How can marketing be ethical?

The word ethics highlighted in the dictionary

Advertising doesn’t have a great track record for being ethical. A lot of people see marketing as a pretty murky activity too. And that’s no surprise. Many unethical marketing practices have been normalised and broadly accepted by consumers.

(What’s the difference between advertising and marketing? Marketing is part of your strategy to achieve a goal that you have set. Marketing is a collection of activities you believe will get you closer to where you want to be.
Advertising is one tactic of marketing. They come in many formats and take many forms and are often grouped into campaigns.)

So when we talk about ethical marketing (or advertising, for that matter), it often raises a few eyebrows and prompts the question: how can marketing be ethical?

Where do I start? From many, many conversations about ethical marketing, I’ve noticed that there is a kind of scale of perception.

At the furthest end of the scale are people arguing that “marketing can’t be ethical” or “advertising is bad by its very nature”.

In the middle are people who have had a bad experience with manipulative marketing, or are cynical about advertising for some other reason.

Then, at the other end, there are those who believe that ethical marketing is not only possible but already happening (not all of it, of course!)

If all you have seen of advertising is TV commercials, billboards and social media Ads then I can see why you might be at the ‘Nope!’ end of the scale. Despite being “regulated” in many countries, advertisers are often playing a deliberate game of cat and mouse to see how far they can push the rules before they get a strongly-worded letter from the regulator.

In fact, some TV commercials are designed in the hope of being “banned”. The result is often more press attention and consequently more viewers online (people are naturally curious to see why the ad was prohibited). For example, check out the Iceland Palm Oil Advert 2018.

How did marketing get like this?

Since the beginning of newspaper sales, there have been adverts and from the start, there’s no shortage of examples of attempts to manipulate the reader and influence their decision-making process.

Scientific Advertising (Claude C. Hopkins, 1923) is a fascinating look back at a world in which advertising was a relatively new industry. Some of the practices in this book are jaw-dropping by today’s standards, but at the time were seen as revolutionary, and most of all, they were unbelievably effective (and can still be found in less-regulated countries). Even today, many books, courses, and online programmes still preach versions of these manipulative methods from a century ago.

Why is that? Because many of today’s well-established household brands were originally built using such methods. Manipulative advertising was part of their marketing strategy. Ethics weren’t important – sales were. And as we know, history is written by the winners and so we only hear about these ‘winning’ ads. That, in turn, leads to the (false) idea that the only way to successfully sell is to manipulate.

So, is there any hope for a more ethical form of marketing?

Yes. There is.

You don’t have to rely on manipulation, deception and pressure to sell something you truly believe in – especially when it’s based on your personal brand. Let me explain…

When you’re selling something average, you have to pitch it to the ‘average person’. This means generic products and services designed to appeal as widely as possible. It also means a race to the bottom, with prices as low as they can go – you don’t have to worry about quality, or meeting the customer’s needs because it’s cheap! Right?

On the other hand, when you’re working with a personal brand, what you are selling isn’t average. It can’t be. When you create a personal brand as a coach, mentor, therapist, thought leader, solopreneur or founder of a movement, what you are offering, marketing and advertising won’t and can’t be the right fit for everyone. You and your personal brand are much more specific than that.

And this is where marketing gets much more exciting. It’s much easier to be ethical with your marketing when the brand is you and it’s your reputation on the line.

So, ethical marketing is easier (and more likely) when you’re not average. When your products or services are aiming to inform, inspire, and drive change.

When you truly believe in what you do and deliver, you don’t need to trick anyone into buying it.

Of course, the logical next question is.

How can I do ethical marketing?

The good news is that I’ve written a book all about exactly that: Reframing Marketing: A 3-step plan for effective and ethical marketing. It’s a practical guide to making your own effective and ethical marketing plan.