Sunday, June 22, 2008


In early June The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News ran a series of fake advertisements to see how well online and print ads performed. One ad in particular, for a fake airline called Derrie-Air, attracted a sizable number of readers who clicked on the online ad.

Many observers felt that, in running the fake ads, the newspapers were deceiving their readers. As a result, they said, readers might distrust other information in the newspaper.

What do you think? Is it OK to run fake ads to gauge reader interest? Or is it a breach of trust? And did the newspapers damage their credibility as a result?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

You can also respond to the poll about this question that appears on the right-hand side of the blog.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2008 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Anonymous said...

Newspapers running fake ads to gauge how effective ads are? That's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard!

Suppose American Airlines is legitimately offering round-trip flights to London for $599, advertises them in the newspaper and sees a certain percentage increase in their business. That's an accurate way to gauge how cost effective those particular ads were.

But if the newspaper runs an ad for mythical Kamkazi Airlines offering round-trip fares to London for $350 and gets a number of calls, what does that prove? Only that false lower prices, like Ponzi schemes, will attract lots of callers trying to save money.

The real test of the effectiveness of an ad would be American Airlines offering $599 fares accompanied by photos of Playboy Playmates in lingere who are supposedly the flight attendants one week and then the same ads with the same price and an average looking flight attendant the next week. And then comparing the results.

The test isn't whether ads sell. Of course they do which is why companies spend billions on them. The test is which type of ad sells the same product most effectively. Not whether ads can attract buyers for mythical products.

Of course those latter ads are effective for Ponzi schemes and flim-flam men. As George Scott said in character in the movie "The Flim Flam Man, " "You can sell a man anything on God's own earth if you can convince him it's stolen."

Burl Estes
Mission Viejo, CA

Anonymous said...

I think there was a breach of trust and that the papers are less credible as a result of their deception. Because time is such an increasingly precious commodity – especially in a big city environment, it is unethical for an organization to seek to benefit from an action that totally wastes the time of a responding party.

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC

Anonymous said...

1. Most newspapers (at least in the Los Angeles area) haven't had any real credibility for years, so no damage can be done to it.

2. Fake ads actually sound like a clever way to determine the level of reader interest. If no money changes hands, I can't see the harm.

3. Anyone who believes everything they read in an ad probably needs a good, hard reality slap anyway.

Los Angeles