5 Rules for Ethical Marketing in the Digital Age

Posted by Natalie Hornyak

In Is Ethical Marketing Extinct?, Melonie Dodaro of TopDog Social Media sets some ethical parameters for modern marketing professionals to follow when choosing tactics to promote their brands. Dodaro implores marketers to be honest and transparent, take responsibility for their messaging, and avoid manipulative practices like advertising artificial scarcity. She also poses a question we’ve all probably asked ourselves at some point in the past few years: how can copies of a digital ebook actually run out?

(Spoiler: they can’t.)

Let’s face it — people don’t generally like being sold to, and they really don’t appreciate being sold to in slimy ways. And as a marketer, likeability is your bread and butter. You’re literally paid to make people like a particular brand, so what can be gained by promising to get rid of your audience’s wrinkles, belly fat, and debt with one weird trick?

Be an ethical marketer with this one weird trick!

What I’m trying to say is that ethics — that is, behaving in a way that is good and moral — isn’t just beneficial for the people you market to, but also the brands you’re marketing. Because eventually, the truth will out, and in an era where almost anyone can Google their way into investigating a brand’s dirty tricks, you can rest assured that any bad behavior lurking behind your campaign will be broadcast to millions of social media users.

So ethics are good for everyone — that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? With that said, here are five ethical rules all marketers should follow:

1. First, do no harm — to your audience or your brand.

Be Hippocratic, not hypocritical. Marketers are prone to mistakes like any other human being (with the possible exception of Ryan Gosling), and sometimes we botch a campaign in a way that hurts people’s feelings. Again, hurting feelings is the exact opposite of what marketers want to do, but all it takes is some oversight and poor quality assurance to convey your message in a way that’s insensitive to a group (or groups) of people.

Without naming names, there have been a few famous SNAFUs in recent years where brands have leaned too heavily on stereotypes, pulled out tired Battle of the Sexes tropes, or otherwise missed the mark when making social commentary. Each time, the Twitterverse has responded with the same question: “Who was — or wasn’t — in the room to sign off on this?”

To avoid these mishaps, it helps to look at your marketing creative and ask, at various points in your process, “Is there a way this could harm somebody?” That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. Test a new concept on a diverse focus group spanning multiple demographic categories, and solicit candid feedback. If there is a public outcry against one of your campaigns, be graceful: pull the ad, issue an honest apology, and demonstrate that you’re working to avoid making the same mistake again.

Relevant Philosophy Quote



2. Be authentically honest.

“False advertising.” “Deceptive marketing.” “Snake oil.” We’re all familiar with the terminology our industry has historically tried to avoid, but for some unscrupulous marketers and brands, lying isn’t as bad as getting caught in the lie. Without disparaging specific brands, it’s unlikely that an exotically named herb will help you lose 30 lbs in 30 days, that yogurt will cure your stomach problems (please see an actual gastroenterologist!), or that an energy drink will cause you to grow literal (or figurative) wings.

(Okay, in fairness, the Red Bull class action lawsuit is more than a little ridiculous — but if nothing else, it shows how seriously customers take a brand’s claims.)

But it’s not enough for marketers to avoid out-and-out lies. Slippery slope may be a logical fallacy, but making things slippery is just about the only thing snake oil does successfully. Have you ever suggested that a digital download would eventually “run out” if customers don’t act fast, as Dodaro lampoons? Maybe you’ve cherry-picked numbers from Google Analytics to make a campaign look slightly more successful than it really was, or leveraged an outdated statistic to make a rhetorical point.

All this is to say that in an age where brands leave digital footprints everywhere — and when consumer trust is both harder to earn and more valuable than ever — it’s never been more important to stick to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Relevant Philosophy Quote

Screenshot of Viacom’s “Inside the Brain of a Fan” microsite.



3. Being emotionally evocative is okay — being manipulative isn’t.

Imagine, if you will, plopping down on the couch for a long Hulu sesh binge-watching your favorite comedy show, and you haven’t payed for the commercial-free plan. Every few minutes, between riotous laughter, you’re treated to the same ad over and over for an HPV vaccine — an ad that pointedly blames you for not doing enough to prevent a young person from developing cancer.

You may not even be a parent, but you still feel personally indicted by this commercial. Besides that, it’s a major buzzkill when you’re just trying to enjoy some jokes and sketches. That’s emotionally manipulative advertising, and few people appreciate it. Now, tugging some heartstrings isn’t unethical, and it can be quite effective. Sarah McLachlan’s soulful singing over images of shelter pets for the SPCA shows how an emotionally powerful campaign can become an instant classic — while also advocating for a good cause (saving puppies).

If your campaign has real emotional weight, you don’t need to make people feel needlessly guilty. Even if your cause is noble, focus on bringing out the emotions people would naturally feel when seeing a certain stimulus — don’t twist the knife and force a desired emotional state on them.

Relevant Philosophy Quote

Screenshot of De Correspondent’s Article, “How Billions Vanish Into the Black Hole That Is the Security Industry”



4. Respect your audience’s time and attention.

Of course, emotional manipulation isn’t the only way you can seize control over the hearts and minds of your audience. You can also steal their attention away in ways they wouldn’t otherwise prefer — after all, how many times have you gone to bed at the end of the day regretting not spending more time on Facebook? Right now, folks spend more than five hours a day using their smartphones, often compulsively checking each notification that pops up on their screens.

That means that if you sleep the recommended eight hours each night, you’re likely spending a third of your waking time staring at that tiny screen. That’s time you could be spending volunteering with a local service group, calling your mom to tell her you love her, or petting an actual cat (instead of looking at cat memes). It’s become such an issue that ethical UI design is a growing field — it’s very possible, through psychological insights and extensive A/B testing, to design a digital experience that’s literally addictive. But should you?

Advertisers have to walk a fine ethical line when fighting for territory in the attention economy without crowding out the shrinking bandwidth of an increasingly tech-addicted audience. The way to do that is to offer something that’s truly of value to your audience — an ebook that offers knowledge they won’t find anywhere else, a video that lifts their spirits, an offer they can refuse, but can take of their own volition.

Relevant Philosophy Quote

Screenshot of Garfield’s new website, with an emphasis on great UI/UX design



5. Use your marketing powers (and platform) for good.

Of course, being ethical isn’t all about avoiding unethical acts — it’s also about doing ethical things, like helping others. As marketers, we’re in the business of amplifying voices and helping brands tell their stories in a way that makes people stop and pay attention. We can use that expertise to amplify the voices of charities, causes, and service organizations that seek to make the world a better place.

Garfield’s commitment to service was a huge motivating factor for me when I decided to come work here. I saw the work the agency has done for Habitat for Humanity and knew this was an organization I wanted to be a part of. Each year, Garfield chooses a local non-profit to partner with, contributing in several ways — raising money, designing high-quality marketing materials, and completing a volunteer project. Last year, we cooked breakfast and ran a charity drive for Ronald McDonald House Philly. This year, we’re excited to help the Philadelphia Education Fund create a ladder of opportunity for underserved Philly high school students.

We’re also proud to work with brands committed to helping others. For example, we created a video for Duff & Phelps that promoted the spirit of giving and the brand’s work supporting Women’s Learning Partnership. We’ve also had the pleasure of helping Greenfield Senior Living share its mission to transform the senior living experience, going above and beyond to help seniors feel valued, fulfilled, and engaged in their golden years.

Relevant Philosophy Quote

Screenshot of Garfield’s new services page, with an emphasis on great UI/UX design



Everyone on earth has the power to make a difference. Like Liam Neeson in Taken, each of us possesses a particular set of skills. We each have the choice to use those skills to harm or to help others. Avoiding harm may be the first step in ethical marketing, but the final step is vastly more significant — taking action to make life better for the billions of folks with whom we share this planet. Imagine what would happen if marketers worldwide pooled their talents in the pursuit of a better future, giving voice to the voiceless and promoting the public good.

That’s a world I’d like to live in.

Nat Hornyak is a copywriter at Garfield Group and the proud owner of a BA in Philosophy, which she swears up and down is “more useful than you might think.”