Sunday, June 23, 2024

Are annoying advertisements wrong?

How responsible is a business to avoid confusing customers with mailed advertisements?

A reader we’re calling Wynn recently shared a copy of an advertisement he received in the mail for new windows. The ad was made to look like parts of it were a handwritten note along with drawings of portions of windows and doors that had been circled to indicate possible damage. The one-page document was labeled “Window Inspection Form.”

At first, Wynn was confused. He thought someone had inspected his house when he wasn’t there and followed up by sending a customized report. It was only upon closer inspection that Wynn realized the notations were machine generated and only made to look like a personal note. What tipped him off first is that the drawings of windows that had damage were not the type of windows he had in his house. But then the note itself made clear that the “issues” noted were of the type the company representatives found when replacing windows in Wynn’s neighborhood.

Aside from trying to sell him new windows, there was nothing on the advertisement Wynn received that was specific to his house. If the intent of the advertisement was to catch Wynn’s attention by raising concern that his windows might be failing, it worked. Given he hasn’t seen any work being done on windows in his neighborhood, he also doubts the company replaced any neighbors’ windows recently as claimed.

Wynn wondered if preying on customer fears was wrong.

If the intent of advertising is to pique customer interest, the advertisement Wynn received was effective. By making the advertisement look like something it wasn’t – a window inspection form for Wynn’s house – the company didn’t break any laws since it is made clear in the text of the advertisement that what’s being presented are things that might be wrong and that the customer might want to address.

Was the ad annoying? For customers like Wynn, yes. Was it wrong to send it? As long as the ad itself makes clear what it is and what is being sold, then no.

It would be nice to be able to tell immediately what an advertisement is offering or trying to do. Often, however, it takes some work. Many of us have received emails offering us something for free only to find out that to get it we need to buy something else or commit to a contract for something we didn’t really want. Such advertisements might work to gain our interest, but the work involved in figuring out what’s being offered may dampen that initial interest. If the come-on in the advertisement strikes us as misleading, the resulting annoyance might also diminish the possibility of a sale.

But again, as long as the details become clear in the text of these ads, companies can go ahead and send them.

The right thing for readers like Wynn to do is to make sure to read such advertisements closely to get clear on what exactly is being offered. If they don’t understand the details, that’s a good sign that they might want to pass or to call for clarification if there’s a number to call. If they find the ads or the representatives explaining the ads annoying, they should trust that that annoyance is a real possibility should they do business together.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin




No comments: