working an insane amount of hours to be earning these numbers, and have more clients on her rota than some of the very in-demand health professionals I work with. After a couple of years of being in business, that doesn’t seem realistic.  

When I looked at her Instagram, her lifestyle seemed impressive enough to match her salary. She had over 10,000 followers, she was constantly in California and drove an amazing car. She must have all that for a reason. Digging in a little deeper, I found that her followers were fake, and she was reposting one trip she’d taken to California repeatedly to make it look like she was there more regularly. Was her car actually hers? Who knows. There is nothing except my dignity stopping me from posing in front of a random car in the street and pretending it’s mine.  

A famous ‘success’ coach YouTuber is widely known to have launched his career with an advertisement about his incredible lifestyle. He was exposed to have actually rented an Air BnB type mansion for the ad and pretended he lived there. He was shown walking around the different rooms and swimming pools and cars in his mansion, explaining how he had made his money and was ready to give advice to other people (at a small cost). The advertisement worked, and he is now incredibly successful, but he got there by lying.  

Whenever we’re sold a success coach, a get rich quick course or a ‘work from home opportunity’ the seller often fakes their lifestyle, even going as far to post pictures with celebrities they have incidentally bumped into, acting like they’re a client!  

This works even on the micro-level of multi-level marketers selling third party essential oils or leggings. They’re often instructed to ‘fake it till they make it’ and show off their lifestyle on Instagram, even if it’s constructed.  

The reason why this works is because as human beings, we find big lies easier to believe than small ones. If my husband tells me he has remembered, this time, to pay our heating bill, I turn into Sherlock Holmes and am on the phone to N Power to check his testimony. But if someone tells me a whopper, I believe it hook, line and sinker. I’ve believed all kinds of insanity from friends of mine who I know to be compulsive liars, because no matter how crazy it sounded, it seemed crazier to me that they would lie about it.  

Think about it, if someone told you that one of their clients was a celebrity, would you immediately disbelieve them? 

Abusing NLP  

NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) can be useful when doing marketing or sales, whether it works or not (nobody seems sure if it actually does or not).  

I feel like it’s very important to give people a call to action and tell them what you actually want them to do, whether it be click here or buy now.

I noticed that copy was getting longer and longer on several of the Facebook ads I was seeing. It seemed to be a new trend of writing blog length advertisements that click through to an even longer landing page. On inspection, these ads are riddled with NLP and the format is generally: 

‘blah blah blah blah buy now.  

Blah worried, stressed tired, blah.  

Blah blah blah success.  

Blah blah blah seven figures

Blah blah blah buy now

Blah blah blah buy now.’  

People use these same NLP tactics at speaking events where they want you to buy their book, course, or whatever. It may be ineffective, but at heart, they are literally trying to brainwash you.  

Abusing The Yes Ladder 

If you’ve said ‘yes’ to someone you’re more likely to say yes to the next question.  

This is why a lot of copy starts with a question such as ‘are you struggling to get everything done?’ 

The yes ladder is a useful tactic for marketers but it is frequently abused. I’ll use an example from an advertisement for a get rich quick scheme I saw on YouTube: 

“I’m going to ask you a question. 

Would you like more time? 

Would you like more freedom? 

Would you like more money? 

If you said yes to any of these questions…..” *click bait* 

Would anyone say no to these questions? A yes ladder question can help you snatch up your target customer easily in a crowd of social media noise, and get them to take the next step. But using a yes ladder which anyone would say yes to is just… weird. Here’s a famous yes ladder you may have heard: 

“Have you been injured in an accident that wasn’t your fault?” 

If you answer ‘yes’ you know that the service is being targeted at you and that they may potentially be able to help you. Additionally, simply because you’ve said ‘yes’, you’re more likely to take the call to action. It’s not a popular ad, but it’s a clear cut, essentially well-written opening.  

The more time/money/freedom yes ladder is unethical because it suggests that the product/service can definitely provide more time, freedom and money, even if the ad doesn’t explicitly say it. If they did explicitly say it, it would be completely against marketing standards and be considered a fake advertisement.  

Imagine marketing anything else in this way. 

“Would you like to look young again? 

Would you like to be extremely beautiful? 

Would you like to have smooth flawless skin? 

If you’ve said “yes” to any of these questions… Buy our anti-wrinkle cream!” 

So why do people do this? 

Let’s be real, the people selling you a course teaching you how to become rich by selling other people courses how to become rich, or the people who sell you success coaching where you can become successful by teaching other people how to be success coaches are con artists. Con artists have always existed, and they are very clever people, generally.  

I read a fantastic book recently called The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for it Every Time by Maria Konnikova. She goes in-depth about cons and famous con artists in history.  

In her book she makes the point that people who fall for cons aren’t stupid, in fact, they’re usually smarter than the general population. We fall for cons at times in our life when we’re vulnerable. I myself was conned out of £300 when I was desperately house hunting in a different country I had recently been given employment in. At the time that was a life-ruining amount of money.  

So no wonder then that the majority of schemes I’m seeing at the moment involve making money quickly and easily, and working from home. These are things in life that so many people are desperate for. Many of the multi-level marketing schemes target mothers, as they completely understand that working from home can not just be a desire in those cases but a requirement.  

When marketers sell things SO hard and SO big we can be tempted to think ‘ok well maybe I won’t become rich from this, but even if the worst-case scenario is I only make a little bit of extra money, I could still use it.’ In reality, the worst-case scenario is that you have wasted your £500. £500 is a lot of money but it’s always worth it if it means a long term raise in your finances.  

Genuine businesses hate to oversell because we all know that it will come back and bite you on the arse when the client is unhappy with what you’ve promised them. But con artists aren’t genuine businesses, they aren’t in it for the long term. They’re here to make a quick buck and things like returning business and client satisfaction don’t matter, after all, they’ll be disappearing onto the next con within a few months.

I hope that this blog has helped you understand the dirty side of marketing a little more and helped you to reflect on how to make your own content stand out as being reputable and trustworthy. If you have any points you think I’ve missed, please let me know!  

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