A recent blog post has stirred quite a lot of controversy. It specifically made some stark accusations about a certain number of marketers who appear to be colluding.
Some call it unethical. Others call it smart business. And a few go as far as calling it an illegal cartel that should be charged with breaking racketeering and anti-trust laws.
I don't know if it's true or not, so I won't comment on it directly. And I'm not a lawyer by any stretch.
But I can comment on what we observe. And we can certainly observe a few things that are rather obvious. For example, if you're subscribed to several of these marketers' lists, even if only a handful, then I'm confident you've noticed some recurring trends.
(Let's call them “musical-chair product launches.” Oh, and let's not forget the once pricey product you paid a marketer just a few weeks ago now being given away for free as a bonus to buying from their affiliate link during someone else's product launch.)
Personally, I don't think it's wrong for competitors to partner up as to time their product releases separately. (I'll come back to the term “competition” later, as it is important.) To a certain degree, this is definitely smart business.
The question is, at which point can this specific situation be deemed illegal or not? The answer is arguable — and by arguable, I mean in a court of law. But blogger Antone Roundy said it best, when he shared the following insight, which I agree with…
“But if they're promoting each other regardless of product quality or value for the price, that's unethical at best. And if they’re agreeing to a pricing scheme or taking products off the market during other peoples' launch periods to reduce competition, I'd expect the FTC to be breathing down their necks really soon.”
This is what seems to be happening here. We can debate the legality of it. But illegal or not, it's definitely unethical. Even if it is legal, the appearance of impropriety alone is enough to leave a bad taste in people's mouths. It certainly does in mine.
After my wife's controversial report, Internet Marketing Sins, which she released over two years ago, you can say that a line in the sand has been drawn. Since then, a number of marketers have expressed on which side of that they now stand.
To name a few — I'm linking to their specific posts wherever possible — there are people like Joel Comm, Ryan Healy, Ray Edwards, Dan Gallapoo, and many more. (Funny how many of them are copywriters, eh?) The numbers seem to be steadily growing, too.
(If you have 45 minutes, listen to this podcast by Randy Cantrell.)
We've also seen the emergence of a growing number of consumer advocacy and personal opinion blogs that are entirely dedicated to being critical of unethical marketing practices, and exposing deceptive and dishonest business activities.
Do I like them? To be candid, some blogs — and especially some of the commentators on these blogs — are caustic, jarring, and vile. Some are a bit too toxic for my taste.
But while I may not like them, I don't necessarily blame them. After all, they didn't just appear out of nowhere with the sole intent to make marketers' lives miserable. Many of these types of anti-scam blogs were created as a result of a personal, bad experience.
Plus, they can easily polarize people.
Many disgruntled consumers who are attracted to these blogs have grown highly cynical, suspicious, and resentful. So it's only natural they voice their grievances on them.
But what frightens me is that the voice of genuine scam victims are muffled by a small yet vocal minority of anti-marketing extremists who spew their venom senselessly.
These pitchfork-wielding protesters seem hellbent on destroying any levelheaded discussion. They flame anyone who voices any opposing views, and rabidly pounce on anyone who might want to take a stab at having an intelligent, sensible argument.
I've seen some bigoted commentators bash others in an attempt to manipulate, irritate, and denigrate. This is childish behavior, and it defeats the purpose. They should focus on the issues, and not on whether someone is overweight, effeminate, or disabled.
Focus on what they do, not who they are.
Nevertheless, I often want to join in on the conversation myself, but I stop short of doing so because I fear what I say will fall on deaf ears — if not get drowned by a handful of witch-hunting McCarthyists who trawl around for any faint smell of blood.
Now, this doesn't mean the other side is innocent, either.
Namecalling and ad hominem attacks occur on both sides.
I've seen a lot of venom spewed from proponents of these marketers. Genuine scam victims continue to be victimized through what appears to be concerted efforts of another vocal minority who feel that some of the marketers singled out are beyond reproach.
Some have gone to the extent of saying that scam victims are really the ones to blame. They say things like “caveat emptor (buyer beware),” “they're jealous or envious of those who make money,” “they need to take responsibility for their actions,” etc.
Sure. Just like women wearing provocative clothing are looking to get raped, right? Ugh.
Granted, the market should bear some of the responsibility. Plus, I definitely agree there are trolls out there who just want someone to blame for their failures and inadequacies.
But caveat emptor is a weak argument when it seems to be used as a means to exclude the responsibility of others. Counter-blaming your customers should never nullify your actions when you blatantly prey on the market's relentless dream for the magic pill.
Caveat emptor is not some loophole to take advantage of the vulnerable.
Just because you robbed a bank that had no alarm system doesn't mean the bank is in the wrong because they lacked security. A robbery is still a robbery.
And it's still wrong.
The question is, where does the vicious circle stop?
If the blame should be split 50/50, then so should the solution be split 50/50, too. Marketers should stop selling magic-pill solutions to a market who's desperate for help. And the market should stop chasing the dream by buying into magic-pill solutions.
As we know, there is no such thing as a magic pill. If they keep chasing it, they will murder any chances of achieving true success. And sometimes, that can be quite literal.
As long as there will be a market for magic-pill solutions, there will always be marketers willing to provide it to them. So aside from more laws and regulations, which I'm not a fan of, achieving a compromise is a challenge, particularly when both sides are greedy.
So another and perhaps more effective solution is: education.
Educate the market on what to look out for and avoid, as well as educate those who are learning how to market and may think of modeling such unethical practices.
In my estimation, too many marketing products out there are just snake oil. Period.
I understand and appreciate that buyers should beware, that they should do their due diligence, that they should take their time and investigate before jumping in. Agreed.
But fake scarcity ploys during high-pressure product launches remove any chance for the market to appreciate what exactly is being sold. It reduces their ability to think critically, investigate the offer adequately, and make an intelligent buying decision.
So education is powerful. And these blogs, while harsh in some cases, are vital.
Let me end with this. Antone Roundy's comment about gathering with other marketers to time product releases being a smart business practice is right. After all, that's why many associations exist. But I agree this works only up to a point.
I'm far from being a lawyer, but if it is unacceptable when products are taken off the market, as Antone said, then that's exactly what seems to be happening here. In fact, these are not “product releases.” They are not even product launches, for that matter.
They are simply close-ended sales events.
But let's take a closer look at what constitutes “competition,” and how it applies, here. Defined, competition is: “the effort of two or more parties acting independently to secure the business of a third party by offering the most favorable terms.”
Whether the people in this group of marketers are acting independently is debatable. The question is, are they truly competing against one and other? In other words, are these guys truly competitors? This is something I think any court will need to define.
But here's my take. They sell information, true. And it can be argued that information is not really competitive. For example, just because I bought a Stephen King novel doesn't preclude me from buying an Anne Rice novel at the same time.
One can sell information on, say, affiliate marketing while the other on, say, traffic generation. So they are not quite “competitors.” But herein lies the problem…
Marketers are not authors selling their information. They are more like publishing houses selling information products. Yes, products. And as publishing houses — and again, I'm no lawyer — they seem to be colluding to some degree.
Even the term “information products” is debatable, too. Because the “products” most gurus sell today aren't really information. In actuality, what they're selling are business opportunities packaged as information and sold under the guise of training systems.
Again, this is just my opinion. I always want to look at both sides of an issue before I form an opinion. And in this case, after everything I've seen, all I can say is that the whole musical-chair product launch game just doesn't smell right to me.