Most people today believe that marketing is inherently evil, and I get it… Marketing doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. However, the question I would like to answer is not whether marketing is ethical in practice but whether marketing has the ability to be ethical.

Spoiler alert: my answer is yes, marketing can be ethical!

What Shapes Our Opinion of Marketing

The Omnipresence of Advertising

Every day, we are bombarded with thousands of advertisements. No one knows the exact number, but many sources estimate that we see between 4,000 and 10,000 brand messages each day. This constant barrage of marketing is a persistent nuisance. It interrupts our workflows and punctuates our entertainment. Most of us simply learn to tune out the noise, while more tech-savvy individuals use ad blockers or special browsers to avoid these messages altogether. Others have found more creative ways to reclaim digital real estate…

Clever ad takeover (Source: Reddit)

No matter how we deal with ads, the sheer volume of sales messages we see every day plays a significant role in how we evaluate marketing. It leads us to oversimplify and prejudge advertisements before we’ve even seen them (if we see them at all).

Filter Bubbles

Also influencing our opinions of marketing are filter bubbles. Put simply, filter bubbles are biases. They are created by the machinations of algorithms that dictate the content we are exposed to online. These algorithms limit the types of posts we see on social media and the search results we get on Google. They also curate the marketing messages served to us on the internet.

In the biz, we call this “interest-based advertising” or the more innocuous “personalized advertising.” Most online advertising is now “personalized,” which means that we rarely see the full spectrum of messages that exist. Instead, we see what The Internet wants us to see—which advertisers would have us believe is actually what we want to see. We’ll pick up that debate in a future post.

Filter bubbles effectively prevent us from being able to make a statement as generalized as “all marketing is evil” because we have not been exposed to all marketing. We’ve only encountered the limited set of messages spoonfed to us by lines of code.

The Rule of 7

The Rule of Seven is yet another factor shaping our opinions of marketing. Many advertisers operate by this rule, believing that a person must come into contact with an offer at least seven times before they will take action. It’s true that repetition is a powerful psychological tool, but this rule may be working against the marketing industry as a whole.

The oversaturation of advertisements generally, when coupled with the likelihood that you’ll see the same ad at least seven times, leads us to stop truly seeing advertisements. We don’t weigh the good and bad of each message, we don’t individually evaluate the merits of every ad. Instead, advertisements blur together in a persistent white noise. They fade out as we focus intently on the “Skip Ad” button or search for the X icon, reflexively closing pop-ups and modals as quickly as humanly possible.

This knee-jerk reaction is indicative of our disdain for marketing messages; they are not worth even 30 seconds of our time. In fact, we act and react as though these ads are stealing our time and attention away from more important things. But does taking up our time and attention mean that marketing cannot be ethical?

Cookies

Even as marketers, we don’t often seek out marketing—it finds us. And the messages that find us most often are the ones that follow us around the internet thanks to the advent of cookies and pixel retargeting. These marketing tactics are themselves arguably unethical, black hat tactics, and they find company among a handful of other practices more commonly identified as unethical.

Unethical Marketing

Although “black hat” is usually a term reserved for unethical SEO practices, it is fast becoming a catch-all label for all types of unethical marketing tactics. Some of the more common black hat tactics used today are puffery, dark UX (aka “dark patterns“), unverified claims, false scarcity, and fake reviews.

You may believe that every marketing message you’ve ever seen used at least one of these tactics. And you may not be wrong.

Puffery, for example, is pervasive enough in marketing to be thought of as inseparable from the industry. After all, what is marketing if not positioning your product or service in the best light possible? This naturally leads to claims of being “the best,” which is a subjective statement and thus cannot possibly be proven (or disproven). However, the fact that many marketers rely on exaggeration and puffery is not irrefutable proof that all marketing is inherently evil. It’s simply proving that marketing can be unethical—if we allow it to be so.

Lying vs. Storytelling

Seth Godin, a renowned champion of marketing, told us that all marketers are liars. He then clarified: all marketers tell stories

“The truth is elusive. No one knows the whole truth about anything. We certainly don’t know the truth about the things we buy and recommend and use. What we do know (and what we talk about) is our story. Our story about why we use, recommend or are loyal to you and your products. Our story about the origin and the impact and the utility of what we buy. Marketing is storytelling.”

Seth Godin

Characterizing marketing as storytelling is certainly more positive than condemning it as lying. But it’s misleading. For thousands of years, stories were told not only for entertainment but also as a way to influence, manipulate, and control people. As the saying goes, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” Sometimes stories are leveraged for good, but that’s not always the case.

Ethical Marketing

I started this post by asking the question: Can marketing be ethical? And then I answered it (yes!). But up until now, I’ve only covered “the bad stuff” in an effort to acknowledge that it exists. Well, there’s good stuff, too!

Ethical marketing practices are a real thing. One can argue that their very existence is proof that marketing can be ethical. I’m not referring to ethical practices on the production side, although there are many great examples of environmentally-friendly companies. I’m also not referring to something as broad as B Corps, although I am an advocate for them.

What I’m talking about is the content and design of marketing messages. In my previous post, I built a working definition of marketing ethics for the purpose of this blog:

Marketing ethics: the application of moral principles which prioritize the well-being of the person receiving the message to the content and design of promotional and sales messages

(Yeah, it’s a bit rough but it’s what we’re working with for now.)

The Ethical Design Manifesto, created by Laura Kalbag and Aral Balkan, provides a framework for marketing ethics in practice. It’s a guideline for designing technology that respects human rights, human effort, and human experience. This technology framework can easily be applied to marketing. It affirms my belief that marketing can be ethical.

In order for the Ethical Design framework to be successful in a marketing application, we first need to reframe our objectives as marketers.

Reframing Marketing Objectives

Marketing thought leaders such as Bernadette Jiwa reframe our marketing objectives in a way that does not permit unethical tactics. Her two rules for good marketing empower us, as marketing professionals, to redefine the success of our campaigns based on their impact on the people who receive them (rather than on quantitative metrics alone).

The best marketing does two things: 1) It empowers people to make decisions now that they won’t regret later. 2) It helps people to do the things they want to do.

Bernadette Jiwa

A New Value System for Marketing

Books such as Small Giants by Bo Burlingham also offer a new value system for us to adopt as a means of promoting ethical marketing strategies. The thesis of the book is that successful companies can choose to be great instead of big. When a company no longer strives for hockey-stick growth, its marketing department doesn’t feel pressured to rely on unethical marketing tactics. Instead, those marketers can work for the good of the people to whom they are marketing.

Small Giants by Bo Burlingham (Available on Amazon)

Ethical Marketing in Practice

A tangible example of an ethical marketing message can be found in Patagonia’s 2011 campaign: Don’t Buy This Jacket. Running an ad telling people not to buy your product is counterintuitive. It may even seem downright nonsensical. But in 2011, Patagonia did just that to shine a spotlight on consumerism (and promote their Common Threads Initiative).

Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" advertisement as featured in the New York Times
The famous, “Don’t Buy This Jacket” advertisement that ran in the Black Friday 2011 edition of the New York Times (Learn More)

The Problem of Self-Interest

OK. At this point, you may be thinking that everything I’ve referred to as “ethical” is ethical in name only. That although these ethical marketing practices seem nice on the surface, they are still driven by self-interest. Thus, marketing cannot be ethical.

Self-interest certainly drives marketers, as it drives us all. But there is a difference between selfishness and moral self-interest:

“[…]moral self-interest would include acting on self-interest only within the boundaries provided by our moral sense and moral obligations that are essential to being an ethical person. Selfishness would be the blameworthy and unjustified pursuit of self-interest, which disregards such ethical boundaries in a myriad of ways.

Darin Gates, “Self-Interest, Ethics, and Success”

Ethical marketing practices require that we, as marketers, act in moral self-interest. Yes, we want our campaigns to be successful, we want to win new customers and new business, and we want to make money by doing this. But, if we apply the ethical frameworks mentioned above and we reframe our objectives to be more qualitative than quantitative, then we can create marketing that is ethical.

The Verdict

There is ample evidence that marketing can be ethical. There is also plenty of proof that marketing can be (and often is) unethical. Knowing that the potential for marketing to be ethical exists, how do we encourage those in our industry to make the ethics of their work a priority? How do we give marketing ethics a seat at the table? These are the questions I will seek to answer in my next post. Stay tuned.


So, what do you think? Is marketing inherently evil, or can it be transformed into a powerful force for good? I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave a comment below.

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2 Comments

  1. I hadn’t heard the term “moral self-interest” before, and I appreciate the distinction between that and selfishness. I feel like I have to justify a lot of what I do in selfish terms that I might otherwise better describe as self-interest.

    I haven’t read ‘Small Giants’, but I did recently read ‘Company of One’, by Paul Jarvis, which touches on the concept of doing good work over doing a lot of work. I don’t necessarily think that it’s easier to be ethical in your work without the overhead of a large company, but it can help!

    1. Thanks for your comment, David! I’m glad you found value in that distinction. It may be worthwhile to explore the idea of moral self-interest a bit more in future posts.

      ‘Company of One’ is on my reading list, and I hope to get to it soon. You and I both know the challenges of being solopreneurs. Sometimes, I think it’s actually harder to be ethical as a company of one. (Random aside: how is “solopreneur” not in the Merriam-Webster dictionary yet?)

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