The Perils of Gotcha Marketing
By Mike Carlton

“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife” – David Ogilvy
Consumers have always bonded with brands they trust

The Cold War

I served in the Army during the Cold War. For several decades the Soviet Union and the United States were in a potentially cataclysmic stand-off. Each was prepared to simultaneously rain nuclear destruction on the other. With the anticipated result of completely devastating both countries. And in the process ending global life as we know it.

It was a military doctrine known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short. Certainly an appropriate acronym.

My unit was well trained. And we were very close knit. We had faith in each other and had become loyal comrades. We were ready. And waiting.

But while things were sometimes tense, just being ready and waiting was incredibly boring. There was little to do. There was no action. And of course considering the consequences, no one in his right mind wanted any action.

Boredom Relief

Thus, to pass the time we invented a game. We called it “Gotcha.”

Here’s how it worked. We would secretly plan an elaborate and often very complex practical joke on one of the members of our team. The schemes were frequently quite creative. And took considerable effort to set up.

The objective was to get the target to believe something that sounded very plausible but in reality just wasn’t so. Something that appeared normal and rational. And then get him to publicly act on that misinformation.

As soon as he did, we’d all jump up and yell, Gotcha! He had been had. He felt foolish. Realizing that he’d been tricked, he and the rest of us would all have a good laugh.

Once that round of gotcha was over we would quietly set up another trick to play on another team member. It was all very egalitarian, since at one time or another each of us was a gotcha target.


In retrospect the gotcha game sounds quite childish. And perhaps it was. Yet it provided needed relief from the constant tension of high-stakes waiting. I guess it did teach each of us to be a bit wary. And to sharpen our skills at judging plausibility. So, I suspect it served those useful purposes too.

Gotcha Today

During the intervening years I never thought much about our gotcha game. It just never entered my mind. Until recently.

Now, while it may sound cynical, or perhaps a bit contrary, it strikes me that an increasing number of today’s marketers are playing gotcha with their customers. That’s right. They appear to be deliberately tricking their consumers.

Too often it looks like instead of focusing on building long-term trust in their brand marketers are seeking ways to maximize their short-term revenue – frequently resorting to ploys that if not actual trickery appear mighty close to it.

Some Examples

Marketing gotcha games can take all kinds of forms. Here are just a couple of examples:

- Packaging that looks big on the shelf but contains internal voids – thus making the volume of the product look larger than it actually is.

- Airlines that spring unexpected small service charges on their passengers after their trip has begun.

- Phone bills that contain several pages of an incomprehensible list of nickel and dime items in a line item order that seems to change each month.

- Consumer terms and conditions that are written in legalese that is incomprehensible to a mere human - and then set in six point type just to make sure it is unreadable.

- Restaurants that surreptitiously take a cut out of the tip you leave for the waitress.

- Credit card issuers that set their customers up to go slightly over their limit, or delay processing a payment, so they can jack up fees and interest.

- Detailed product information that may be technically accurate but has the intended effect of being misleading.

- And of course the entire sub-prime mortgage mess in which customers were beguiled into buying homes they could not afford.

And the list goes on and on. Each is a contemporary marketing gotcha. Each sets the consumer up and then springs a trap.

The Essence of Trickery

But there is a funny thing about gotchas. They require trust to work.

No one can be tricked unless they first trust the person or organization or brand tricking them. It is important to understand this. So let me say it again.

No one can be tricked unless they first trust the person or organization or brand tricking them.

If there isn’t a fundamental trust at the outset, we never let our guard down enough to be tricked.

And that upfront marketing trust usually comes from only one place; a positive brand perception on the part of the consumer. The marketer’s brand value is the source of that trust.

So, the consumer enters the marketing gotcha game with a positive, trusting belief about the brand and its marketer. She is open. She is vulnerable. Not knowing that her positive perception of brand value is about to be violated.

At that point, all that is needed is for the gotcha marketer to take advantage of the consumer’s gullibility. The consumer is easily tricked. And the marketer pockets the immediate revenue.

Caveat Emptor?

“Wait,” you say. “The buyer carries a responsibility. He should be aware. The seller can’t be expected to protect the buyer.” And I suppose that you are legally right. It is not a crime to trick a customer. Buyers should be responsible for their actions.

But that kind of legalistic thinking flies right in the face of the purpose of a brand. A brand commands greater value than an unknown because of the trust the consumer places in it. It is an emotional thing. Not a legal thing.

And marketers build brands because they want to benefit from that increased consumer trust. Trust that creates greater market value for the brand’s owner. A strong brand usually has a greater market cap than a weak brand. It is as simple as that.

Clever vs. Smart

So, while marketing gotchas may be clever, they certainly are not smart.

No one likes to be tricked. And folks don’t quickly forget who tricked them. Nor keep their displeasure a secret. Gotchas poison positive brand perceptions. And kill off brand evangelists.

From the marketer’s standpoint, tricking a customer is a fundamental violation of trust. A blatant betrayal of the consumer’s beliefs about the brand.

Essentially the gotcha marketer is saying to its customer, “You fool. We’re not as worthy as you thought we were.”

That is crazy!

Any marketer that deliberately diminishes the value of his brand is the fool.

A Terrible Irony

All marketers and advertising agencies know how difficult and expensive it is to build a positive brand perception. It is a trust that takes lots of time, effort and money to create. Brand value can span years, decades and even generations.

Yet in a quest for immediate additional revenue the gotcha marketer is willing, seemingly almost eager, to trash the trust that has been painstakingly built.

Gotcha marketing is not only wrong. It is just plain stupid.

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

So, What Does This Have to do With Advertising Agencies?

Simply this. Like it or not, agencies frequently play a key role in setting up the gotcha game for their clients. Agencies often create and implement the messaging that allures the consumer into the gotcha trap.

And as a result, the consumer holds agencies just as culpable. They don’t distinguish between the marketer and its advertising agency. They are both found guilty in the most important court of all. The court of consumer opinion.

Thus, we foul our own nest when we help marketers trick consumers. While we may not have initiated the gotcha, we are just as responsible as our client.

One could say that the agency is just doing what the client wants. And that there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, if the agency didn’t do it the client would fire them and get another agency. That the agency is just following orders.

Yet, just following orders is not an excuse.


The broadly held perception that agencies are complicit in gotcha marketing and other misrepresentations is likely a key reason that countless studies show that advertising practitioners are generally not highly respected by the public. In fact, we are usually right down near the bottom of the list of most trusted professions, in the close company of used car salesmen.

And, PR people can take no comfort either. They are well down the list too. And so are marketing people.

Why Public Respect is Important

1. First, and most important, advertising provides incredible value to society. At its very core, personal freedom is based on individual choice. Choices that each member of society can make for herself in the pursuit of a worthy and enjoyable life. Advertising is a principal means of providing the information needed to make those informed choices.

It is no coincidence that nations with the greatest personal freedom also have the most highly developed advertising industries.

So, advertising is not just a commercial activity. It is, in fact, a high calling. One that helps people live more constructive, productive and enjoyable lives. We are certainly more than just hucksters.

It is important for us to recognize this, and to continually celebrate the contribution we make to the betterment of humankind.

2. Second, advertising effectiveness is based on believability. And believability leads to trust. When the consumer’s trust is high, honest advertising is both efficient and effective. This is good for the marketer, the consumer and society in general.

But trust in the honesty of advertising is contaminated a little bit each time the consumer believes he has been gotchaed. And unfortunately consumers don’t often discriminate between honest marketers and the tricky ones. All advertisers, and their agencies, are painted with the same brush.

So even when we have no direct involvement in it, gotcha marketing hurts us all. And makes all advertising a little less effective. Which, in turn, raises marketing’s overall cost. Thereby adding unnecessary economic friction to the marketplace.

3. Third, the advertising industry needs talent. It wasn’t too long ago that advertising agencies attracted the best and brightest young graduates of our most highly regarded colleges and universities. The agency business was the career of choice for some of the most energetic and intelligent young people.

Not so today. Studies of the most desired careers sought by today’s college students show that advertising agencies have slipped significantly. There are a lot of opinions on why this decline has happened. And I am sure there are many contributing factors.

But the fact remains that our popularity as a career choice has dropped. Thus making it increasingly difficult to acquire the fresh talent agencies desperately need.

To assure the future of our industry we must attract top flight talent.

4. Fourth, our own self-esteem. It is basic human nature to want to win. To grow. To contribute. To elevate. To know that we are somebody.

Our worth to society is important for each of us. As well as our families, our relatives, our friends and our neighbors. We want them to recognize the value of the contribution we are making to the wellbeing of all.

We particularly owe this esprit to our children. So as to inspire them as they choose the careers in which they plan to spend their lives.

The Wisdom of David Ogilvy

Few people have had a greater impact on the advertising agency industry than David Ogilvy. Wikipedia describes him as being known for a career of expanding the bounds of both creativity and morality.

He left his legacy in codified principles which he called his Magic Lanterns. One of the most famous quotes from those is;

“The consumer isn’t a moron, she is your wife.”

And that was followed with;

“It is flagrantly dishonest for an advertising agent to urge consumers to buy a product which he would not allow his own wife to buy.”

Yet if we subscribe to those principles, how can we justify knowingly helping a marketer set up his customers for a gotcha?

Not an Easy Path

Moving away from gotcha marketing will not be easy. The temptation for quick returns is great. Marketers are under unprecedented pressure. And they have passed that pressure on to their agencies.

Morality and money are in conflict. But they always have been. And probably always will be. So it is unreasonable to expect big changes quickly. Yet our basic self-interest lies in increasing brand trust and decreasing gotcha games.

We need to be unabashed advocates for brand building. Passionate about creating trusting relationships with consumers. At the same time we need to push-back on gotchas that tarnish brand trust. And through it all we need to recognize that we have a higher calling than being just hired hucksters.

Consumers have always bonded with brands they trust. And that bond has worked well for them, the marketer and society.

Advertising agencies need to be ever-vigilant champions of that truism.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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