Updated: Apr 9
Is ‘drink your effing water’ an appropriate slogan to feature on a water cup designed for children?
Would you ever organise an event and expect your guest speakers to provide 100% of the mailing list?
Would you claim credit for the financial success of another, even when that had nothing to do with your business?
How about asking a small business owner to send you one of their products for influencer work, and then refusing to tag and feature that product?
These are all things that are happening right now. It’s no wonder marketing and the people who work in it can get a bad reputation.
As a marketing consultant with over 20 years' experience, I take an interest in examples of bad marketing practice when I see them.
I’ve written before about epic marketing fails by Nike and Adidas Putting a racist flag on a trainer? Check.
Setting up a live feed to your website that anyone could interface with? Check.
Nike and Adidas did both.
Good marketing means caring about your customers. The people you hope will buy your products and build a genuine ongoing relationship with your brand.
The opposite is manipulative, rude, unpleasant, damaging.
As The Minimalists say on their podcast ‘- Love people, use things, because the other way round doesn’t work’.
For the rest of this article, I’m going to share some of the examples of bad marketing that I have seen or heard about recently. Sources are credited wherever possible.
1. Unethical Influencing
“ - Why is it small brands that are over a barrel?” Chrissy Crozier - Owner of PipSqueak
I had a Zoom chat with Chrissy Crozier, the owner of Pipsqueak, who I’ve followed on Instagram for around 3 years.
She specialises in hand-printed bedding for children.
The Instagram account for Pipsqueak has grown organically over time.
With 954 followers, it's typical of many small business owner accounts where the owner is working hard on their business and doesn't necessarily have hours to spend driving account growth or paying for advertising.
Despite the fact she doesn’t have a huge audience, she still receives 3 messages per month from people describing themselves as influencers looking for free products in exchange for exposure on their accounts.
Chrissy explained how she was recently contacted by an influencer based in Australia. First of all, this is not an area she actively sells in, because of the costs of shipping from the UK. The person had an account that did not have any relevance to children's bedding. She mainly featured cosmetics.
There was absolutely no obvious fit between the influencer and the small business she was seeking the free product from.
Often the accounts that presume to ask for free products have only a few thousand followers themselves.
Chrissy says that once she says no to the influencer request, however politely she says it, the account will then unfollow.
The psychological manipulation being used against small business owners is damaging. They want to grow their businesses. They care deeply about them. When they look at other people's accounts that are growing more quickly than theirs they feel like complying with the manipulators is the only way forward.
In Chrissy's case, she has decided for Pipsqueak to maintain her ethics in exchange for steady growth and customers who genuinely want to buy from her.
She also adds, "I’m quite happy working with small accounts when they’re a good fit for me, especially if we’ve already built up a relationship".
"You Don't Want To Be Targeted By Angry Followers" - Ethna, owner at Slobberscarves
I recently spotted a video post by Ethna, owner of Slobberscarves, a maker of eco-bibs, leggings and other eco-friendly childrenswear.
Ethna had used Instagram reels to make a video directed at people who take from small business owners.
I asked Ethna if she would provide me with a little more background, which she kindly agreed to.
Ethna had formed a friendly relationship with someone who had a combined Instagram and YouTube following of over 50,000.
She had agreed to provide items in exchange for featuring in content.
After she did this, the person decided that her baby would not enjoy wearing the items, and went back on the agreement.
She then went on to dress her baby in items of clothing as part of a paid partnership with a larger brand.
Ethna felt that she had no choice but to walk away. She feared that any messages she sent to this influencer could be seen as harassment.
She feared the power of this larger account holder to send their followers after her.
Another approach that Ethna has experienced is the request for a collaboration. Ethna says that, this is never a real collaboration, it simply means "please provide me with free items". The accounts that do this rarely even follow her.
The ask is always the same, they “- love her brand and want to experience it”. Well, as Ethna points out, her range starts at a very reasonable £5- so if you like it, why not buy it and then feature it?
Not everyone has been difficult, however. Local influencers in Northern Ireland, where Ethna is based, have been really supportive of Sloberscarves, buying and featuring items on their accounts.
This has led to sales and social media support for Slobberscarves.
A point that has been made to me numerous times is that many small business owners want the full functionality of their Instagram accounts, such as the swipe- up story feature.
Instagram has blocked this for anyone with under 10,000 followers. This means many small business owners are working to build an audience to help with this reach.
Perhaps if Instagram got rid of this barrier, then more small business owners could focus on growing their accounts through means that support their business, rather than putting their trust in people who do not have their best interests at heart.
2. Marketing that breaks the rules
The Advertising Standards Industry exists to protect UK consumers from bad practice.
If you are interested, they publish all the cases they uphold and what the advertiser did that broke the rules, which you can view here
Charlie Day, owner of The Entrepreneurs Growth Club bought her four-year-old son a new drinking cup from Amazon recently.
I'll leave you to notice the problem with the bottle she chose (it is the one with the flamingo on it).
When the product arrived Charlie quickly noticed the issue with the 'effing' slogan. She took to social media to show others the product and gain support. She made a complaint immediately to Amazon, and so did I and others.
My experience was fairly rapid; they emailed back after around 30 minutes to say the product had been removed.
Whilst I think Amazon did the right thing pretty quickly once they realised the situation, it should not have got to the point where the listing was made. It makes you wonder whether they sell anything else that breaks the ASA rules and regulations.
3. False Brand Ambassador Marketing
If you follow me on social media, you'll know I love coffee. My photos often feature it.
I suppose it was not surprising I was approached by a reusable coffee cup brand looking for brand ambassadors. I have used the hashtag ' #coffee ' and ' #coffee ' time on lots of occasions and I'm sure that was all it was that caught their attention.
I'm not going to name and shame, because it looks like they are a genuine company, but my experience went something like this.
" - Hey! We are looking for coffee lovers to be brand ambassadors for our recycled coffee cup brand! Please message us on our main account".
Interestingly, when I just checked this DM sent on 12th March 2021, the person who sent it to me has since left Instagram.
So, I politely followed up, even though it felt a bit spammy. I then received a message from the main brand's account.
"- I would love to create a discount code for you, once you receive the mug, we would love the opportunity to feature you on our Instagram account and tag you at your account!"
I was then offered 25% off the cup, and informed that they ship worldwide.
It has been shown that people who feel grateful are more likely to buy. This kind of behaviour taps straight into the psychology behind that. First flatter, then move in for the sale.*
This account currently has 412K followers.
Through its actions the account is:;
A) Generating free content. I notice all of the ‘brand ambassadors’ involved are very photogenic with high-quality images used on their accounts;
B) Creating sales through what is essentially a false pretence. I’d imagine that many people who buy a cup and expect to have their post featured, end up relegated to a brief mention on Instagram stories, if they are lucky.
4. Events Marketing - When you supply the event!
Every so often, I’ll see someone with a large social media account ranting about being invited to speak at a big event for free. Usually, these people have a large account because they have successful careers as authors, podcasters, journalists, or otherwise are experts in their field.
There was a public case very recently where the journalist, campaigner and radio presenter Anna Whitehouse was asked to speak for free by a large media brand. If you are interested you can read all about it over on her account.
As someone who has organised a lot of networking sessions with a guest speaker, there is usually a discussion when you offer the opportunity grounded in the reality that we all need exposure for our small businesses.
People with daily PR in national news sources do not need this exposure.
Whilst everyone deserves to be paid for their time, there is a difference between an event that will make the organisers a lot of money, and small gatherings that aid with networking and connections.
Another example I’ve seen recently is a business expert who was posting on social media about being asked to speak at an event.
The details were kept very shady including the date of the event. After more digging, it turned out that the event was an unpaid opportunity, and not only that but the audience of 100K promised to the business expert, would come from her and the other speakers attending the event.
To qualify for this opportunity, she must possess a mailing list with over 5,000 names, which she would be expected to mail to sell the event!
I think we can all guess how that one ended.
5. Facebook Group Spamming
The final item in this article is a bit of a roundup of some of the bad practices that I’ve seen over on Facebook.
There are lots of them but to name two;
Paid- For Facebook Membership
In a paid-for Facebook membership group, one of the members posted to say she had experienced a really good financial period for her business. She was new to the group, only there on a trial basis, and the financial success had nothing at all to do with being a member of the group.
She was asked by the host if she might use the members' comments as marketing. The member rightly said “er no, I’ll pass” and what happens next? Of course, she is quoted in the marketing for the group as one of their success stories.
She complained and the item was removed….
Adding People To Groups Without Their Consent
I don’t know if this has happened to you yet but people I know have been friended by random contacts from Facebook. As soon as they’ve accepted, because I think people often feel rude about ignoring a friend request, they’ve been added to spammy Facebook groups.
I had a similar experience where a Facebook friend who works for a network marketing brand told me she had added me to her exclusive Black Friday Facebook group.....without my permission and with the express intention of selling to me. I didn't even reply and, of course, left the group, immediately.
Bad Marketing Summary
To sum up, in this article I’ve covered:
Influencer marketing, the good and the bad.
Rule-breaking advertising targeting children.
Fake brand ambassador marketing.
Bad practice in events marketing.
Unethical Facebook group practices.
I hope that this article has given you something to think about in terms of what is happening out there under the name of marketing.
If you have anything to say on this topic, please do leave me a comment below.
Would you like to read the second part of this article?
I am collaborating on this two part blog with Claudia Kozeny-Pelling. Owner of Translate Digital Marketing. Claudia is a professional translator, copywriter and ethical social media marketeer.
Find her blog here.
Thank you for reading
P.S If you would like to receive blogs like this straight to your inbox, you can sign up here for my mailing list. I mail once per week on a Friday.
Would you like more marketing advice?
If you would like a book of 100 Marketing Tips written just for small business owners then do have a look here
You can even download a free chapter now if you would like a taster?
Shona Chambers is a Marketing Consultant based in SE London.
Specialising in helping Small Business Owners and Freelancers with their Marketing.