What is Ethics in Marketing?

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What is Ethics in Marketing?

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. Every day, we see stories in the news, in our social feeds, in our blogs about marketers crossing the line, doing dishonorable or outright criminal things in pursuit of marketing results, from disingenuous product pitches to illegal data harvesting.

How do we balance the results we must generate with creating results we are proud of?

What is Ethics in 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. To reconcile these variations and find a definition of ethics which is most compatible with varying morals, we’ll look at a perspective called utilitarian ethics, a perspective suggested by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill.

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

Thus, adapting this definition, ethics is marketing is to market in ways which create the greatest good, the greatest happiness for all.

Examples of Ethical Failures in Marketing

Based on this definition, what would be some examples of marketing successes, but ethical failures?

  • Achieving our marketing goals by making outrageous claims that earn clicks or leads, but making the lives of our sales and customer service teams miserable.
  • Achieving our marketing goals by marketing and selling a product that causes more harm than good.
  • Achieving our marketing goals by marketing with false claims but damaging our relationships with the media, with the public, or with government officials.
  • Achieving our marketing goals by polluting or destroying the environment around us.
  • Achieving our marketing goals by using data to target vulnerable customers and amplifying negative emotions to compel them to buy our product.
  • Achieving our marketing goals by spreading or amplifying false information to create emotional reactions in our ads.

All these examples highlight ways in which marketing achieves success, but at the expense of others.

Ethics in Marketing

When we use our utilitarian definition of ethics, clear, concise definition, applying ethics in marketing becomes straightforward.

First and foremost, does our product or service result in greater harm than good? If so, then we will have an awfully hard time marketing it using ethical practices because its very existence is harmful. In a situation where our product or service is inherently harmful, we should probably find work elsewhere. 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 notable social media influencer didn’t write all of their 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 we lie about what our product does and the consumer ends up finding out the reality after purchase, we’re creating unhappiness. We’re doing harm. If we tell the truth about our product or service and set realistic expectations, our customers will be happier because we meet their expectations. 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 our 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 we’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? Our goal is to explore ways to remove that harm, and to find a better way to achieve the same result with less harm done. What if marketing adopted the Hippocratic oath – first, do no harm? How would your marketing change?

If we set our goals to require that we create the maximum amount of good possible, there’s a strong chance that we’ll create innovative new ways of doing the same old things. That eventually leads to transformation of our products, services, practices, and company, a transformation that we will be proud of, proud to market as loudly as possible to the world. Do enough good, create enough happiness, and the world will want us to win.

Disclosure: this post was written in 2012 and has been updated to remain relevant.

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8 responses to “What is Ethics in Marketing?”

  1. I thinks ethics remains the same meaning in every field of life and especially in marketing your customer is the king and in it you have to be care full regarding your ethics even though customer giving you negative response.

    Thanks for sharing great tips!

  2. Interesting take, Chris. In theory, ethics is doing the right thing. This is of course all relative since it’s generally a moral decision to determine whether an act is ethical or unethical.

    Defined, ethics is: that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.
    (websters dictionary)

    So many organizations do not have an ethical code of conduct or ethical training, which gives way for employees to interpret outside of legal regulations whether they are doing something that is deemed ethical or not.

    It is interesting that you can do something ethical, but break the law.. and on the flip, do something unethical that is not considered illegal.

    As we grow from regional to global markets, how then do we decide what is ethical in marketing? The laws are as diverse as the cultures in which “moral decisions” sway from one end of the spectrum to the other.

    The only way to provide a sightline of ethical activities is to routinely emphasize the importance of ethics in meetings and training, provide a code of ethical conduct for employees to adhere to, and continue to instill the message from the top down in the workplace culture. 

    Did I happen to mention that one of my favorite classes in college was ethics, and I ended up taking 6 classes on ethics because it boggled my mind so? 🙂

  3. Businesses always need to strike a delicate balance between ethical practice and profitability or other commercial pursuits. A lot of business owners believe that legal means ethical, regardless of the loopholes in the legal system. 

  4. “Behaving in an ethical manner is the cornerstone of long-term profitability!” – I agree with the sentence totally. For ethical marketing to be sucessful, first and foremost you must have a good product or ethical product, something that we do good to a person. If you have a bad product and you try to sell it, more likely than not you will try to lie about the usefulness of that product.

  5. Very interesting. But I think the examples are a bit weak.
    Questionable ethics, as I see it as a consumer, are the too-intimate, invasive but generally accepted marketing methods:

    – getting people into a sales funnel that’s really hard to get out of
    – automatic DMs through Twitter and LinkedIn
    – emails that don’t have an opt-out option, as if they know they should have one, and the risk of getting in trouble is non-existent.
    – emails with “Last Chance” in the subject line when another “Last Chance” will be next month … and the month after that …
    – offering a 100% money-back guarantee. Creating the illusion of no-risk, but unfairly forcing the consumer to take the active step of saying, “you suck, I want my money back.” That’s in contrast to the trial-consumer simply being able to disappear or let their 7-day trial expire.

    But even bigger. I worry about the internet-of-things becoming a haven for marketers, and a marketing dystopia for the rest of us. Imagine a smart thermostat with a pop-up ad for warm socks on its phone app.

    Part of the problem is the big entities like Google, Facebook and Microsoft have created a world where it’s impossible to escape ads. Google will allow me to turn off targeted ads, and during the complicated process they warn that I’m making things worse for myself because I’ll still get ads, but they won’t be relevant.

    I can understand questionable ethics in terms of dubious products, hiding facts, obfuscating critical details, etc. But these other aspects are insidious. They’ve become acceptable. The answer seems to be, “yeah … well … that part’s not gonna change.”

  6. I really don’t care if someone writes their own blogposts or tweets. The automated part is what gets messy. I don’t think automation is unethical. But when there’s a mass shooting and twitter is blowing up with updates and conversations about it … then here’s someone’s automated tweet about their upcoming webinar on Divorce Negotiations … GEEZ!

    Not unethical, but not exactly part of the community, either.

  7. Jordan Stamps Avatar
    Jordan Stamps

    Great post! I agree that ethics plays a major part of marketing. It seems that is often times takes a back seat, however. What is your stance on marketing to kids. Rae and Wong (2012) speak of marketers targeting those who are vulnerable and not considered to be a reasonable consumer. Rae and Wong’s (2012) example is in targeting children in marketing. I feel this becomes problematic because it can be seen as essentially tricking consumers into buying the product.

  8. Nat Libby Avatar
    Nat Libby

    Marketing has much bigger implications on the world than we mostly think. I believe ethics in marketing is the future of marketing. It’s building trust, empathising, building positive thoughts and feelings and raising up positive thoughts and consciousness collectively. Behaving ethically creates innovation and therefore a continuous cycle of growth and profit. Do we really want to continue to be living in a world where we’re tricking people and playing on perceptions of the self?

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