The Ethical Dilemma: What Would You Do?

After many a client request, the European side of our business, for which we also hold a license as an advertising agency, recently started offering Facebook advertising services (via our German-language site It includes purchasing ad space, copywriting and, if applicable, translating the ad, reporting on the success of the ad, etc. One of our clients is a charming swim instructor with whom we have great rapport. However, she seems to have fallen for one of the many obscure “get rich on the internet” schemes. While there are many respectable affiliate programs out there (e.g. Amazon), the personalized horoscopes she tries to sell are not among them. (It took us a while to realize who is behind this specific scheme.) It works like this: some shady self-proclaimed internet gurus promise easy wealth on the internet by becoming a reseller of their products. They then urge people to purchase overpriced websites, databases, accounting software etc. from them. It’s the same old story: the ones digging for gold are not getting rich, but the one selling the shovels are.

As an affiliate partner, you “just” have to attract people to your new website selling these personalized horoscopes. So the swim instructor turned to us. Obviously, she has a limited budget for Facebook ads. Right now she’s attracting about 50 persons a week to her external website (to which the Facebook ad is linked). Problem is: the conversion rate for purchases on the internet is no more than 5 percent. To date, she has sold nothing. To increase her sales, she would have to spend a substantially higher amount of money in advertising, but she would end up not making any profit.

She wants to continue placing the ads, but we know it’s useless. During an hour-long (!) conversation last Friday, Dagy tried to diplomatically phrase her reservations. However, the client didn’t seem too receptive. She seemed indoctrinated by this business idea. She would like to continue placing her ad in December, but we strongly believe it is time for her to quit. Not just Facebook, but this whole horoscope thing altogether. While we do not want to tell clients what to do, we do feel the ethical urge to keep clients from getting exploited.  The client is very happy with our copywriting work and with the ad placement and advice we have given her thus far. However, her desire to get rich fast might be keeping her from seeing through this rip-off scheme.

What would you do? And if you refused to continue the Facebook ads, how would you explain that to the client? We appreciate your thoughts on this tricky matter.

On another note: happy Thanksgiving to all our colleagues, friends, clients, and family in the US! We know it's just another Thursday in Europe, so Dagy will be working while Judy will work on increasing the amount of food on her plate without looking like a glutton.


bonnjill on November 23, 2010 at 10:40 PM said...

You can't save the world. You tried talking her out of it for an hour. That's more than most companies would do. If she is too myopic to realize it is a losing proposition and keeps insisting, just sell her the space.

Alejandro Moreno-Ramos on November 24, 2010 at 1:40 AM said...

What a sad situation, poor woman!

You mention that you feel the ethical urge to keep your client from getting exploited. I agree with that.

But in this case I would think too about your (eventual) client's clients. I do not believe in horoscope and, from my point of view, they are getting exploited too.

Sussex Coast Talking News on November 24, 2010 at 8:44 AM said...

Tricky one! You seem to have done your best to persuade her to drop the scheme, yet failed. I think that in your situation I would now decline to continue working for her on this project, stating once again your reasons. Sure, she'll probably go elsewhwere if she's so keen to continue, but it might make her think a bit if she considers how strongly you feel. And later, when it all goes pear-shaped for her, she'll remember your warnings.

Patricia Lane on November 24, 2010 at 9:34 AM said...

Perhaps your client needs to see the numbers laid out in black and white to understand she is caught in a no-win situation. That might achieve what diplomatic advice has not.

Unfortunately, you can't save people from themselves. If the facts can't convince her, you can then either keep working with her or stepping aside, for a time, if you feel strongly enough about the ethics of all this to do so.

Kevin Lossner on November 24, 2010 at 12:31 PM said...

Ouch. This sort of thing can be difficult. We have one agency client whom we like very much who started to get a lot of New Age quack medical trash from some new clients. After a while the feeling of discomfort became so strong that we simply had to refuse the work and say why. I don't know how that particular agency dealt with the matter and I would rather not know. In a similar situation (but somewhat more evil case involving plans to encourage underage smoking), my client (an agency) told the end client to go you-know-where once it was discovered what the texts were really about. (It was actually a very confusing deception involving an airport simulation.)

As I see it, there is enough work out there for competent, business-savvy translators that you should never work outside your comfort zone in any sense. If it feels wrong, don't do it, and if you do anyway you'll probably feel worse when she inevitably hits the wall. You can't save them all.

fractal whisper on November 24, 2010 at 2:48 PM said...

Tough situation... well, as I see it, you've tried to explain your point of view to her, and she doesn't want to listen. That's her choice, we are all adults here, perhaps she will change her mind in a month or two.

If she is still happy to purchase advertising space, and it doesn't contravene with your image, so be it. If you overly criticise her, she might go off you, and you might not want that in the long run.

Alex Eames on November 25, 2010 at 1:45 AM said...

Happy thanksgiving from sunny but freezing England :)

I pretty much agree with what Jill said in comment #1.

But one other idea springs to mind as a possible exit strategy for both you and the client.

You can clearly see already that this is a losing proposition. Client cannot. I suggest then that you persuade client to allocate a fixed some of money, say $500, as a final, objective test. If that doesn't bear a profit, game over.

Once you've spent money, it's all too easy throwing good money after bad, hoping it will come good. It's almost easier than admitting "OK - I messed up."

Your client needs to realise that the whole project was a dead duck from the start. A little more money down the drain should persuade them. But I would make it clear to them that YOU are out if it doesn't generate results.

If the client reads English, you could always direct them to your blog post and comments so they can see a few objective opinions?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on November 25, 2010 at 9:08 AM said...

Thanks to everybody for your comments! We're glad that we're not the only ones who have empathy for the client. However, after having talked to her once again (this time, it only took 15 minutes), we are running out of sympathy.

The numbers Dagy explained to her did seem to pursuade her that Facebook ads are not working for her and she did agree to stop them. However, those crooks she has fallen for apparently brainwashed her into believing that if it's not working, you just have to try harder and find other advertising channels. She's determined to locate the "problem" and fix it. Dagy told her point-blank that the problem is that this is a scam and that she's getting exploited. She also suggested the client get out of this before she loses more money.

The client then explained she had already invested EUR 15,000 (overpriced websites for her products, accounting software etc., all provided by the crooks, of course), which was a shocking revelation. Just like a gambler, she now wants to invest more to earn that money back, but she never will, because attracting one single customer costs more than the product she's selling. It's heartbreaking, but it's also very annoying to talk to a person who is determined not to see the obvious and who does not react to logical reasoning. We're out of this now, we wish her the best of luck, but she'll probably end up investing twice as much. We did everything we could.

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