Applying Ethics in Marketing: What's Your Code?
A long time ago, philosophers in Greece were debating how we should act in order to be good people and responsible citizens. They never came to a consensus, so how hard could they have really been trying? Let’s see if we can solve it.
Turns out, we can’t. There’s no code of ethics that can encapsulate what's good and right in every situation. The quest to outline this code, however, is an admirable goal. We want to be better than we were the day before: better siblings and spouses, better teachers and teammates, better leaders and listeners. Each of these requires a thoughtful and tailored approach.
So what does it look like to be a better marketer? How are we applying ethics to marketing? What's our code?
We can’t answer for everyone, but we've got a few ideas to get you started.
“Sure, the engine overheats, but you’re going to love that warm car in the winter.”
Arguably the most important item on this list, persuasion is at the core of everything we do in marketing. Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, walks a fine line. On one side is effective communication, knowing your audience, and speaking well to their wants and needs. On the other side is manipulation.
Helping people appreciate something like the unique aesthetic of art created by babies is a skill, but abusing that talent to mislead people for the sake of sales is wrong. I think we can all agree about that. This isn’t anything new. Plato warned against it. But Plato didn’t have to deal with the internet, social media, billboards, and the strange things we do these days to attract customers. Each new method of communication introduces new complications and considerations for ethical marketing.
A commitment to fair persuasion means a respect for customers’ need for honesty and transparency. It means valuing their ability to decide for themselves. It means acknowledging that there are methods for reaching our goals that we shouldn’t use because they compromise the integrity of the relationships we want to have with our customers.
“Sure, go with flashing pop-ups. That’s still cool, right?”
Philosophy and ethics are equal parts thought and action. Thinking about our decisions and actions. Thinking about others. Thinking about our thinking. But we don’t need to send ourselves into constant anxiety.
For some folks, a practice of reflection might look like brainstorming or a conversation before a big decision. For others, it could be an end-of-day work diary or a voice-memo during your drive home. Either way, many ethical slip-ups can be avoided by taking a few extra minutes of thought now and then, rather than acting on impulse.
Even better, the more we make this a habit the more our impulses reflect the values we desire, so it takes less time the more you practice.
Social Responsibility and Sustainability
“We’re designing a luxury treadmill carved from ebony and lubricated with whale oil.”
Put simply, we should be thinking about the future of the world beyond ourselves. As marketers, an awareness of the consequences of our efforts is important. We possess the ability to sell a product out, to make clients millionaires, and to change minds; we should make sure we’re using that power wisely.
A code of ethics that values social responsibility and sustainability makes a priority of the long-term good over the short-term gain and stresses our ability as marketers to make change in the issues that matter to us. If it matters to you, then the marketing matters too.
It's hard work, but there’s good news: applying ethics to marketing also makes you a more successful marketer in the long run. We're not the only ones who say so. Ethical decision-making and branding helps establish a reputation of trustworthiness and integrity, something customers will gravitate toward and don’t mind paying a little extra for. Also, as your marketing sets a high standard for what people will accept, you're helping phase out the more questionable and unethical practices people sometimes try.
Developing a code of ethics for your marketing efforts is a highly personal process. It reflects your values and priorities, and nobody can do it for you. Of course, it should be more than a document; expressing a commitment to a code of ethics isn’t the same as acting on it. Your code should be discussed and guarded regularly, especially because life has a way of creating situations that put values in conflict and grey areas.
Now that we’ve established the foundation, we're going to challenge you. Keep an eye out for case-studies and thought puzzles we’ll be sharing soon to test your marketing ethics instincts.