I once worked for a company that was specifically targeted by an industry group for coordinated attacks and anti-competitive tactics. We obtained a copy of the agenda for the planning meeting for this onslaught, and the bullet points looked like part of a hypothetical in an anti-trust class law school exam. This was the most blatant collusion in restraint of trade imaginable. But the lawyers for the group apparently thought all could be made benign and legal by a disclaimer on every agenda copy that said, in effect, “Don’t pay any attention to what this agenda says—trust us, it’s all fair and legal.” The disclaimer stated that the organization fully supported and followed all provisions of U.S. anti-trust statutes, and would never, ever do anything to violate them. This is roughly the equivalent of a mugger telling his victim that he is non-violent while he’s punching him in the face.
I am reminded of that agenda when I see commercials for new drugs, which show healthy, happy, beautiful models frolicking with their families or lovers in idyllic settings while the announcer, usually at breakneck speed, warns that the drug may cause violent flatulence, boils, locusts, insanity, cannibalism and excruciating death. I was reminded of the agenda again when I learned of the latest gambit by PublishAmerica, which earlier this year got in trouble with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling by soliciting money from authors by promising to bring their works to her attention:
“We will bring your book to the attention of Harry Potter’s author next week while our delegation is in her hometown, and ask her to read it and to tell us and you what she thinks. Tell her what you think: in the Ordering Instructions box write your own note for JK Rowling, max. 50-100 words. We will include your note in our presentation for her!”
Don’t mess with Harry Potter. Rowling’s lawyers, on her behalf, regarded this as a deceitful trick designed to suggest a relationship with Rowling and her endorsement of the organization, and properly so. Mentioning prominent celebrities or organizations without their permission in an ambiguous manner to create the illusion of a relationship or endorsement is always unethical, and may be illegal.
Beaten but unbowed, PublishAmerica is trying the same device, but with a supposedly magic disclaimer. Writer Beware reports that this time, the company sent out a solicitation to authors asking for $49 to $99 to be considered by the Christian Booksellers Association. The letter:
“Dear Author: There are 1,100 Christian bookstores. in the United States. That’s a lot of bookshelves they need to keep filled. The week after next is Christian Store Week!
The CBA, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association, is encouraging authors to schedule an in-store event in their area Christian bookstores. We’ll be happy to submit your name.
Your book in a full-color Fall sales/marketing catalog will go next week to the Association for Christian Retail. We will also contact each Christian bookstore separately!
We’re making a high quality, full-color, attention grabbing, easy-to-order presentation next week for the Christian bookstores association. They need to know about America’s lowest retail priced book: your book.
Secure your book’s spot in this high quality full-color 8 x 11 presentation for the Christian bookstores. Go to http://www.publishamerica.net/ChristianStores.html to activate. Your book and your name will be promoted in prominent and beautiful full-color. We’ll also tell them in what town/state you live, so that area stores know you’re there!
Must choose a shipping option to activate. No use of coupons allowed. Mention your book title(s).
But the letter concludes with this disclaimer:
“DISCLAIMER: PublishAmerica has no affiliation with the CBA and/or individual Christian bookstores beyond that of a regular publisher/bookseller relationship, without preferential access or other special treatment. No specific result from PublishAmerica’s best efforts to represent and promote its authors and their books is suggested or guaranteed.”
Of course, the letter does suggest a result will come from PublishAmerica’s “best efforts,” just no “specific” results. The fact that it asks for money in return is an implicit suggestion of this. The disclaimer is deceptive too. It needs a disclaimer.
As with the amazing transformation diet commercials (like the ultra-cute blond co-ed who lost 70 pounds and now smiles so much that her cheeks hurt) that have small disclaimers on the bottom of the screen noting that these “results are not typical”—if they aren’t typical, WHY ARE YOU USING THEM TO DESCRIBE WHAT YOUR PRODUCT ACTUALLY DOES???—-a deceitful and unethical company is banking on the fact that a high proportion of the market doesn’t read or pay attention to disclaimers.
CBA doesn’t think the disclaimer is sufficient either. It has issued this:
WARNING TO CHRISTIAN AUTHORS
“CBA has been informed that Christian authors are being contacted by an organization called PublishAmerica that’s soliciting for authors to submit their books to a sales/marketing catalog that they claim will be going to CBA. Please be aware that CBA has no knowledge of PublishAmerica; that PublishAmerica is not connected to Christian Store Week; and that CBA has no agreement of any kind with PublishAmerica, nor is CBA affiliated in any way, shape, or form with that organization.”
My rules: any company or organization (that means you, PETA!) that uses a celebrity or another organization by name in its ads or promotional materials—-without their express permission, naturally—should be presumed to be untrustworthy, and any company or organization that employs a “pay no attention to the obvious implications of everything that you read, heard or saw before this” disclaimer is probably untrustworthy as well.*
* The pharmaceutical companies are exceptions to the latter rule, because they are forced to include the frightening and contradictory disclaimers in their drug ads by government regulations. I hope to explore this topic soon, but later.