What are some of the ethical issues in marketing? First and foremost, we should not be using marketing to make a product that is clearly harmful more appealing to people—for instance, selling cigarettes by appealing to people at a deep emotional level. This can be achieved by linking the cigarette brand to independence, rebellion, good times, or coming into one’s own power.
Next is getting people to buy stuff that they just don’t need. How many toys does one child actually need? How many pairs of shoes are enough? Or, how many homes are enough? But is it the marketer's role to address this?
Then there is using fear to sell something. As we all know, fear works really well as a motivator; however, constantly using fear to market products and services only serves to create a more fearful society, where people are more motivated to avoid potential problems than to embrace that which is beneficial or uplifting.
How about using sex to sell products? This has been a strategy used successfully across a myriad of product categories for decades. Is there anything wrong with linking sex to an unrelated product or using women as objects of sexual desire?
Making false claims is both unethical and illegal. I am personally not as concerned about what is generally considered to be puffery; for instance, stating that one’s brand is “the best in the world,” because few people are going to take that statement at face value. However, deliberating misleading the consumer or creating false expectations is wrong.
Related to this, aren't marketers asked to focus on a brand's advantages and downplay or ignore its flaws. And, in some cases, aren't they asked to recast data to make something bad look good or a disadvantage look like an advantage? Is this selective recasting of data wrong?
How about when a brand uses actors to create buzz about a brand? For instance, a brand might pay actors to extol the taste of a new alcoholic beverage in bars. And the actors never divulge that they are actors. Is this wrong?
How about assigning negative labels to a competitor's brand to reposition it as something highly undesirable? Is this ethical?
Certainly, an ethical dilemma that most marketing agencies face is whether to do (a) what is in the client’s best interest or (b) what the client wants (if you know that what the client wants is not in its own best interest). In this situation, are you forthright with the client but then ultimately collect your fees for executing what the client desires, or do you walk away from the project or business if what you are being asked to do is not in the client’s best
interest? Is the client always right or is the client sometimes wrong? And are you sure you know better than the client what is in his or her best interests?
How about getting someone to pay a huge price premium for a product because your brand bestows status on that product? Is this just helping people climb Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or is it getting them stuck on one step in that ladder (at a hefty profit to the brand)? And isn't it the role of brands to decrease price sensitivity and allow for price premiums?
Knowing that brands can sometimes make people feel more appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, or valued, I want to scream to them, “You are already appealing, loved, smart, accomplished, and valued. You don’t need a product or brand to be that.” How can a product really make people feel more of anything, especially in the long-run?
There is also this question: Does the relentless pursuit of more and better products, services, and experiences lead to improved lives with more leisure time and a higher quality of life, or does it just constantly raise the bar for what will satisfy while depleting natural resources and placing more demands on peoples’ lives?
How about those huge purchases that marketers can get people to make— for instance, luxury cars, luxury boats, fine art, and expensive wines? Some people can easily afford these things and very much appreciate even minutely incremental improvements in quality. Others, however, may be stretching their budgets to “keep up with the Joneses.” This second group may experience immediate post-purchase remorse after such a large purchase. Is it ethical to market to these people based on aspiration?
And, related to that, if people experience buyer’s remorse immediately after a purchase, is it a good thing or a bad thing to create a post-purchase touch point that relieves their anxiety and makes them feel better about the purchase?
And what about selling functional substance, a real solution to a problem, vs. good feelings? Many brands (and salespeople for that matter) are masterful at selling good feelings without really delivering much else. I often feel this way about motivational speakers. Is something tangible really more valuable than something completely intangible? Is it better to market to and deliver on a need or a desire? Is one better than another? What if people desire something that is not good for them? Is that the marketer’s problem? Is it another person’s right to judge what is good or bad for you?
Once, a client indicated that he wanted to hire me because he understood that I was a "master of the dark arts." Is this how you want to be perceived? I raise these questions and issues to get you, as a marketer, to think about not only what works but what is ethical. If you are a highly skilled marketer, you have a lot of power to persuade people to make choices in certain ways, to believe certain things, to purchase certain products and to behave in certain ways. Are you using this power responsibly?
So how do I see that marketing can be truly helpful to organizations, brands, and their customers? First and foremost, brands can help organizations focus on how they can best add value in the market, especially in unique ways. A brand’s unique value proposition can become the organization’s internal rallying cry, energizing employees and mobilizing them to deliver on the brand’s promise. Marketing can also highlight a particular brand’s unique advantage over competing brands, helping consumers to make more informed decisions. If businesses include marketing research as a part of marketing (as well they should), there is a huge advantage to understanding what customers actually need and want so that the organization can deliver it to them. Identifying and determining the best ways to meet human needs is a noble endeavor.
Reprinted from Brand Aid, second edition, available here.