Have you ever used a digital marketing tactic that ultimately made you feel a twinge of guilt, or at the very least made you question whether it was ethical?
Guilt, of course, implies that you are aware of right and wrong, and how that translates into marketing. This falls under what we call ethical marketing — and for something as easy to explain as this, it may be quite challenging to consistently implement.
The Financial Times Lexicon defines ethical marketing as such:
“Ethical marketing is a process through which companies generate customer interest in products/services, build strong customer interest/relationships, and create value for all stakeholders by incorporating social and environmental considerations in products and promotions. All aspects of marketing are considered, from sales techniques to business communication and business development.”
The root of the word “ethical marketing,” naturally, is ethics. The word itself comes from the Greek word ethikos, which means “habit” or “custom.”
Through ethics, we are able to clearly define (and draw a line between) what is right and what is wrong. Marketing, of course, is no exception. By now, you’re probably familiar with the concept of social selling, and you are aware that relationship-building and establishing trust and credibility take precedence over simply selling your product to your audience.
This is also why ethical considerations and character traits (honesty in particular) matter in marketing. The only way you can establish yourself as a credible and trustworthy authority to your customers is to exemplify those values, especially in the way you market your brand, products or services. And doing that is what constitutes ethical marketing.
Unfortunately, the pressure of making that all-important sale or getting attention on social media may sometimes steer some in the direction of marketing practices that are… questionable, to put it mildly.
And it is at this point where your marketing becomes unethical.
When ethical marketing gives way to unethical practices
Knowing what ethical marketing means, you can already deduce that unethical marketing means doing and ultimately achieving the exact opposite of marketing driven by ethics and values.
The unethical marketer uses deceptive tactics and half-truths to achieve his or her objectives, and while he or she may not see the negative effects of applying such practices in the short term, the repercussions of these actions will certainly be felt by the marketer at some point.
Here are some all too common marketing practices that would be unconsidered unethical.
1. Creating false scarcity to bolster sales
Simply put, this happens when you create the impression that you are selling a limited-edition product (either available for a short period of time or only in limited quantities) just to drive your sales, when there’s actually more than enough for your customers (and thus, no need to rush).
For example, when it comes to digital products, how in the world do you run out of a digital course or eBook? I understand including some bonuses that are available only for a limited time to get people to take action, that’s not unethical. However to act as though this online course will be completely gone in two weeks is complete nonsense.
You decide to further stir the pot by adding a little counter at the top of the page, supposedly showing how many of your packages are still available for purchase. This, of course, boosts the demand further, pushing more people to get your product as soon as possible. And then, as you rake in the cash, you’re already planning how you’ll put up the same package for download next month.
Imagine how your customers would feel when they inevitably learn of this deception. “Betrayed” probably doesn’t even cut it. Creating artificial scarcity means that you are relying on generated buzz to sell your product, instead of the actual strength of your offer. Think about what this says, not just about your product, but about you as well. No matter how you frame it, it’s a dishonest and manipulative tactic.
2. Advertising “live” webinars that aren’t live
Picture this scenario: One day, you receive a message in your email inbox from a popular marketing guru, inviting you to a “live” webinar that discusses a topic that’s relevant to your industry. Because this person is an authority figure, you decide that you don’t want to miss out on this opportunity to learn from the master, so to speak.
Take note that there’s emphasis on the word “live,” making this a can’t-miss event. According to the email, it won’t even be recorded, which means that if you don’t attend, you’ll have to wait for the next one, if it ever happens.
The day of the webinar comes, and you’re logged on with a considerable number of participants, even showing the number of people that are attending “live”. Or at least, according to the webinar platform. Anyway, the webinar goes on for about an hour, until you are taken to a landing page that shows the marketer’s latest offer. Something doesn’t feel right to you, though, and so the next day, at exactly the same time you picked, you click the invitation link again. To your shock and irritation, you discover that you are now tuning in to the exact same webinar you attended yesterday.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an issue with recorded webinars, or as they’re referred to, “evergreen webinars”, but it is not necessary to lie and say it’s a live event.
And when people catch wind of your deception, you can absolutely guarantee that they’ll never trust you again.
Just because you were dishonest about the webinar being live, all the hard work you did and all the valuable information you shared during your presentation will quickly go down the drain.
Furthermore, this is a lovely example of how discerning we should be when it comes to using technology. Just because you are able to do something with specific software — in this case, record a webinar and pass it off as live — doesn’t mean you should.
3. Fake testimonials
Now, it’s normal for a business to want only positive reviews and testimonials to be displayed on their website and social media profiles. However, if you have to resort to falsifying testimonials just to look credible, you really aren’t credible to begin with.
Want to know how to spot a fake testimonial? It’s easy, it looks something like this: Barb M. or Steve T. When a testimonial is missing a surname, you can guarantee…100% of the time, it is FAKE. And when it comes to testimonials, more information is always better.
This is what a proper testimonial looks like (notice it includes a first name, surname, company name and a location):
“If you want to learn how to leverage LinkedIn, Melonie Dodaro provides a refreshing and informative day session chocked full of useful tips. She makes the conversation engaging and provides useful and practical advice. Those of us in attendance are already putting our new knowledge to work!”
~Jessica Cooper, NFIB, Washington DC
If you were in your customers’ place, would you ever be able to trust a brand or individual that has lied a number of times already? Absolutely not.
Quite honestly, it is better to have no testimonials that to use fake testimonials. If I saw a business using fake testimonials that would instantly tell me they are not a business (or person) I can trust and I would take my money elsewhere.
If you want to strengethen you brand or enhance your personal branding the only way you can do that is legitimately and honestly.
4. Incorporating a fabricated “lavish” lifestyle or a fake “hero” story
This covers two separate items, but both involve wealth and have the same ultimate objective, which is to deceive your customer into thinking that following your example (buying your product or service) will make them rich and successful.
Some such people are fond of taking pictures of themselves inside a private plane, a luxury house, a top-of-the-line car, or fancy vacation spot. While these photos are undoubtedly great for beautifying their social media profiles, the real message here is what isn’t said by words. These carefully constructed images only serve to portray a certain lifestyle – more often than not a false one – and to send a subliminal message to consumers: “You can be me, too, by doing as I say.”
Others rely on a made up “hero story” to add credibility to the supposed effectiveness of their offered services. Have all speaker and online marketers really lived in the back of their car and been homeless? While it is good to incorporate brand storytelling into your marketing strategy, it certainly doesn’t mean making up stories just to make you appear a certain way to your audience.
Ethical digital marketing tactics
The four items mentioned above are just a small sampling of the different ways some marketers are being unethical. Other examples are gender stereotyping, false brand comparisons, hyperbole, and even using children or religion in marketing campaigns.
There are, however, ethical marketing guidelines that you can stick to. While these may vary depending on who you ask, since they’re based on values, I’d like to believe that they hold true, wherever you are. Here are my top four ethical marketing values.
- Transparency. Don’t try to pull the wool over your customers’ eyes. Be upfront with regard to your message. For instance, inviting them to the aforementioned recorded webinar, lying and saying it’s live, is not a sign of transparency.
- Responsibility. Make sure that you review everything you publish. You must take full responsibility for the marketing materials that promote your business or brand, review them all to ensure they meet with your approval.
- Fairness. Don’t stoop to low levels just to get ahead of the competition. Avoid instigating attacks or false comparisons against your competitors. The only person that looks bad when you attack a competitor, is you.
- Honesty. This one is perhaps the simplest and most straightforward of all: Don’t lie. Remember that one small lie will lead to more (bigger) lies, and that it only takes one lie brought to light for your credibility to fall apart in front of your customers.
The next time you’re tempted to use digital marketing tactics that go against the principles of ethical marketing, ask yourself: Even if this works out for you, are you willing to risk your credibility, respect and trustworthiness, just for a temporary advantage? Your customers — your business — should mean more to you than that.
Once trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to earn back. And remember, the biggest payoff for ethical marketing, or as I like to call it, trust based marketing, is people do business with those they know, like and trust.
What have I missed? I’m sure you’ve seen many unethical marketing practices, share the ones that you dislike the most (or any examples I’ve missed) in the comments below.