The first documented case of fraud took place in Greece in 300 B.C.: Hegestratos, a merchant, needed that cash money yo. So he took out a loan with interest. The loan was only to be paid back upon the arrival of Hegestratos’ cargo (corn). Being a savvy business owner, he burnt the ship carrying all his cargo, in an attempt to not have to repay the loan. But then he drowned in the process, so it didn’t really work out too well for him. 

You see, humans have been trying to outsmart and trick one another since the dawn of time. It’s no lie that many humans feel the need to have power, and the best way to get power is to have money. So let’s take a look at some of the biggest marketing and sales frauds throughout history:


Ah, the Catholic Church. I’ll try my very best to keep my personal opinions to myself and stick to the facts, but no promises. 

In the late Middle Ages, commissaries (government officials who worked for the church – feel free to read that again) realized people were so terrified of hell and purgatory that they would do ANYTHING to avoid it.

It was a simple fear tactic. And it worked wonders. They took the traditional idea of indulgences (say an extra prayer, be nice to a leper, go to church five times a day), and added one little detail: people could pay their way into heaven. 

People would line up to hand over their life savings to the Church. In return, they and their family wouldn’t have to suffer eternal damnation. In no time, this money was funding St. Peter’s Basilica and Crusades. 

What a time to be alive.

Door-to-Door Salesman 

This classic (and still occurring) scheme is as such:

  1. Knock on doors until you find someone gullible enough to let you in
  2. Tell them about your “elixir,” overnight wrinkle cream, or hair regrowth serum
  3. Sell it to them at a “NEVER BEFORE HEARD OF DISCOUNT WOW”
  4. Make a 200% profit
  5. Skip town 

Short, sweet, and to the point. It’s beautiful, really. 

Trump “University” 

Wow I’m really knocking off the “no-no” discussion points today, aren’t I?

So back in 2005 Trump opened a “university” in New York State. Essentially, it was a fast track real estate training program, and it was a for-profit “university.” Over 5,000 people paid up to $35,000 to attend. You do the math. 

As it turns out, Trump et al. never actually applied/paid for University accreditation. Nor was there even a business license on file. The company was misrepresented by adding “university” to the title. People thought they’d be taking classes and getting degrees. In reality, it was more of a multi-day seminar. 

Check out the Promo Video for it. It’s almost like he still doesn’t read from a script or something. 

The idea behind Trump University is a Bait-and-Switch scheme: draw people in by saying you’re one thing, and after they’ve paid, change the good/service sold. 

Fyre Festival

Two weeks of live music on a remote Island previously owned by Pablo Escobar, VIP tickets included eco-friendly cabanas on the beach, and meals created by chefs from around the world. It sounded too good to be true. It was. 

The promo video for it included two minutes of bikini-clad models on a beach drinking cocktails, with some sort of Bill Clinton-esk speech overlaid. Super legit. 

Millennials shelled out $12k or more/ticket to have the music festival experience of their lifetime. Upon arrival, however, nothing – and I mean, nothing – had been done. There was limited food and water and makeshift abodes.

Festival-goers were stranded in the airport, with an abnormally large amount of security (some were literally locked into gathering areas). Oh and the “owned by Pablo Escobar” was a straight up lie. There simply wasn’t food, water, lodging, or proper waste removal (all the while in heinous heat).

Note to business owners

Behind every scam, there’s some amount of marketing. Be that traditional or otherwise. When individuals are creating a fraud that they know will work, they’ll shell out a bit more to make it seem more legitimate than it actually is. 

Buyer beware: if you ever question the authenticity of a product, do your research, call around, and when in doubt, trust your gut. Remember – if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. 

With all of these examples of fraudulent marketing, is it any wonder prospective customers doubt the claims in your marketing?  Think about this the next time you launch a marketing campaign. Spend less time telling people how great your product or service is, and demonstrate what you can do with case studies, testimonials from real clients and examples of your work.  

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