“Ad or site content that tries to mislead site visitors threatens customer safety. These include unsubstantiated claims, free offers or price promises, misleading ads, and promotion of third party products and services,” – Bing Ads
The global Internet has emerged as the biggest marketing platform in human history and enterprises have devised multiple means to leverage the wide reach of the Internet to market their products and services. However, the flood of online marketing communications includes instances of misleading content that can harm customer interests and jeopardise brand reputations. Advertisers may offer deceptive claims primarily to generate a better response from online marketing channels. These actions may create brand confusion, can negatively affect customer trust, signal a waste of customer dollars, may incite customer ire against a brand(s), and may invite regulatory actions. We must note that false advertising and misleading content illustrate negative business practices wherein, commercial considerations gain priority over ethical business practices.
Market research indicates that a high percentage of Internet audiences would stop trusting an organisation when misleading content is offered or advertised by the said organization (or a brand). For instance, the healthcare industry invests millions of dollars every year to advertise its products on Internet platforms, such as websites, search engines, mobile apps, among others. The intent behind such advertising is to create consumer awareness and to provide the means that enable patients to affect a speedy recovery. These marketing promotional tactics also seek to promote new medications and novel approaches to diagnosing health problems. However, misleading content can generate misrepresentation and bears the potential to create havoc in patient treatment regimens. In addition, false advertising claims can jeopardise medical ethics and may attract punitive measures from industry regulators. Further, these claims could be perceived as being motivated purely by commercial considerations and can severely damage public trust in the medical profession.
Another instance of misleading content appears commonly in the form of fake product reviews that misrepresent the true picture. The motivation behind the generation of such content lies in generating commercial gains at the expense of the average customer. These reviews may be calibrated to heighten the attributes of a certain product (or line of products) at the expense of competing sets of merchandise. We note that this instance of unethical business practices highlights market collusion, wherein a certain manufacturer collaborates with a content generator to create false online reviews to the detriment of the competition. Recent instances of such malfeasance have come to light wherein, paid ‘consultants’ were enrolled to increase systematically, the number of ‘likes’ generated by a certain product or service on social media platforms. We must acknowledge the fact that such practices tend to queer the pitch for bona fide product manufacturers and have the potential to put corporate reputations to shame.
Real estate consultants depend on the market requirements for affordable housing and commercial spaces to make a living. An ambitious consultant could under-quote property prices in a bid to steal a march on his or her competition. The said businessperson could commission the creation of misleading content on the Internet in an attempt to attract customers and to expand business prospects. This constitutes a blatant example of market manipulation because the outcomes could unfairly dent business reputations of competing entrepreneurs. The clients and customers of the said consultant could be misled to believe that they can achieve personal objectives of owning an apartment or a commercial space at a very competitive price. We must note that such unethical trade practices can be curbed when market regulators take a severe view of said practices. The risks of such market manipulation could include a permanent ban on the erring consultant and the imposition of a heavy monetary penalty. In addition, the manipulator could face incarceration for life.
Online business operators such as e-commerce website owners and social app businesses must avoid hosting misleading content. Social apps have millions of potential customers and disseminate news, entertainment, and information. Therefore, strict guidelines must be set in place to discourage the generation and rendering of false content. These businesses must realise that their online customers rely on the business and the room for error in such matters remain minimal. Young citizens with impressionable minds often comprise significant swathes of online followings; ergo, the said business must actively enforce and periodically review its hygiene guidelines in an attempt to weed out misleading content. In a similar vein, e-commerce operators must make it a point to vet every product or service offered by a brand on the website. The consequences of laxity in such matters can include a loss of customer trust, a tarnished business reputation, potential regulatory backlashes, ceding ground to the competition, and a complete loss of business confidence in the said enterprise.
Customer trust can be negatively impacted when brands make unsubstantiated claims in online platforms. This approach to conducting business is a variation of misleading content because the said claims are only designed to attract online attention, not to offer a genuine product or service to paying customers. For instance, an appliances company that manufactures and markets juice makers can claim that the ‘heavy duty’ motor that drives the said appliance is engineered to last a certain number of years. The said brand may choose to advertise itself in online media only in a bid to attract more customers. We note that commercial considerations may ensure that the motor performs below expectations and thus customers that paid for the appliance feel cheated when the device performs at subpar levels. Consequently, customer complaints may be filed with the advertising website to the effect that future advertisements by the erring brand may be prohibited for all time. This instance clearly demonstrates a blatant breach of customer trust and a short-term approach to business practices.
Manufacturers and marketers of illegal products, such as banned psychotropic substances, can resort to the development of misleading content in an attempt to market their wares online. These products can be disguised as genuine medical formulations or materials designed for recreational use. The very nature of such marketing communications ensures some degree of commercial success, but online platforms should be vigilant in terms of banning such selling techniques. One of the effects of such marketing efforts is that genuine purveyors of medicinal products may see their business impacted. Further, the entire category of products may suffer a decline in online sales when a blanket ban is enforced on the sale of such products. Therefore, online business operators must seriously weigh the pros and cons of allowing dubious enterprises to flourish on the Internet.
In the preceding paragraphs, we have examined the various outcomes that mar customer trust in the aftermath of the creation and propagation of misleading content. The creation of such content can never be justified under ethical business practices and therefore, malfeasance can be the sole motivation. The perpetrators of these business practices must realise that their actions create the grounds to slur an entire industry and the only response to such actions lies in toughened rules and regulations in addition to active enforcement protocols. Short-term business gains can never justify commercial misrepresentation; every business operator must take it upon himself or herself to create and sustain fair operating conditions in the interests of preserving the customer’s trust.