School, Residential and Treatment Program Marketing:  Misleading and Deceptive Web Site

Wilderness Therapy Treatment - A non-profit consumer protection information, health, safety, referral & education site.

Comprehensive Information: www.WildernessTherapy.Org

By: Michael Conner, Psy.D
Mentor Research Institute:
Revised: 05/21/2014


There are several networks and referral resources on the internet that mislead, deceive and outsight lie to parents and professionals about the services that programs provide.

Finding a safe, effective and ethical sources of information, treatment and treatment programs for youth at-risk can be a challenge. Many parents and professionals are turning to the internet to find support and solutions for troubled teens. The world wide web (www) or "web" was developed to provide a reliable and objective source of information exchange to the public. Advertising and marketing practices have created problems for consumers searching for information on the web in the manner the web was intended to operate.

How Parents Use the Internet

The web provides an excellent opportunity for parents and professionals to compare, evaluate and "shop" for professional services, information resources and programs. Parents can go directly to a web site by entering the web site address directly (also call a URL) or they may use a search engine to locate information on a variety of topics. The primary uses of the web by parents and professionals include,

  • Researching problems. This might include gathering information on parenting, problem behavior, specific disorders and treatment approaches. 

  • Finding programs.  This might include locating treatment resources such as residential treatment programs, therapeutic boarding schools, traditional boarding schools, evaluation centers, wilderness therapy programs, outdoor schools and adventure based programs. 

  • Investigating a specific program. Many programs have web sites that provide information regarding their programs and services. 

  • Finding consumer protection information. This might include finding news, articles and other information resources that are intended to support public health, safety, referrals and the delivery of professional services.

How Programs Use The Internet

Programs use the web for a variety of purposes. The overall purpose of the web is to generate referrals and to encourage parents and professionals to contact programs. Secondary purposes are to facilitate admissions, public relations and to foster better communication between programs, professionals and parents. 

Differences between programs can be tremendous. In addition, the amount of information and detail provided by programs on their web site can vary a great deal. This can make it difficult to investigate programs on the web. 

Contact information and a general overview are usually provided on most web sites. A few programs provide detailed information pertaining to the program's ownership, structure, staffing, philosophy, cost, policies and procedures. The best web sites provide complete, detailed, clear and honest descriptions of their program. 

Deceptive, Misleading And Unethical Practices

Residential, wilderness and other treatment program web sites can be misleading, out-of-date and incomplete sources of information. The following provides an overview of various marketing practices on the internet that can be deceptive, misleading or unethical.

  • False And Deceptive Advertising. There are at least two large residential intervention and boarding school programs in the country that routinely use what some might conclude is deceptive and false advertising for purposes of misleading consumers. For instance, if you conducted an information search using the key words "Wilderness Programs" you would be directed to a web site that supposedly offers wilderness therapy and provides an opportunity for you to give your name and other contact information. You might notice that the web site  has no information to contact or identify who's web site you have contacted. You are then mailed information about a program that does not have a wilderness program but is boarding school in another country.  Several programs mislead consumers regarding what they offer in order to get you to contact them. They offer free questionnaires and free consultations but in fact they only refer to their own programs.

  • "Racketeering" and Fraudulent Advertising. There is at least one corporation that many people in various industries fear because they routinely file law suits against anyone who challenges their practices. The owners of these businesses hide behind layers of corporate protections while paying another business to market and sell their program. Their marketing and advertising practices are outright deceptive, misleading and dishonest. Their web site are fraudulent and  border on what some might consider "racketeering".

  • Web Site Is Incorrect or Out-Of-Date. There are several programs in the United States that publish web sites that grossly  misrepresent their program's staffing, structure, philosophy, ethical standards and financial status. The reasons for false information on some web sites is not clear. But investigating programs may reveal that significant changes in staffing, management, program structure, follow-up programs, etc.., have taken place or  the web site has not been updated for a long time. Parents and professionals who do not investigate information on web sites in detail may eventually discover they enrolled their child in a program under mistaken assumptions and false information. 

  • The Promise of Cures Or Unbelievable Services. In an effort to gain more referrals, some wilderness programs are publishing web pages that make outrageous promises and claims regarding cures and treatment of serious problems. Parents are drawn to these web sites when using "search engines" and key word searches regarding problems their children may have. Consumers should be cautious and thoroughly investigate a program that claims to treat or cure alcohol and drug problems as well as psychiatric disorders. There are no cures for Attention Deficit Disorder but some people claim to offer these cures. Parents and professionals may be misled regarding the outcome if a child is referred to a program. The people marketing their service may not be representing their program honestly or completely.

  • Misleading Purpose Of A Web Site. There are a number of web sites that appear to provide free referral support and guidance to parents and professionals. Visitors are attracted to these web sites believing they are visiting an objective information resource. Visitors to these so-called information web sites will first notice how these web sites provide very little information that would be of assistance to parents and professionals who hope to investigate, locate or evaluate programs. A closer investigation will reveal that  many of these web sites are actually owned and operated by a company that owns a large network of wilderness or residential treatment programs. These web sites refer parents and professionals to programs owned by that company. 

  • Tricking Search Engines. Information can be located on the internet by the use of search engines. Ethical programs and web site developers create web sites that are referenced using key words that both describe their program and use keywords that parents and professionals are most likely to use. Unethical programs use key words and design their web sites to trick parents and professionals into visiting their web site. They do this by using keywords and developing web pages that mislead people regarding the actual content and purpose of the web page. 

  • Paying Search Engines To Give Priority. Programs have the ability to pay search engine directly to get a priority placement or a higher ranking for their web page. While one could argue that this is legitimate advertising, some search engine results create the illusion that a web site is a popular or "top" web site. The original use and purposes of a search engine was to assist people in locating useful information. Rather than list all the information of a topic, which could be thousands of web pages, search engines attempt to generate a smaller list of web sites using a priority or ranking system. Priorities and ranking can be based on popularity, usefulness, specific information or functionality of web sites. A few programs are paying search engines to put their programs at the top of  lists. 

  • Publishing Under Different Web Site Names. One way to promote a web site is to purchase several web site names (also called a Domain Name). Programs can then publish their materials on different web sites and submit these duplicated web sites  to search engines. This increases the likelihood that you will see their program when searching the internet. This practice is not approved by search engines because it results on a duplication of content and undermines the purpose of the web. In fact, programs can be removed from a search engine if the practice is discovered. Search engines allow some duplication of content on multiple web sites provided the web site has a legitimate purpose that is different from other web sites. 

  • Misleading Web Site Names. Some programs publish web sites using names that will be of interest to potential customers, but the actual services provided are not consistent with the web site name. The purpose of this practice is to increase the number of people who visit their sites and to obtain an higher ranking on the search engines.


  • Never assume the information on a residential or wilderness program web site is correct and complete.

  • Avoid any program that markets using a 3rd party web site that uses deceptive or misleading advertisements to draw consumers to their programs.

  • Obtain the services an Educational or Behavioral Health Consultant who is qualified to recommend a program or consult with a resource that knows the program thoroughly - including the programs history and most recent events. 

  • Educate yourself and ask informed questions when investigating a program. 



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