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We live in challenging times as marketers. Our effectiveness is now dependent on so many different strategies, tactics, methodologies, partners, tools, and audiences that being effective sometimes appears to conflict with being ethical. How do we balance the results we are required to generate with creating results we can live with?

What is ethics?

The short definition I’ll use to define ethical practices is based on utilitarian ethics, which works well for fields like marketing. Most ethics discussions revolve around moral values of good and bad, right and wrong, which can vary significantly depending on your spiritual, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

Utilitarianism defines ethical practices as:
Those practices that result in the greatest good and/or the greatest happiness for all.

We look to the people we’re serving and try to match what we do to the greatest good for them as we understand it. Whether that good is or what is morally right, we’ll leave to the priests, rabbis, and spiritual counselors of our audiences.

Ethics in Marketing

When you reduce ethics down to a clear, concise definition, understanding ethics in marketing becomes simple. 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 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. In the end, however, I ended up leaving the field to work somewhere else.

Second, many marketing practices have little to no ethical impact. For example, much ado was made of the fact that a social media influencer didn’t write all of his own social media posts. Other social media practitioners decried that as inauthentic.

Is the use of a ghostwriter ethical? If the posts were helpful, if the posts provided value, then the practice was ethical in the sense that it was doing the maximum good possible, even if the influencer wasn’t writing a single one. All that was required was that the authors of his posts were creating the maximum amount of good, as much or more than the influencer. If the influencer could only afford to write 2 posts a day that benefitted his audience, but his ghostwriter could write 10 of the same quality, then by definition he brought 5x more good to the world.

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.

If you force yourself to create 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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