Most people today believe that marketing is inherently evil. I get it… Marketing doesn’t exactly have the best reputation. Despite its lengthy rap sheet and the proliferation of black hat marketing tactics, I believe that marketing can be ethical. That’s not to say that it is ethical most of the time, but rather that it has the ability to be ethical.

In this post, we’ll look at how our opinions of marketing are formed and the most common unethical marketing practices we see today. We’ll also explore the hypothesis that marketing can be ethical. By the end of this post, I hope that you will come to see the potential for ethics in marketing. Even if you don’t, I’d still love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

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 naturally takes a toll on us. More tech-savvy individuals use ad blockers in their browsers to avoid these messages altogether. Most of us simply learn to tune out the noise. 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

Filter bubbles are another factor influencing our opinion of marketing. Popularized by Eli Pariser, filter bubbles 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, but 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 at a later date.

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 popups 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? My answer is no, it doesn’t.

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 Practices

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 ones we find today in the content and design of marketing messages are puffery, dark UX, unverified claims, false scarcity, and fake reviews.

Reading through this list, you may conclude that just about every marketing message you’ve ever seen used at least one of these tactics. And you may not be wrong. You might even have some tactics of your own to add to the list.

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.

Lying vs. Storytelling

Seth Godin 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

While I admire and respect Seth Godin as a thought leader in the marketing industry, the idea of marketing as storytelling is 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. Other times, they’re simply a blue pill fed to us by charismatic marketing professionals.

What would it look like if we used stories to affect positive change in the world? First of all, the stories would need to be honest. Many stories have no basis in objective truth, but all stories are grounded in either sincerity or deception. Second, the storyteller (i.e. the marketer) would need to consider the consequences of telling the story. Does it benefit the listener? Or does it promote a negative self-image in order to sell a superficial product? Honest, considerate, conscientious communication is the basis of ethical marketing messages.

Yes, Marketing CAN be Ethical

Now that we’ve examined from where our opinions of marketing come and acknowledged various types of unethical marketing practices used today, let’s explore the hypothesis that ethical marketing can (and does!) exist. 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?

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).

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’re marketing.

Marketing is a powerful tool. We can use it to bring about positive change in people’s lives, or we can use it to amass wealth and power for a fortunate few. The choice is up to us.

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

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