- September 27, 2011
- Posted by: Seth Heyman
- Categories: Internet Law, Marketing & Advertising Law
The Seven Dirty Words of Lead Generation
Back in 1972, the late great comedian George Carlin had a hilarious and entirely accurate monologue called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” The same concept applies when it comes to marketing consumer debt relief services, such as mortgage, tax, and unsecured debt relief.
The FTC recently filed a complaint in U.S. District Court to halt various misleading claims made by Christopher Mallett and related entities, who allegedly impersonated the federal government by using official-sounding names on numerous lead generation Internet landing pages.
Using business and domain names such as “Department of Consumer Services Protection Commission,” “U.S. Mortgage Relief Counsel,” and “gov-usdebtreform.net,” Mallett was charged with multiple violations of the FTC Act for misrepresenting his affiliations with federal agencies.
This tactic is nothing new. Lead generators often choose official-sounding names to imply an affiliation with government agencies or law firms to secure leads. This is a bad idea, especially as far as the federal government is concerned. Desperate consumers are gullible consumers, and will grasp at any straw that promises relief, and an official-sounding straw like the “Department of Consumer Services Protection Commission” tends to draw better.
Marketers planning to employ similar tactics have often approached me, and when I advise them that going that route will get them in trouble, their consistent response is “well the other guys are doing it, and they’re getting away with it.” My reply is identical to the phrase used by every parent sometime during the course of his or her child’s upbringing: “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you follow him?”
That begs the following question: what can a legitimate advertiser do to appear official in order to catch the eye of the jaded consumer without crossing the line? Therein lies the challenge. If it helps, it’s easier to know what not to do, which is to avoid using the following words on any website, direct mail piece, or radio and TV ad:
- Federal (or state);
- Government (or gov, or any agency acronym); and
- Office of (as in “The Office of Debt Relief Services”)
The Seven Dirty Words have one thing in common: A reasonable consumer is likely to interpret them as having a connection with a government agency.
Let’s apply the Seven Dirty Words rule to one of the offending names in this case: the “Department of Consumer Services Protection Commission.” This is apparently a mish-mash of two real government agencies, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
If we dissect the offending business name, the words “Department” and “Commission” are dirty, and thus triggered the wrath of the federal government. According to the FTC, the defendant’s websites “associated his business with a fictitious government agency.” Removing those two words leaves us with “Consumer Services Protection,” which doesn’t make much sense standing on their own. But if we replace “Commission” with “Group,” we cut any connection with a government agency.
Of course, a misleading name is often accompanied by misleading information. According to the FTC complaint, the defendant’s websites apparently depicted the FTC’s official seal, copied language describing his “agency’s” purported consumer protection mission almost verbatim from the FTC’s site, and claimed that the fictitious agency “monitors and researches” member companies that provide financial assistance to American consumers. Clearly, the defendant in this case was doing everything he could to impersonate the federal government short of donning a Barack Obama mask, and the FTC’s action in the case is eminently justified.
One can almost smell the desperation inherent in Mr. Mallett’s actions. He was trying to obtain an advantage against hundreds of other companies vying for the same leads, and figured that, all else being equal, a consumer is more likely to choose an apparent arm of the government, rather than another generic debt relief company. He may not even have realized that his actions violated the law. Perhaps his sites included a tiny sentence somewhere that read “we are not affiliated with any government agency,” and he thought that would be enough to protect him. It didn’t, and if you imply a connection with any federal or state government agency, it won’t help you either.
So what can you do to appear “official” without implying a connection? The answer is simple: replace “official” with “authoritative.” Hire a good writer who knows the industry inside and out to write original, accurate, and helpful articles on your websites. In other words, try helping consumers instead of trying to fool them. You’ll sleep better at night.