Do We Market Honestly Or Do We Lie?

Do we market honestly or do we lie and manipulate?

Sometimes, I think Seth Godin is right – perhaps all marketers are liars.

That’s why most think that an honest business is an oxymoron.

I started thinking about this after I got back from a series of talks I attended at USM’s Art School last Saturday.

The university had invited a few media industry specialists to give advice and tips to the Art School undergraduates under a talk series called “Cari Makan 2”. This was not the first time this type of dialogue-talk-eye-opener was held – the first “Cari Makan” session was held in January this year (which I missed out on as I was in Kuching).

I applaud those who came together to organise this – it’s great that undergraduates are given glimpses of the real world out there especially those intent on working in the media world.

As photography, advertising, graphic design and more are taught to USM students, this introduction to industry specialists in photography, advertising and graphic design allows students to see how the professionals use their skills to ‘cari makan’ or make a living.

Indeed, an amazing opportunity to learn more. Heck, I learnt a few things too that morning.

As it was raining hard and furious, I was surprised to see around 80 students or more packed in to the hall when I arrived that Saturday morning.

What got me perturbed was something mentioned by one of the speakers of that day, a photographer.

He’s a consummate professional in his field and I have a lot of respect for him and his work. In fact, he’s a well-known figure in the Penang photography circle.

Yet, he blurted out that one uses photography to cheat on behalf of one’s clients.

The alert facilitator was clever enough to intervene and said that what’s meant by Mr Photographer is not cheating per se but more of enhancing the client’s products so that they sell better when the photos are used in magazines or newspaper ads. A faux pas that completely went over the heads of most the students.

Mr Photographer said he had been commissioned to snap photos of burgers which in his studio had looked enormous and tempting.

Yet when he goes to buy himself the same burger, he’s disappointed that the burger doesn’t look at all like the one in the ad.

The part which I balked at was this: he consoled everyone saying that Malaysians generally accept this sort of stuff, shrug and move on.

We’re NOT like Westerners who will make a big fuss about what you see is NOT what you get.

This means we’re pushovers for marketers? This means we’re stupid consumers?

* In Langkawi a few months ago, a Caucasian lady asked the cashier in a breakfast bar why her orange juice was not real orange juice, even at the price of RM5.50 per glass. This breakfast place had given her orange juice from a carton, sickeningly sweet and definitely not FRESHLY juiced from real oranges. (And by that, she also didn’t mean the regular kopitiam orange juice ok? The type where half an orange is juiced and mixed with half syrup and half ice) She’d ordered orange juice, you know, but she expected the kind that came fresh from the juicer? She started arguing with the shop and refused to budge until they explained to her why she was being ripped off.

So does this mean we have to create a big fuss before we get some real facts why we don’t get what we pay for? Is that it?

I have ranted about this unfair representation (which amounts to outright cheating) before.

About burgers which look so embellished in ads. About fried chicken which looks so appetisingly huge. About pizzas with toppings which cover the pizza crust until you cannot see the crust! But that’s only in advertisements and that is only for illustration purposes only.

If photography is used to cheat or manipulate or lie, it’s wrong. It’s wrong because consumers do buy products based on how it looks in the ad. We’re a visual society and if you say we aren’t, then why do you still turn to look each time a pretty girl walks by? Let’s face it, we like looking and visuals such as photos do make us stop and stare.

While I agree that one should make the client’s product look as tempting as possible, one cannot overdo it and cross that thin, fine line into the area called “Liars, Cheaters and Manipulators”.

What a photographer can do is show what is real.

What’s a fact. Don’t fudge it and add extra prawns, extra burger patties, extra topping when there isn’t ANY on the real product. What a photographer can do is work closely with a seasoned copywriter to bring out the product’s substance without lying or cheating with his photos.

Even in web design, there’s no such thing (well, at least in my company where I set the rules) as fudging photos to make products look bigger or more than what’s promised. We don’t enhance products either (if enhance means embellishing and adding bells and whistles to a product when the actual product has none of these stuff!).

What we do is, we investigate, understand and probe your business and its offerings as much as we can. We use actual features and benefits to help you sell your products. You may not even know your product was that special.

But we’ve come across many business owners who don’t find their businesses special until we come along and tell them, “Look here, you’ve got a great product and here’s why.”

We help them tell a real, honest-to-goodness truth without changing or adding any part of their product. It’s been there all along. We help uncover the inherent substance.

As service businesses, yes, it is sometimes tough to extract the essence of our client’s products especially if we are in industries where it is a given that we have to ‘cheat’ or ‘manipulate’.

But do we really have to cheat and manipulate to cari makan?

Are all marketers liars? Must they be liars? Is ethics in business so rare to come by these days?

Give me your two cents about this. I mean, can we all market and cari makan honestly or must we always resort to manipulating and cheating to get people to buy our stuff?

To more ethical businesses,


2 thoughts on “Do We Market Honestly Or Do We Lie?”

  1. Hi Nic,
    I read with interest your article. We are the distributors for the Paul Penders skincare range in the UK and I know you are a colleague of Paul’s and have given him some fantastic advice. I think the points you make in your article are very relevant and I think the problem always is, if we dont do it then someone else will! I think it is appalling when you buy an item of food with a wonderful picture on the carton and the food inside looks nothing like it. However, somehow, I think, none of us expects this to be the case and as usual its a case of buyer beware! I think that over time we learn that nothing is actually as it seems which maybe makes us over cynical about just about everything.

    My feeling is that the best way to market your product is to build up a relationship with existing customers, who will then recommend you to new ones and so on. I think this part of marketing is greatly undervalued. Apparently it costs 10 times as much to get an order from a new customer as than from an existing one. You dont then need to resort to any form of cheating because the product you sell will speak for itself. I wanted to mention something which is currently affecting my business and Paul Penders at the moment. This is to do with organic certification bodies, vegan bodies etc. The problem is, that the consumer needs some assurance that a product is what it claims to be. Now of course, we all know there is no guarantee because someone has signed up to something, that this gives that guarantee and there are, I am sure, countless examples of fraud going on in this area.

    The problem is, what is the alternative? We may know that our suppliers and products are wonderful, vegan, free of chemicals etc. etc., but how does the consumer make an informed choice without a certain amount of paperwork and verification to back it up? There will always be those that cheat the system, as in all areas of marketing, walks of life etc., but there will also be many genuine businesses who are keen to reassure their customers and do the right thing for them. Just because some people will cheat the system, surely doesnt mean the system has to be abandoned?

    All the best,
    The Natural Skincare Company

  2. Hi Amanda,
    Thank you for your comment. You are spot on about building relationships with customers. Customers want to feel like they matter and that they are special (but they are truly, for without customers, where would we be as businesses?).

    The idea of certification deserves a blog post by itself for there are many people for and many people against the idea.

    I feel the best way to reassure customers is not to hide but to be as open as possible (about both good and bad stuff) and to convey information, especially crucial information. Treat customers as if they are your best friends/partners. They have a right to know. Tell them so they can judge for themselves. If no one told them about what really go on in the industry, they’d never know. Genuine customers want to know and use the information to make up their minds.

    I’m a big believer about educating customers .

    Perhaps one way is to inform via blogs, websites, forums – that’s the way to enlighten customers that they need to be careful and sometimes a bit skeptical of what they read and NOT take everything at face value.Share your opinions. Let customers read and decide.

    Use your blog as the mouthpiece to show and tell about your suppliers. The more open you are, the more customers will know you have nothing to hide and believe in you MORE. That’s when you know you have won the war without needing to go to war. This is much more powerful sometimes than a piece of paper. When you have customers trusting you, lots of good things happen.

    My two cents and thanks for ‘visiting’ all the way from the UK,


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