John Caples Ad

How Far Is Too Far in Advertising?

There is a huge dichotomy in advertising.

  • On the one hand you’ve got the pressure to perform: to make your advertising as profitable as you possibly can.
  • On the other hand you’ve got the pressure to be ethical: to be as honest as possible in your advertising.

Last week I raised the issue of using fake scarcity to drive more sales. Many people said they disagreed with such a deceptive tactic and would fire any client who did such a thing.

Not to muddy the waters too much here, but the issue of honesty in advertising is very complex. In fact, it seems dishonesty in advertising is accepted as a matter of course!

So, since I already brought up the issue of fake scarcity, let’s turn the lens of scrutiny toward…

Fake Stories

When I asked my mastermind group how they would handle dishonest clients, the responses were very interesting. Not one of them was the same. And yet each person seemed passionate about his position.

Daniel Levis mentioned how John Caples’ most famous ad was an imaginary story. You know, the ad that begins, They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano But When I Started to Play!~

The story in this ad is completely fictitious. Some may say it is dishonest. Is this okay? And how is it any different than the fake weight loss stories and fake body building stories published on “flogs” these days?

Maybe the difference is in class, style, and sophistication. If you tell an imaginary story framed as a real story… and you tell it believably enough… does that make it okay?

Fake Endorsements

Or how about TV commercials with paid actors and actresses giving fake endorsements of products? This is extremely common.

The “perfect” house wife comes on screen, kids in the background: “Ever since I started using Product X, cleaning up even the messiest spills has been a breeze. After all, I need all the help I can get!”

Everybody knows these “TV testimonials” are fake, the stories completely made up, the “families” patched together from the most attractive people on the set. It’s quite possible the actors and actresses in these commercials have never even used the products they’re promoting!

And yet I don’t see anybody complaining about this particular genre of dishonest advertising.

Real Ad, Fake Story

Here’s another example. I’m a subscriber of World Net Daily’s Whistleblower magazine. On the back cover of the November 2009 issue there is a full-page ad put out by Swiss America to advertise gold.

The headline reads: “Our retirement account has tripled in the last 5 years…”

Underneath the headline there is a picture of a happy couple in their 50s. It is obviously a stock photograph to support the headline.

Now, the headline is dishonest on two levels. By saying “Our retirement account has tripled,” they’re implying that this really happened to a certain couple. I’m fairly confident that this is not the case.

What’s more, the price of gold has tripled from 2004 to 2009. Which means that for the headline to be true, this couple would have had to have had 100% of their retirement account invested in gold. Again, not likely.

But I don’t look at the ad and get angry. I actually get kind of interested. Hey! Maybe I should be investing in gold! I start to think. On that level, the ad works.

But How Far Is Too Far?

My point is this: We see LOTS of dishonest advertising every day. But we don’t think of it as being dishonest. We accept it. We may even approve of it.

So what then makes one dishonest ad okay but another one not okay? Are we going to label John Caples a liar for telling a story that wasn’t true, but could have been? Where do we draw the line?

In other words, just how far is too far in advertising? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

-Ryan M. Healy

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy is a freelance copywriter, list manager, and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like,, and

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