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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