When And How To Use An Alias In Business

Pseudonyms, pen names, and aliases in business

A member in my coaching program asked a question about the legality of using an alias or pseudonym in copy.

In other words, a pen name.

That is, is it legal to write the copy in the voice of a fictitious character, or telling the story of a fictitious character enjoying the benefits of your offer?

Using an alias in business is a common practice. However, if you’re considering using an alias or already are using an alias, there are a few things to know to keep your head above water with the law.

I’m not a lawyer so this is not legal advice. But with my years of research and experience in writing copy, I know enough to say this…

Using an alias or pseudonym is generally fine, as long as within the intrinsic nature of the alias there’s no false or misleading information, mentioned or implied, meant to induce the consumer to buy based on that information.

If the alias is used to misrepresent the facts, or indirectly does so by its mere existence, you’re breaking the law.

It’s like the difference between making a promise versus making a claim.

If your story implies what your clients will get, then you’re making a promise. And a promise made by a fictitious character is fine since the character represents the business making it. As long as you deliver on your promises.

(And keeping promises is a different legal ball of wax.)

But if it states what your past clients have done (results they have achieved by using your product or service), then it’s a claim. Because the fictitious character represents an implied testimonial, or presents information as fact. Therein lies the difference.

So ask yourself, does your alias make a promise? Or a claim?

If the latter, is the alias a part of that claim? In other words, is the claim fake, too?

Here are two examples to clarify.

1. Alias as Narrator

Your marketing material tells a fictitious or dramatized story of a person who benefits from your product or service.

The story shows your prospects what they should do, and what kind of results they should expect, by watching the story play out. The teller of the story, or the person in the story, is completely fictitious.

This is fine as long as what is promised is true, and you deliver on your promises.

For example, remember this commercial? John Doe gets into a car accident. He picks up the phone and says, “Uh oh, better get Maaco!”

And then the screen fades to a scene with John, with his now repaired car in the background, shaking hands with a Maaco mechanic and a huge smile across his face.

How many times have you seen commercials like that?

Now, here’s the exception…

The fine line is when the story doesn’t imply what one should do to benefit from your product or service, but what one has actually achieved, which represents or implies what the person will get based on what was represented as fact.

In other words, it’s no longer a promise.

It’s a claim.

Stated differently, when the advertisement states or even just implies that John is an actual client, a real person who got that exact service, in that exact way, with those exact results, you are misleading the public.

The story implies people will get the same. Specifically, it is no longer a story but a testimonial. And testimonials, by law, must be true.

The subsequent sale, should any occur, is therefore acquired fraudulently, because people believe that John is a true client and offering a real testimonial for Maaco. The story is presented as fact when it is not true.

And that’s illegal.

Remember the story of the Wal-Mart couple who drove their trailer across the United-States, going from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart, camping out in Wal-Mart parking lots, and blogging about their (seemingly only) positive experiences?

The backlash was massive. And merciless.

Legality aside, it became a PR nightmare. Some argue that the stunt would have been safe — and even that’s arguable, too — if the blog had a proper disclosure informing readers that the characters were fake.

(In fact, the massive backlash inspired the popularity of the terms “flog” and “flogging,” which means “fake blogging.”)

2. Alias as Provider

If you call yourself a pen name to tell or narrate the story in your copy, and this pen name doesn’t mislead, you’re OK — as long as it is clear that people are not buying from your fictitious character but from the business it represents.

They are buying from a real business with a real business name. For example, you don’t buy burgers from Ronald McDonald himself, right? You buy it from McDonald’s restaurants, the business Ronald represents.

Here’s a scenario.

When a sales letter is signed by “Mr. X,” if Mr. X is telling the story and plays the role of a narrator (not a business entity), then you’re fine.

Mr. X (or any other alias) is telling the story, or even making the promise, on behalf of the commercial entity you’re doing business with.

The fine line, in this case, is when you state that Mr. X is a real person, and that person makes claims or presents information as fact on behalf of the commercial entity, such as past experiences, clients, or results.

Generally, this is OK too, as long as the facts are true, and the alias is not the provider with whom you’re doing business.

But if you do this, you not only need to include real facts in your story (as always), but also be fully prepared to prove them when asked by either the public or government.

If the FTC ever comes knocking at your door, you better have proper documentation and real proof to back up your claims and save your anatomy!

What about a business name?

Having a business with a fictitious name is definitely legal, provided that you have filed the proper documentation (such as registering your business, incorporating, or filing a “doing business as” statement), and carried out the proper trademark searches.

This is a normal part of doing business, even vital for branding purposes.

The issue is not with the name but when the existence of the business, its actual clients, or any results achieved are works of fiction.

Ultimately, the question to ask is, does it tell a story to make a point? Or does it mislead and deceive to make a sale? Whether intentionally or not, the latter is fraud.

Ultimately, using an alias is fine as long as you are not making claims as that alias.

You, using your real name (or your real business name), can make claims until the sun goes down. You own them and people know who to turn to if the claims are false.

And if you use an alias to tell a story, whether dramatized or written in a sales letter, you’re generally safe. However, if you make claims under an assumed name, then it is illegal when the assumed name is presented as fact.

Of course, before you ultimately decide to use an alias, particularly if you’re concerned about whether or not you’re crossing a line, consult with an attorney.

I’m not a lawyer and the above should not be construed as legal advice. Plus, this article should be viewed only as a partial or general opinion and commentary, as every individual case is unique.

It is based on my years of experience, especially working with doctors and lawyers in my early career when I first established my company, The Success Doctor, Inc., which used to focus strictly on doctors and service professionals.

(Hence, the name “The Success Doctor.”)

Finally, props go out to my friend Mike Young, Esquire, an Internet marketing lawyer who reviewed my response. (Thanks, Mike!)

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34 thoughts on “When And How To Use An Alias In Business

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I came across it because I have an online store and I’m still somewhat confused and was wondering if I could use an alias instead of my real name to identify me as shop owner. I sell photographs and have been using my real name but would like to know if it would be against the law in the state of CT if I were to use a different name instead. Thanks!

  2. @devyne Definitely check with a lawyer, as I’m not one. But I think it’s safe, as long as using a pseudonym doesn’t mislead or attempt to induce a sale (i.e., you’re not using the name of some other great photographer, etc).

    • Hello! —

      – Nice post & well written. But I have to speak up against the use of aliases to hide behind.

      The evolution of the social web necessitated aliases. I suspect there was a little of the CB radio/geek culture spirit behind this, allowing people to create a rebellious alter-ego online. But I believe that the widespread understanding and acceptance of social media these days makes this an anachronism. Many people are using social media to share information, to increase their own profile and to play a role in the wider community. So why hide behind aliases? Especially when online and offline merge so freely these days. Few employers will fail to make the connection between a Twitter username and real name, for example, when they check up on a candidate.

      I’m not suggesting you are in favour of hiding in this way. In fact, you have chosen to publish under your own name and include a photo – which is something that all online writers should do if they are really trying to communicate with people.

      Very thought-provoking – thanks for posting!

      URL : http://www.addvalue.com.au

  3. Thanks so much for your response. I will contact a lawyer just to make sure everything is done legally!

  4. Great topic, Michael!

    For us copywriters, this is something I’ve encountered when writing case studies for clients. If a client doesn’t have a factual case study for me to work with, I ask the client to secure a testimonial from one of their customers, as well as any analytics of the results. The unethical (and illegal) alternative is to just make up a story and company name, but I won’t do that.

    Carla

  5. Hi Michael, thank you for sharing the information regarding the use of Alias in different ways. I have learned so much from you… Please keep on posting like this article which is very informative and helpful for individuals like me who is a newbie in this business.

  6. Michel, I have one question. I have been writing for a company as a freelancer and one of their competitors approached me to publish articles for them as well. As I had not signed an NDA of any sort and I am not a company’s employee, I wrote articles for the other company as well (both are legit and provide great and similar services) Is this legally and ethically correct?

    • @owais52 Legal? Probably. Ethical? No” It might become problematic or puts the relationship with your client in a fragile state. I guess it depends on the relationship you have with them. I would ask, do they know? What would happen if they found out? Could they blackball you in that industry?

      Personally, I think it would be professional courtesy to refuse work for any competitor of your clients while you’re still working for that client. If you are not working on any project with the first client, then fine. Nothing stops you from working with a competitor once a contract is delivered. (That’s why non-compete agreements are rarely enforceable.) But I would definitely avoid working with a client’s competitor while still working with them.

      • @michel.fortin Thank you for responding. I think you are absolutely correct about the billion $$ issue in the article you referred me to.

  7. The legal implications of using a pen name is nicely explained in this article. I now think that writers that uses pen names must also consult lawyers if some parts of the contract that they are given are confusing. It is better to be clear than to get sued because of a pen name.

  8. I think that’s a nice article and this information showing Alias in different ways.I guess it depends on the relationship you have with them.

  9. This articles really takes a thing to awakes the possibility for the individuals.

  10. The publishing world has a long history of authors using pseudonyms for various reasons, some of which fit into a modern context and some which were products of their time. For example, in the years prior to Women’s Suffrage, it was common for female authors to publish under a male pseudonym. Although this isn’t the case today, there are still plenty of good reasons why one would want to use an alias when publishing on the web.

    URL : http://www.addvalue.com.au

  11. I think it was a wise trick to step aside an alias for balancing the marketing status of the business, And I think the right time to show your alias in time that you feel there’s something wrong whom going on.

  12. I think this is good idea that make some alias..Thank you for sharing this tips..

  13. Hi Mitchel! I read that a Pen Name won’t protect you from the legal repercussions of writing about other people Charges of slander or libel. Rather than disguise your own identity, it would be wiser to thoroughly disguise the identities of your subjects, so that no one will think you are writing about “them” in the first place.

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  21. So bottom line, one cannot masks oneself or one’s own business name. Since it’s just a nick name/pen name.
     
    However, I wonder, if the business or service provided is can only benefit and never able to take advantage of anyone (ie. nonprofit philanthropic works, etc.), can one still legally masks oneself…sort of like the Batman in the neighborhood?
     
    Thanks.

    • @nycphantom Again, I’m not a lawyer, but if your nickname is meant to mislead, or if the deception is part of the business or sales process, no you can’t. But I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “if the business never able to take advantage of anyone.” If so, then why are they in business? But if a person gives to charities and wants to remain anonymous, that’s different. That’s not a business.
       
      Now, if a person provides a services and donates his/her time for charity, it depends on your location. Some laws prohibit the provision of a service without a business license or identification. I think it should be fine in many instances, but check with a lawyer to be sure.

      • @michel.fortin Thanks for the reply. Perhaps I read too much into “Count of Monte Cristo”.
        A Charity in the name of Anonymous is for some, simply, not fun enough…one may go by the nick name: “Duke GiveALot” for instance. If the name is not much of a pun, it may be perceived as deceiving. But then again, maybe it is not necessarily treated as a business.

      • @michel.fortin
        Thanks for the reply. Perhaps I read too much into “Count of Monte Cristo”.
        A Charity in the name of Anonymous is for some, simply, not fun enough…one may go by the nick name: “Duke GiveALot” for instance. If the name is not much of a pun, it may be perceived as deceiving. But then again, maybe it is not necessarily treated as a business. Of course, the real identity of Duke GiveALot is concealed at all cost (preferably legally).

  22. I am considering using a different last name because no one can pronounce it and it has hurt me when being introduced. They’ll butcher it or just call me by my first name. I am seeking to start professional speaking and this could really hurt me if people are scared to pronounce my name for fear of screwing it up.

  23. Scenario for you… I’ve created an alias for a training program. The results narrated by the character are results I have achieved and the client stories referenced in the narration are 100% true and provable. The company is providing the training, not the character or myself. I’m using a third-party photo for a headshot and a fictitious character that has a “flog” as well as a LinkedIn profile.

    Thoughts?

    • I’m not a lawyer, but my guess is, if the results are real and identified coming from real people, that should be fine. The narrator is simply telling the story. He/she doesn’t have to be real. It’s no different than some disembodied voice that’s never identified.

      But where the flog and linkedin profile are concerned, that’s iffy in my mind. I think the flog is risky is there’s no full disclosure somewhere based on the latest laws on full disclosure. Now, if the flog is really a “blog” (not a fake blog) but narrated by the persona/character who’s fake, that may be different. It’s no different than an anonymous blog or a blog issued by brand or business mascot, for example.

      “Flog” in my opinion is where the content is fake, which in this case might include fake testimonials, fake endorsements, fake results, etc. That would certainly be a no-no.

      I would check with a lawyer if I were you…

      Michel Fortin
      http://MichelFortin.com

  24. So if you create a blog and create a ‘character’ and write as if you are that character in order to promote a product, is this legal? Or do you need to put a disclaimer stating that the person is fictitious?

    • Yes, you can be a character who narrates the advertisement. Look at actors in commercials or mascots, like the Pillsbury dough boy, Ronald McDonald, or the Michelin Man. But as long as the character or persona does not imply an actual result, then it would be a testimonial and therefore, by law, must be true and coming from a real person.

      The only disclaimer would be when the persona can be construed as an actual person and a result may be inferred unintentionally. But I’m not a lawyer, so I think this disclaimer would be a matter of personal choice and protection, and not a matter of law.

  25. How does this apply to taxes? Can one file under the assume name, and also under their real name? Are new SS accounts created for the business name?

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