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One CEO attacks bait-and-switch marketing tactics

November 3, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Online searches have presented dangers ever since the Internet became a competitive landscape for facilities. Internet marketing scams are among the most common unethical practices that fuel calls for ethics reform.

Yet the widespread practice of bait-and-switch (luring unsuspecting consumers to one facility's website or call center by using the name of an altogether different facility or location) has met with relatively little resistance—at least compared with other questionable practices such as deceptive insurance claims or paying bounties for referrals. That may be changing, however.

Twice learning in recent months that his facility's name was being used to divert consumers to a different treatment chain, Cirque Lodge Director Gary Fisher decided he had had enough. Last week, he shared his frustration via e-mail with a number of his peers, including leaders at the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) who have debated how aggressively they should enforce the association's code of ethics for member treatment centers.

Using the subject line “Same scam” (this summer he had encountered a similar issue that accrued to the benefit of Elements Behavioral Health), Fisher (himself a NAATP board member) wrote that searching for “Cirque Lodge” on Google was resulting in a top entry that when clicked advertised an 800 number, which when dialed connected the caller to American Addiction Centers (AAC), not Cirque Lodge.

“When our person [who placed the call] said he thought they were calling Cirque Lodge, they said, 'No, this is American Addiction Centers, we are much better than Cirque Lodge,'” Fisher wrote in the Oct. 28 e-mail.

AAC, a much-watched organization that last month issued an initial public offering and is reportedly prepared to grow into a billion-dollar brand in the industry, was included on the recipient list for Fisher's e-mail. Fisher directed this comment among his words toward the organization: “Capitalizing on someone else's brand is wrong. I don't think there is any debate about this.”

AAC confirmed last week that it has terminated its relationship with the marketing vendor that it says was responsible for the offending campaign. “We immediately canceled the contract,” says Michael Cartwright, CEO of AAC.

Yet Fisher remains concerned that some of the biggest names in addiction treatment are placing at least some of their Internet marketing efforts in the hands of entities whose tactics should be well-known to all by now, he believes.

“They all want to say they have nothing to do with it,” he says of his peers in treatment administration. “But we all know how these companies harvest beds—there is always some kind of sleight of hand, some bait and switch.”

Widespread practice

Fisher wrote in his e-mail to colleagues, “I know you are connected to others, and would believe if it is happening to little Cirque Lodge that it is probably happening to all of you.” This followed the second time since the summer that Cirque Lodge became aware of a marketing effort diverting its potential customers. Fisher said that in the first instance, searches for treatment in Sundance, Utah (home of Cirque Lodge) were resulting in a top listing for The Recovery Place, an Elements Behavioral Health facility in Florida.

Fisher said that issue was traced to the marketing consultant Recovery Brands, which operates facility directory sites such as Rehabs.com. He said Cirque Lodge contacted Recovery Brands' co-founder, Abhilash Patel, who replied that he would fix the problem. But after several weeks had passed with no action taken, Fisher said he went directly to Elements CEO David Sack, M.D., and the problem was ultimately resolved.

More recently, a Google search for Cirque Lodge was generating a highly placed “rehab-review.us” entry that advertised a phone number that would lead callers to a representative for American Addiction Centers. This time, Fisher says, he decided to respond more quickly, not only contacting AAC but also informing Google of the problem. The listing was quickly removed. Recovery Brands was not the vendor working on behalf of AAC.

Elements' Sack says in a statement released to Addiction Professional: “Elements, consistent with its fellow NAATP members, is committed to operating with the utmost integrity.” He adds that the NAATP ethics code prohibits members' advertising from including false or deceptive representations as defined under federal law.

“I am confident that any website owned by Elements is operated, in both form and execution, in a manner that provides the customer seeking treatment information a valuable resource to make that very important decision about his/her treatment needs,” says Sack.

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The internet has been a wild west for quite some time. There is a lot that will come home to roost when it comes to unscrupulous online marketing techniques in this industry.

The lawsuit against Recovery Brands will be an interesting one to watch. There are perfectly legitimate review and directory style websites in many industries. It is important to be able to use others trademarks to legitimately exercise first amendment rights of reviewing companies and offering portals to locate them.

However posing as a company is just plain wrong, stealing leads under the guise of a legitimate business is unethical.

Michael Myles is correct in stating that we are at the tail end of a lot of the directory/informational style websites that used to dominate the search results in the addiction industry.

However, certain search engine updates have actually made brands like Rehabs.com and Recovery.org (Recovery Brands sites) rank better. Because these websites have been able to build up a lot of volume and authority naturally and provide local based results.

Unfortunately in our industry Google does not seem to actually understand what a good result is for the end user. Not even close to as well as they seem to have done in other industries as far as quality of results.

I personally support review style websites in this industry. For that you have to be able to freely use brand names. There is a serious lack of third party neutral information on drug treatment centers. Families need that to make informed decisions.

Sites pretend to be a review - or a local directory. But the intent is to funnel leads to a call center for profit.

Great comment Jared! Perhaps the industry leaders should propose a meeting with the Google leaders to exchange information.

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