The Ethics of Online Trust Indicators

During my 2018 trip to Costa Rica, the group I was travelling with stopped at the gorgeous Los Lagos Spa Resort near La Fortuna. We were there to soak in the hot springs and to have fun zipping down the intricate waterslides. The pools had bars you could swim up to and order a drink without leaving the shallow end.

People playing in water slide and pool at Los Lagos Spa Resort in Costa Rica.
Water slides at Los Lagos Spa Resort in Costa Rica. (Photo by Jason Dean Spence)








But I stayed out of the water.

A couple of days later, we were in Quepos, at the beach near Manuel Antonio National Park. It was a perfect day, perfectly warm and sunny. The blue-green water was inviting. People all around me had fun in the gentle waves.

But again, I stayed out of the water.

One of my travelling companions asked why I wasn’t swimming like everyone else. I told her that the water would wreck my hearing aids. But that was only half of the story. The real reason I stayed dry during my Costa Rican trip was because if I was properly attired for the beach, everyone would see…the tattoo.

As I watched everyone playing in the Pacific that day, I said to myself “This is ridiculous! If I’m so embarrassed about this damned tattoo that it is keeping me from having fun, I need to get rid of it.”

Picture of the beach at Quepos, Costa Rica.
Instead of going in for a dip, I snapped this pic!
(Photo by Jason Dean Spence)

So, when I got back to Toronto, I found a tattoo removal company and became a client. I’m still undergoing treatments and it’s expensive. But I’m determined that for my next vacation, I will go to the beach and splash around in the water like the other carefree sojourners.


Six laser removal treatments cost over $1000, and it is worth it. Staff there are very professional. The experience is not as painful as I thought it would be. And with one more session to go, the tattoo is almost gone!

I am very happy with the results, so far.

After my fourth session, though, something interesting happened. The company asked me to write a Google Review. I was happy to do so, and gave them a glowing review. After I did so, however, I wondered why they asked for the review while I was still a client. Another business I had dealings with this past winter did the same thing.

Cosmetologist with patient and professional tattoo removal laser in salon
Cosmetologist with patient and professional tattoo removal laser in salon. (Source belchoack)

Shouldn’t a business wait until they complete their work before asking for a client to review them, especially if the business relationship is not expected to be long-term? Is it ethical to engage in what is, frankly, slightly passive-aggressive behaviour? Suppose I don’t like a business’s services and they ask me to review them? Or suppose I am happy with some aspects of their service and not with others? Aren’t they pressuring me to give them props? Wouldn’t a negative review affect the quality of service I continue to receive?

Is this practice a subtle form of blackmail? Quid pro quo! Give me a good review, or else…

Honestly, I’m sure the tattoo removal company would have gotten the same review from me if they had waited. And I don’t mean to suggest that they are unethical. I find the people there very professional, and I genuinely like the people—especially my lovely aesthetician. But if I did have to give them a bad review, my remaining treatment sessions would likely have been awkward. And it’s no fair to put any customer in that position.

Online Trust indicators are important, but is it ethical to ask an existing client for an online review?

From a communication perspective, the issue is one scholars John Doorley and Helio Fred Garcias might say surrounds the ethics inherent to communicating. That is, as Doorley and Garcias explain in Reputation Management (Third edition, Routledge 2015) “behaviours one engages in that are intrinsic to the process of shaping public opinion by means of communication.”

The tattoo removal company is leveraging earned media in the form of social proof or online trust indicators. Smart businesses need to do so, nowadays. It can be argued that there are now five Ps of marketing: price, promotion, place, product…and people.

“Should I trust this business with my time and money?” is one of the eternal questions that markets ask.

People are doing their own research to answer such questions. They don’t trust businesses to thump their own chests while singing their own praises. People are increasingly turning to the advice of their friends, acquaintances or, at the very least other consumers like them (the “People” who make up the fifth P), when it comes to which products and/or services they buy.

Ann Handley, in Everybody Writes (Wiley 2014), argues that trust indicators and social proof help reduce the consumer’s anxiety. It demonstrates, Handley suggests, a business’s credibility and signals to prospects that other people have used and approve of the business’s products and/or services.

It’s smart to ask your clients to write an online review your offerings.

But is it ethical to do so before you have finished providing them with your service?

I’ll leave that for the ethicists to decide. Right now, I’m too busy thinking about my next vacation in the sun!

A tropical drink with Pura Vida written in the condensation.
Pura Vida! (Photo by Jason Dean Spence)



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