Built to Deceive: When organizations intend to mislead us

by cv harquail on October 14, 2010

What would you think about an organization that intentionally mislead its potential clients?

— That advertised itself as providing a range of products or services, when in fact it only offered one?

— That presented itself as being here to “help you”, when in reality its sole purpose is to fulfill its own mission, regardless of what you wanted for yourself?

There are many ways that organizations end up being very different from what you’d expect. Sometimes the gap between how they present themselves and what they do is a result of overreaching (e.g., Comcast), or the result of not caring (e.g., United). Sometimes these organizations trumpet their so called values and fail to live up to them (e.g., BP), and sometimes these organizations make basic mistakes (e.g., Target). These gaps are regrettable, and the organizations that make these mistakes usually want to close these gaps.

But what about when organizations want to maintain the gap between how they present themselves and who they really are?

These organizations are built to deceive.

When an organization is Built to Deceive


Marketing and Physical Appearance: Fake expectations

Organizations that are build to deceive craft themselves to look — from the outside — like a certain kind of organization.

They use marketing materials (advertisements, ‘yellow page’ listings, websites) to project an image of themselves that leads potential customers to expect a certain set of services & products. They use their physical locations to mimic how an authentic business of the same type might look (e.g., debt consolidation companies locate their offices near actual banks). Their employees dress to look the part (e. g., ‘debt consolidation services’ workers wear jackets & name badges like bank tellers).

These organizations even choose names that intentionally misrepresent who owns them, who started them, and whose interests they serve (e.g., First National Credit Services).

All of these strategies help to create a set of expectations that will never be fulfilled by the organization.

Customer Interaction: Where deceit is revealed

It’s in the actual service or product they provide, and the tactics that they use to get the customer to buy once they are in the store, that reveals the true intentions of an organization that is built to deceive. These organizations have their employees follow misleading scripts, perform fake tests and evaluations (had you personality tested recently?), offer financial terms that misrepresent costs, and even offer customers factually incorrect information.

Worse, they use pressure tactics to prey on the customers’ emotions, hopes and insecurities.

An organization that is built to deceive is like a Trojan Horse. On the outside, the organization looks like it’s offering you a gift, a rescue, a solution. On the inside, it’s filled with warriors ready to press you into submission.

Why Build to Deceive?

Organizations build to deceive:

  • When they believe that their true mission is unappealing.
  • When they recognize that their missions are not in the best interests of their clients.
  • When they are embarrassed by the techniques they need to use to get customers to buy.
  • When they think they can only get customers if they pretend to be what they are not.

Organizations that are build to deceive are not proud of their missions. They are unwilling or unable to sell their mission on it merits– they resort to deceit because they don’t believe they can appeal to truth.

Members & Employees of Organizations that are Built to Deceive

trojan warriors.jpgAn organization that is Built to Deceive:

  • Has employees who are willing to accept a lie as the premise of their organization’s identity
  • Has employees who accept that their work for the company will hurt some customers
  • Has employees who don’t believe that customers should be treated with respect
  • Has employees that cannot be completely proud of their work
  • Has employees that are willing to act unethically in order to sell their product

An Organizational Type that is Built to Deceive

You might be wondering, what kinds of organizations (or industries) are built to deceive?   Organizations that are built to deceive include payday ‘loan’ centers, ‘rent to own’ furniture stores, debt consolidation ‘services’, and any business that preys on the ignorance and desperation of potential customers.

The very worst of these are organizations known as “Crisis Pregnancy Centers”.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are one of the most common forms of intentionally inauthentic organizations. They are built to deceive the women and the communities they supposedly serve.  (Here is a list of these tactics, prepared by Public Eye.org, drawn from a commonly used CPC manual.)

CPCs advertise themselves using languages of care, hope and empowerment. They have names that suggest a full range of care options, offered in a consultative environment where the client has the opportunity to decide for herself. CPCs locate themselves next to, in the same building as, and across the street from authentic reproductive health care centers as often as they can. They attempt to look feminine, and pleasantly clinical, without any design elements that might suggest that they are not medical clinics, but are instead religious ministries.

Crisis Pregnancy Centers present themselves as being there to help the girl or woman who is in crisis. “‘Pregnant and Scared? You have options.‘” Only thing is, we won’t share them all with you, Instead, we’ll do our best to pressure you into the ‘decision’ we believe in.”201010140947.jpg

“Health Care Clinics” or “Ministries”?

CPCs claim to assist women faced with unplanned pregnancies, but they are not legitimate health clinics staffed by licensed healthcare professionals.

Unlike comprehensive health care clinics, they give women medically inaccurate information and pressure them to carry unintended pregnancies to term. These fake clinics often pose as women’s health clinics, but they do not provide abortion services or referrals, and they do not provide balanced information on family planning options like condoms or emergency contraception. For example, a Congressional report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in 2006 found that 87% of Crisis Pregnancy Centers provided false or misleading information, in particular making false claims about a relationship between abortion and breast cancer, infertility, or mental illness.

Instead, CPC are a deceitful type of storefront access point for religious organizations that most often have an anti-abortion, anti-sex, and anti-women emphasis. For example, in California, umbrella religious organizations, including Care Net, Heartbeat International, and National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, operate 90 percent of CPCs.

With this Trojan Horse approach, clients are promised “pregnancy counseling” writ large but instead are given information about a much narrower (and often religiously saturated) options, using deceptive ‘sales’ practices and emotional manipulation.

In a few better cases, these crisis pregnancy clinics offer prenatal medical care, adoption agency referrals, scholarship resources, and other forms of support for women who want to continue their pregnancies. While they intentionally fail to provide information about preventing pregnancy, preventing sexually-transmitted diseases, (contraception), or terminating pregnancy, they decline to pressure women.

These honest clinics are not only few and far between. Even worse, these honest pregnancy centers are also indistinguishable from fake medical centers with an intentionally deceitful agenda.

Truth In Advertising

Some municipalities have adopted or have introduced legislation designed to require CPCs to disclose the true nature of their organizations. For example, The City of Baltimore adopted legislation to require pregnancy counseling clinics that do not provide abortion counseling or services to post signs indicating that policy.  In New York City, proposed legislation would require the centers to disclose to clients that they do not provide abortion services or contraceptive devices, or make referrals to organizations that do. Centers that don’t have licensed medical providers on-site would also have to disclose this information. The legislation also would require the centers to keep clients’ personal information confidential.  (Wall Street Journal)

While some would claim that CPC’s self-promotion efforts are “free speech”, the Supreme Court has ruled that advertising is not “free speech”. These regulations focus on requiring a minimal level of accuracy in advertising. This legislation does not require that faith-based CPCs provide abortion or birth control info over their religious objections. (Change.org)

Why can’t organizations tell the truth about who they are?

There are plenty of women who, when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, would welcome some spiritual, social and medical support to continue these pregnancies, to offer their babies for adoption or to become single mothers with childcare, eduction and employment opportunities.

As one commenter noted (on a NARAL site who’s address I can’t find):

You would think that most of these clinics would proudly trumpet the fact that they are not abortion providers. The fact that they are so resistant to this disclosure speaks volumes about their willingness to deceive their patients for their own ideological purposes.

If these organizations truly believed in their missions, and believed in the righteousness of their missions, they would not need to hide their missions from their potential customers. Instead, they would advertise their missions and their values to draw customers to them honestly.

Claiming their true and honest identity might inspire these organizations to serve women and communities in new and more transparent ways that would make their missions more powerful.

To my mind, an organization can’t claim to be promoting a high moral purpose when it has to use deceit to do it. I’d like to rename the entire organizational type. Instead of calling them “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” we could call them “Maternal Ministries“.

If Maternal Ministries lived up to this more aspirational, more accurate name for who they are or could be, they might be inspired to share their religious missions in an honest, confident, compelling way. Women would feel invited to consider their own moral and/or spiritual beliefs when confronted with reproductive health care concerns. And, women could be in charge of their lives using accurate information, professional health care services, and supportive personal guidance.

Organizations that are Build to Deceive are hiding a fundamental truth about themselves. Their commitment to sustaining these lies keeps them from exploring how they can more fully and more authentically serve what they claim are their missions. In the end, who they really deceive are themselves.

See also:
Faking an Identity: How Inauthentic Organizations Dress Up
Use Real Authenticity to Establish Fake Authenticity: Sarah Palin shows organizations how

Trojan Horse image from PlayingMantis.com


Adrian Bashford October 14, 2010 at 12:47 pm

Hi CV,

Before I got to the part about the CPCs I was going to say:

“What happens? Well, these misleading organizations end up with x-customers that slam them at every opportunity.” I have a few such companies on my own personal list, and I have no problem with going out of my way to discourage anyone else with dealing with them (InMotion Hosting for example).

Then I read about CPCs and was reminded that sometimes the harm caused is not just financial, but life altering. Big Tobacco falls into this category, as does the milk industry, who promotes their product as a health product (directly to kids not surprisingly) when it actually has strong links to cancer (and not just the rBGH stuff).

The voice of these organizations can be very organized and very powerful. They often infiltrate the government agencies that would be most motivated to do something to stop them. How to stop it?

Keep writing.

Great post.

leslie October 14, 2010 at 12:51 pm

Great post about deception. The Army fosters this type of deception every day of its existence. Through their touting of the “Army Family Covenant” program, they promise things which, simply enough, cannot be delivered. The family side of the Army is one of the most inauthentic aspects of this organization.

Love your writing.

cv harquail October 14, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Hi Adrian and Leslie-

Thanks so much for your comments… this issue with CPC has been haunting me for quite a while, and this post was half written (aka shelved) back in Oct 09! But the recent call for legislation in NYC brought it back home to me.

Sadly enough, Crisis Pregnancy Centers are funded in part by our own government / our tax dollars, through “Abstinence Education”. Which is weird, because if abstinence education worked, who’d need a crisis pregnancy center?

Adrian, you put your finger on the danger of treating this particular kind of fake organization as though it were a ‘business’ — it really is about life altering decisions, not money (although, having a baby a significant trigger of unemployment and poverty). I wish these CPC organizations would spend more time supporting women and children (esp with healthcare legislation, childcare subsidies, education reform) so that women who were ‘on the fence’ about whether or not to carry a pregnancy forward could actually feel supported the whole childhood of that baby.

Leslie, every time I see one of those commercials for the Marines, the National Guard, and the Army before an action flick, I get upset. I simply cannot conceive of a way that a career soldier, during a war, can keep his or her family relationships intact, much less strong. The families that do it -despite all the deception, misogyny, and more — are admirable. And rare.


Cara Wilson October 15, 2010 at 9:55 am

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but…a few weeks ago we were working in our front yard when two women approached us and said that they were marketing a carpet cleaning service and wanted to offer a free room cleaning. As (their) luck would have it, we had just that morning been discussing getting our carpets cleaned. 30 minutes later we found ourselves with a Kirby vacuum cleaner salesman in our living room. Surprised at the ‘switcheroo’, we told him we had no interest in purchasing a vacuum cleaner, but he convinced us to watch his demo and let him clean our living room. Need I tell you what is now housed in the closet? He won us over. I’m conflicted about this because while I think it’ll be the best vacuum we have ever owned:
1. They way they initially got to us was deceptive
2. The (astronomical) price that they give you on the literature is absolutely negotiable, but they don’t tell you that- you’d just have to know. MANY people take the ‘price tag’ at face value.
3. The tactics he used were textbook, as we learned after the fact by doing a little research (lessons learned: no impulse purchases in your own living room, ALL in home sales are negotiable, and beware the “I must have that NOW” emotional response that can usurp rational decision-making)
The odd thing to me is that while we found lots of info afterwards about Kirby’s smarmy tactics, we also couldn’t really find anyone that didn’t say it’s a fantastic product. So why the tactics? The whole thing left a bad taste in our mouths.

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