When Best Practices Can Land You in Trouble

Every industry has its best practices – methods and techniques that have been proven time and again to bring exceptional results. But best practices are based on what has worked in the past. What happens when an industry – or perhaps an entire society – is in flux?

in troubleEvery industry has its best practices – methods and techniques that have been proven time and again to bring exceptional results.

And few industries test their techniques so brutally as direct response copywriting.

After all, a slight tweak to a sales letter can mean a difference of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of dollars in profit – or loss.

So when three of the highest-paid, most successful copywriters in America all endorse a technique, don’t you think you’d better listen?

Normally, I’d say, “You bet! Listen and emulate!”

But heads up – and this is important.

Best practices are based on what has worked in the past. What happens when an industry – or perhaps an entire society – is in flux?

Then you’d better watch your tail. Because blindly following best practices – even when endorsed by giants in their fields – can land you in trouble.

The Magic of False Logic

Bob Bly is an extremely well-known, top-tier B2B copywriter.  Bob publishes an insightful e-newsletter in which he shares many of his excellent copywriting, marketing and personal productivity tips. (It’s worth following.)

A couple of months ago Bob published an e-newsletter article titled The Magic of False Logic.

“False logic,” he explains, is “copy that manipulates (but does not lie about or misrepresent), through skillful writing, existing facts. The objective: to help readers come to conclusions that those facts, presented without the twists of a copywriter’s pen, might not otherwise support.”

He uses the example of a metal broker who claims that “95% of orders (are) shipped from stock,” even though he does not have a warehouse. When questioned, it turns out they are shipped from the metal supplier’s stock, not his own.

­­Green vs. the Three Giants

Bob Bly isn’t the only master copywriter to endorse the “false logic” technique. I’ve seen Dan Kennedy and Michael Masterson encourage it, too.

Now, each of these individuals belongs to the upper echelon of the copywriting world. To put it in perspective, they are the Donald Trumps and the Bill Gates of their profession. They know what they are talking about, and then some.

So when I say they are wrong, I’m risking my reputation.

But I’m going to say it anyway.

THEY’RE WRONG.

They’re wrong, at least, if you are selling anything that might be considered “green.”

What the Green Guides Say

False logic is an effective, proven technique. And it’s endemic in conventional marketing.

However, when applied to green claims, it’s an approach that is likely to violate the FTC’s standards for environmental messaging.

In Section 260.2 (Interpretation and Substantiation of Environmental Marketing Claims), the Green Guides state:

“A representation, omission, or practice is deceptive if it is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances and is material to consumers’ decisions…To determine if an advertisement is deceptive, marketers must identify all express and implied claims that the advertisement reasonably conveys. Marketers must ensure that all reasonable interpretations of their claims are truthful, not misleading, and supported by a reasonable basis before they make the claims.”

Preventing deceptive claims is the primary purpose of the Green Guides. The FTC doesn’t care about the literal truth – the only thing that matters to it is whether or not customers might find your statement misleading.

The FTC’s Zero Tolerance

Last October’s FTC action against two paint companies is an excellent example. The paints in question were labeled “Zero VOC.” This was technically true – for the paints as they came in the bucket.

However, depending on the final colors used to tint the paint, the customer could end up going home with paint containing measurable VOC content.

The FTC showed zero tolerance for truth twisting in this case. This, even though one of the companies had included a disclosure in their marketing collateral.  (The disclosure wasn’t obvious enough, according to the agency.)

A Better Best Practice

Best practice or not, I would be very careful about using false logic when marketing and advertising green products and services.

And given the trends I am seeing towards greater transparency even amongst mainstream companies, I would hazard a guess that it’s not the safest bet for anyone anymore.

Despite Bob Bly’s assurance that false logic is not lying or manipulation, it’s a fine line between truth and misrepresentation, and the technique can dance you dangerously close to the edge. All it takes is one or two dissatisfied customers who feel they’ve been lied to (whether or not it’s true) to smear your name all over social media. And then, of course, there’s the FTC.

A better best practice?

Use real logic.

Figure out how to position the truth of your service, product or company as a benefit to your customer.

Like that metal broker. It seems to me that instead of pretending to be something he’s not, he could position himself as having a unique business model (which he does; instead of being a dealer with a big warehouse like all his competitors, he’s one guy in an office.)

He could explain how his business is based on relationships, and how he uses those relationships to meet his customers’ needs better and faster than the competition.

In fact, a true story like that might even be more compelling than his dicey false logic claim.

Just sayin.’

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