Testimonials—written recommendations about a product by a user or celebrity—are among the most effective marketing tools. But a recent scandal has put the practice in the headlines, shedding light on some unethical behavior.
Many testimonials include a photograph of a happy customer who has purchased the product and wants to share his or her positive user experience. Advertisers claim that testimonials without photographs don’t offer the same level of persuasion as ones with photographs, so these images play a large part in the efficacy of the advertisement.
Such was the case for a product sold by uBiome, a lab-testing company. On the company website, a picture of a young, handsome, smiling man was accompanied by his purported testimonial that said uBiome’s product helped him learn that “a lot of my immunity issues stemmed from the lack of bacteria in my microbiome.”
The problem was that the same man’s face can be found on multiple websites with different names and marketing a variety of products and services. An investigation revealed that the uBiome photograph was actually a stock image taken from Shutterstock.com, although the testimonial itself came from a customer account page or a survey. Government rules require that endorsements feature actual customers unless the advertising company reveals where the substitute image was obtained. That was not, however, what uBiome did. Subsequently, the company’s co-founders and co-chief executives were placed on administrative leave.
Using a stock photo the way uBiome did is quicker and easier than tracking down customers and obtaining permission to use their photos. But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s legal.
- Why is it unethical to use a fake photo in a testimonial?
- Who should be held responsible for such lapses—the marketing manager, advertising director, CEO or all?
- Would you be more likely to use a product after reading a testimonial with a photo or without a photo?
By Janet Mizrahi, BizComBuzz Staff Writer Lecturer, UCSB Writing Program
If your bus com students are anything like mine, there are days when you’re happy to read an assignment that at least doesn’t contain basic grammar errors. Those are the days when I despair that my course objectives also include fostering critical thinking and ethical behavior.
So I was thrilled when I came upon the non-profit higher education organization IDEA and a post about how to include teaching ethics development in any discipline. Using its overall design, I’ll share the Guffey Team’s take on this important learning outcome.
First, some background. We know that most industries and fields have codes of conduct. However, if we want students to genuinely understand why it’s important to be ethical, simply introducing codes of conduct is not enough. To learn how to make ethical choices, students must learn how to think critically so they can apply ethical reasoning to make ethical decisions.
Arriving at an ethical choice requires going through a series of critical analysis steps (visit ideaedu.org for an excellent model of these steps in a real-world situation.)
- Recognize an event that requires a reaction.
- Define that event as having an ethical component.
- Consider the ethical aspect to be one of significance.
- Take personal responsibility to solve the problem.
- Research the abstract ethical rules that may pertain to the situation.
- Determine how those rules apply to the specific situation.
- Be ready to respond to forces that would negatively impact acting in an ethical way.
Studies have shown that the best way to integrate teaching ethics is through case studies done individually or as group work. In the business communication classroom, many opportunities for both exist. Here are a few you might consider:
- Assign a case (or several from which students can choose) to be completed as an individual assignment resulting in a memo or report that not only requires ethical thinking but that emphasizes basic business writing strategies.
- Create a unit dedicated to ethics using a case on which students work in groups to write a report or a presentation. This can be a major assignment that comes at the end of a semester, after which students have learned and practiced business communication skills.
To find a business-related case that might work for your class, check out the following links.
Arthur Andersen Case Studies in Business Ethics
International Relations Ethics Case Studies
Let us know if you have chosen to work this important learning outcome into your classes!