Ethics in marketing appears, at first, to be an extraordinarily complex topic. What practices are ethical, what practices are unethical, what’s appropriate, what’s not, etc. – all are important points of discussion, but aren’t actually that complex as long as you have a clear understanding of ethics.
Let’s start with a firm definition of what ethics is. The short definition I’ll use to define ethical practices is based on applied ethics, which works well for fields like marketing.
Ethical practices are those practices that result in the greatest good and/or the greatest happiness for all.
The reason we look to the field of applied ethics is that by definition, marketing is working with a large number of people, and attempting to define right and wrong or good and bad is an exercise in futility. Rather, we have to look to the people we’re serving and try to match what we do to the greatest good for them as we understand it. What that good is or what is morally right, we’ll leave to the priests, rabbis, and philosophers.
When you reduce ethics down to that clear, concise definition, a lot of things become obvious. First and foremost, do you have a product or service that results in greater harm than good? If you do, then you’re going to have an awfully hard time marketing it using ethical practices because its very existence is harmful. Rather than bang your head against a wall or be forced to behave unethically on a daily basis, you might want to consider working somewhere else. This is actually something I struggled with for years when I was working in the student loan industry. Ultimately, my solution was to try to get people to do everything possible not to use our product, but then offer them the product as a last resort and educate them on the consequences of it.
Second, using this definition, a lot of practices have no ethical impact that feel like they might. For example, much ado was made of the fact that Guy Kawasaki didn’t write all of his own tweets once upon a time. Does that matter? If the tweets were helpful, if the tweets provided value, then the practice was ethical in the sense that it was doing the maximum good possible, even if Guy himself wasn’t writing them all. All that was required was that the authors of his tweets be sharing content that was as valuable as the content he had previously shared when he was doing it himself.
Third, some marketing practices are clearly unethical. For example, if you lie about what your product does and the consumer ends up finding out the reality right after purchase, you’re creating unhappiness and a lack of good. Behaving in an ethical manner is the cornerstone of long-term profitability! Create more happiness rather than less, do more good rather than less, and it’s inevitable that people will want your product in their lives more.
Finally, remember that the definition and ideal to strive for is to do the greatest good possible, which means minimizing or eliminating harm when and where possible. What if you’re confronted with a situation where a small amount of harm is generated, or significant harm to a tiny number of people, and a large amount of good results? The goal is to explore ways to remove that harm, and to find a better way to achieve the same result with less harm done.
The reasons we behave unethically in marketing have less to do with ill intent and more to do with laziness or expediency. If you force yourself to do the maximum amount of good possible, there’s a strong chance that you’ll come up with some innovative new ways of doing the same old things. That eventually leads to transformation of your products, services, practices, and company, one that you can be proud to work at and proud to market as loudly as possible to the world.
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