The Ugly Underbelly of Affiliate Marketing
I love affiliate marketing. There are many reputable, ethical merchants who sell quality products and services online, and many merchants and affiliates who use ethical methods to market those products and services. This article isn’t about those businesses; it is about the rest of them.
Anyone who has been in the affiliate marketing world for awhile, especially the CPA affiliate marketing world, knows that the industry has been prone to more than its share of unethical practices. What are those practices? Why do they occur? Should you care? What can be done about them? In this article I’ll try to provide some answers to those questions.
Flawed Thinking About Ethics
Some of the reasons typically given for running a business ethically include:
- In the long term, you’ll lose business if you’re known for ripping off customers.
- You’ll give the entire industry a bad name, which will hurt you, too.
- You’ll get fined or thrown in jail.
I think those statements miss the point entirely. While they may be true, there are far more crucial reasons to run an affiliate marketing business ethically. I believe that ethics deserves attention beyond the risk of hurting your business because I see running your business ethically as good for other people.
I think this shift in focus will motivate people to run their own businesses better and to eliminate harmful practices elsewhere in the industry.
Bad Offers & Bad Marketing
I think most of the ethical issues in affiliate marketing can be divided into two categories: unethical offers and unethical marketing.
Unethical offers include everything from many of the rebill offers, mobile “pin submit” offers, and penny auctions whose business models would come crashing down if customers actually understood what they were signing up for, to “have an affair” dating websites that play an active role in causing people the most intense suffering they may ever experience.
How To Justify Unethical Behavior
Somehow, for some reason, everyone from merchants to affiliates to affiliate networks to affiliate managers to ad networks absolve themselves of responsibility with arguments like:
- I’m just promoting the product; I’m not actually selling it.
- It’s not my fault if the customer doesn’t read the fine print.
- Morality is subjective.
- Eat or be eaten.
It seems to be so easy to rationalize bad behavior when there’s a profit to be made. The golden rule has been tossed aside and replaced with “How can I make the fastest and easiest profit without getting thrown in jail?”
Businesses absolutely need to focus on profit, but not at the expense of ethics. That’s not how capitalism is meant to work. In true capitalism, businesses make increased profits by offering increased value to the world. Far too often in the affiliate marketing world, profit is made by talking value and delivering suffering.
Thankfully the FTC in the United States has recently cracked down on deceptive rebills and the misleading marketing that is often used to promote them. The FTC has certainly had an impact on cleaning up the industry to an extent, but regulators in other countries haven’t been as quick to act, and in the United States, other types of unethical offers and marketing are still rampant.
White, Gray, and Black
When it comes to ethics, there is very often a gray area, and I certainly won’t say that no one should step into the gray. It’s often unavoidable and perfectly ethical to do so, in my opinion.
For example, consider a disclosure to a customer that she’ll be billed $80 each month after her 30-day free trial. How prominent should that disclosure be?
You could design your web page so that the disclosure is the main headline on the page in 100 point font, or you can write the disclosure in illegible six point font in the middle of a sea of terms and conditions that you know no one will read, or it can be somewhere in between.
At some point, as you decrease the disclosure size and location to make it more and more obscure, you start entering the gray area, and eventually you enter what is clearly black. The boundary between ethical and unethical is not always clear, which is why the gray area exists. The problem is that far too often people in the affiliate world are walking around in the pitch black and using ludicrous arguments to rationalize it as white or gray.
Why Are Affiliate Marketers Prone To Unethical Practices?
That’s a tough question to answer, but here are a few of the possible reasons:
- Affiliates have no ongoing relationship with customers. Most types of businesses need to maintain a good reputation and relationships with their customers. Affiliate marketers usually don’t have that incentive because they don’t have any relationship with the customer. They’re simply middlemen driving customers to another business.
- Many CPA products themselves are one-time scams. Many merchants themselves build their businesses around the “squeeze as much money as possible out of the customer and then forget about them” model. Since they think short-term and aren’t concerned with how their website or product will be performing five years from now, they don’t “need” to build a good reputation or provide good customer service.
- It’s more difficult to empathize through a computer. I realized this recently when I was about to write a scathing review of an incompetent customer support rep who I had dealt with through email. When I visited the web page to leave feedback about this particular rep, I saw her photo. It’s true that I thought she was incompetent, but seeing her photo made me consider that she had probably done her best and how my review would make her feel. So although I still left a negative review that I thought was justified, it was far less scathing than I had originally planned. I think affiliate marketers would be far less likely to sell a ringtone scam to a teenager face-to-face in a bricks-and-mortar store, compared to an online store where the affiliate simply sees a click and conversion recorded in his tracking software.
None of the reasons are valid justifications for unethical behavior, of course. They’re just reasons why I think it’s easier to be unethical in the affiliate marketing world. Those same reasons, I think, are why people who have lower ethical standards to begin with are more likely to be drawn to affiliate marketing than to other forms of online business.
Affiliates’ Reaction To Ethics
To be sure, there are many ethical affiliates out there. But on numerous occasions I’ve seen affiliate marketers laughing and joking about customers who complain of being ripped off after buying a garbage product without reading the fine print. For instance, someone will post a complaint that they received from a legitimately ripped off customer, and everyone will talk about how hilarious it is!
Just last month I saw an affiliate network owner scoffing at the concept of morality in response to a customer who complained about being ripped off. Here are just a few actual responses to ethical questions that I’ve seen on affiliate marketing forums:
- “Are you making money? Or not? That’s the only question that matters.”
- “Your job is to convert -period- not philosophize on whether or not you’re f***ing people over.”
- “Ethics? Drop them if you’re serious about marketing.”
- “I believe that most people who pay for ringtones and buy diet pills are probably the kinds of people who will blow their money anyway regardless of whether they’re blowing it on my s**t or someone else’s, so it really doesn’t bother me.”
- “I decided to temporarily put my conscience in a box until I am rich.”
- “I am a full blown deceptionist when it comes to my ads, you gotta do what you gotta do… bottom line, this world is a f***ed up place, it’s not gonna change anytime soon. You either flow with the current or don’t, plain and simple.”
- “I used to be a bit concerned with ethics. F*** that, now I ask myself one question and one question only – Is It Legal?”
What Makes Something Unethical?
I think most of us know when we’re doing something unethical without needing to be told or given a set of rules. To try to make this point more clear, I’ll digress from marketing for just for a moment (please pardon the unpleasant example, but I think it’ll help get the point across):
If you saw someone kick a helpless puppy across the street, you wouldn’t need a law to tell you that something bad just happened, would you? Â You know in your heart that itâ€™s wrong. We all know that itâ€™s wrong, and that knowing exists entirely independently of what any law might say or what your coworkers or some religious book might tell you. This sense of ethics is built into all of us. Itâ€™s universal.
Some of us block it out of our minds or have had our consciences malformed due to abnormal experiences, but none of that changes the fact that a universal ethics does exist.
The golden rule is one universal rule of thumb that everyone inherently knows, but that many people in our industry choose to ignore. If you wouldn’t want a certain scam sold to you, don’t sell it or promote it to others. If you wouldn’t want to be deceived in the way that your ads deceive other people, don’t run those ads.
Most of us know when we’re acting unethically, but many of us simply don’t care unless laws are put in place to force us to act as if we cared about ethics.
Why Care About Ethics?
It’s hard to know how to convince people to truly care about ethics if they don’t already. The right reason to act ethically isn’t “because you’re going to get in trouble,” although for many people that seems to be the only reason that works.
I think that often when people act unethically they have an inability to (or they refuse to) empathize. The best way that I can think to explain the importance of ethics is to continue with the previous analogy…
Why should you not kick a helpless puppy across the street? Is it:
- Because you might get put in jail or fined?
- Because it would hurt your reputation?
- Because customers might boycott your business if they found out you did it?
NO! Those are certainly some of the potential consequences, but the reason that you shouldn’t kick the puppy across the street is because it would hurt the puppy. You know it’s wrong because you can put yourself in the shoes of the puppy and feel yourself what the puppy would feel.
A deranged person might be unable or unwilling to empathize with the puppy. Such a person either can’t take the perspective of the puppy and imagine feeling what the puppy will feel, or this person refuses to do so. This person might laugh as the puppy flew across the street. He’d probably also be likely to laugh at customers who get ripped off by deceptive marketers.
“Because I’ll put you in jail if you do” is the reason that you might have to give to a deranged person to prevent them from kicking a puppy across the street. And “Because I’ll put you in jail if you do” is the reason that you might have to give to a deranged marketer to prevent them from making a profit at the cost of making other people suffer.
It’s true that if you run your business unethically you might get put in jail, it might hurt your reputation, or your customers might boycott your business. But if those are your primary reasons for acting ethically, then you’ll always be prone to acting unethically if you think you can escape the consequences. If your government bans rebills, you’ll start promoting them in other countries or perhaps you’ll start a deceptive penny auctions business.
When people have a true concern for ethics they don’t need laws and rules to govern how they run their business; their own conscience guides them independent of any laws.
I’d like to reemphasize that not all ethical answers are obvious; there’s often a gray area. But when the answers are obvious (and they’re obvious far more frequently than affiliate marketers seem willing to admit), what could be more important? Profit?
If you were getting paid $1,000 per day to torture puppies, and one day you realized it was wrong, should you continue torturing puppies until you had a new ethical income source to replace the $1,000 per day? Of course not. You should stop torturing puppies immediately, whether or not you have any other income source. If you have to sell your house and move into your parents’ basement for a while, so be it. Deceiving and ripping people off online is no different.
The challenge is this:Â Do something. Whether you’re directly or indirectly involved in unethical practices, or whether you’ve been allowing them to occur by sitting back and watching, take action to make a change. If you’re not actively doing anything wrong yourself but you’re aware of other people who are doing something wrong, you’re not off the hook.
You wouldn’t just sit back and watch while someone else kicked puppies across the street, would you? You’d get up and do something to stop them. So how can you justify sitting back and watching while families get destroyed by “have an affair” dating websites or while customers are deceived into paying exorbitant prices for useless products?
Or worse, how can you justify allowing those types of offers onto your affiliate network or ad network? If you’re in a position of influence in an ad network or an affiliate network you’re even more obligated to act. In the words of Spider-Man’s uncle: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
If you’re an affiliate manager, you can refuse to help your affiliates to promote unethical offers, and use what influence you do have within your network to eliminate those offers.
If you’re an affiliate, in addition to only promoting clean offers using honest advertising, you can try to avoid doing business with affiliate networks that make large quantities of shady offers available to the world.
Whether you’re an affiliate marketer, an affiliate manager, a network owner, a merchant, or anything in between, there’s probably something you can do to act more ethically and influence others to do the same.
Don’t be a coward and sit back to watch while everyone around you is causing suffering, or convince yourself it’s okay because everyone is doing it. As a wise man once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that Â good men do nothing.”
Updated: This current version reflects two additional links that didn’t appear in the original article.