The use of stock photos by marketers and advertisers is nothing new. It is a rather standard practice. What could go wrong? Well, plenty.

First, a little background: Marketing and communications agencies have contracts with stock image providers (we use Shutterstock). We design content for clients, and for our own promotional use, and include professional photography to enhance the stories we are trying to tell. The image above is a stock photo example provided by Shutterstock.

Stock image providers charge us to use such photos and, then, pay a portion of the fee to the original photographer. It’s all pretty straightforward and harmless until someone forgets the trust relationship they seek to develop with a customer, client, community, regulator or other important stakeholder.

On the front page of the May 17 edition of the Wall Street Journal, there was an article titled, “Some Smiling Faces in Online Customer Testimonials Are Stock Photos.” It was about a company, uBiome Inc., that is now a textbook example of how misusing stock photos can jeopardize a company’s future.

In short, according to the story (it’s behind the paywall so no link is provided), uBiome “featured images that can be found on other websites or are available from online collections of stock photos. The posts did not identify the images as stock photos.”

This company seems to have quite a few issues. There are references to an FBI investigation, questionable billing practices, senior staff placed on administrative leave, board members resigning, etc. But, let’s stay focused.

When the company tried sharing glowing “testimonials” of people who weren’t real customers, they lied.

uBiome demonstrated neither respect for nor understanding of the trust relationship they needed to build with customers for them to sustain and grow their business. Business always has been and always will be about relationships. Successful relationships are built on trust. ‘Marketing’ is simply a fancy word for establishing, building and preserving an important relationship.

When any business presents its product or service with someone who, “looks like me” or “looks like who I want to be,” they have begun the process of developing a trust-based relationship with you. If they’re honest, that person saying good things can start the development of your trust relationship with the product or service they are promoting.

If not, they’ve just told you a lie. So, how many successful, nurturing, respectful and lasting relationships do you have that started with a lie? It’s kind of like using your good-looking best friend’s picture on the dating website. Sure, it’s creepy, but it’s also dishonest. Good chance that second date never happened.

It’s the same with marketing. Marketing is just a fancy word for establishing, building and preserving an important relationship. uBiome sure missed that (and seemingly many other ethical or legal things) that they need to do to be successful.