In today’s world, ethical business practices are more important than ever. Confidence and trust in corporate institutions has fallen sharply, with 36 percent of Americans seeing businesses as a source of hope (compared to 84 percent of Chinese citizens). The zeitgeist is one that feels corporate America is greedy, selfish, impersonal, and all-consuming, and people are less tolerant of businesses that practice this way.
It’s more than just a feeling; 9 out of 10 Americans expect companies to do more than make a profit — they expect them to operate socially and responsibly, and would boycott a company that egregiously violated these expectations.
But “operating responsibly” isn’t just about recycling your office’s paper or employing a diverse mix of people. You also have to think about how ethical your marketing practices are; if you market or advertise your business in a way that’s unethical, you could drive people away from your business immediately.
Where’s the Line?
So what qualifies as “unethical” in the marketing world? Ethics are obviously open to debate; they’re a matter of philosophy, rather than science, so there’s no coherent intrinsic ethical stance that is proven to be the right one. However, while it’s noble to have your practices guided by internal beliefs, the real gauge here is how your consumers react to your ads, and what they believe about your business.
In that sense, these are some of the five most unethical marketing practices that are commonly employed. Is your company guilty of any of these?
1. Misleading advertising. Misleading ads are more than just unethical — they’re illegal. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates “truth in advertising,” mandating that businesses make accurate statements in their advertising campaigns and, when possible, back their claims with scientific evidence. However, it’s common for advertisers to exaggerate certain features and downplay others in order to make their products look as attractive as possible, so the line becomes somewhat blurry. The ethical line here is when your claims start to be unprovable; for example, tobacco cigarettes were originally advertised as “healthy.” A more recent example is Nutella, a sugary hazelnut spread that was pitched as part of a nutritious breakfast for children — the company was sued, ultimately reimbursing up to $20 to anyone who bought Nutella products for this reason.
2. Black-hat link building. Media exposure is almost always a good thing for businesses, and earning inbound links to your company website is the single best way to boost your organic search rankings. There are ethical ways to build links and increase mentions of your brand; the most common is to use guest posting opportunities to write high-quality content for your target audience that cites one of your brand’s pieces of original research. However, using black-hat link building techniques, such as by spamming people’s comment sections, forum threads, or even going as far as hacking websites to put a self-serving link somewhere in them screams of a lack of ethics.
3. Contacting people without consent. Have you ever thought about buying a list of email addresses so you can bulk up your company’s subscriber list? You’re not the first one. Many businesses have used this tactic to contact people who they otherwise wouldn’t have known. Remember our friends at the FTC? They also enforce a law called the CAN-SPAM act, and under it, you’re legally allowed to email people without their consent — but for one time only. Even that single contact can start irritating people, making your uninvited communication do more harm than good for your brand image, so don’t push the limits here. You’re better off building your contact lists organically.
4. Insensitive controversy. Stirring up a bit of healthy controversy can be an effective way to get more attention; you can stand out as a thought leader by presenting an unpopular opinion, and cultivate discussion among your readers. However, when you venture into a world of controversy haphazardly, you’ll probably end up making more enemies than new fans. Pepsi made this mistake recently when they tried to use an ad to introduce their product into a Black Lives Matter protest — and while the ad tried to evoke a positive tone, their intentional attempt to get political backfired in a big way.
5. Emotional exploitation. One of the most effective ways to advertise a business is to call to people’s emotions. Making them laugh or evoking a sense of nostalgia helps consumers forge a small bond with your brand. However, when you intentionally evoke rage or sadness in a tasteless way, you could be seen as exploiting emotions, rather than sympathizing with them. Rather than a single example here, I’m going to reference a chain of advertisements that attempted to exploit the 9–11 terrorist attacks as a way to earn customer sympathy. These ads often seem well-intentioned, showing respect for surviving family members, firefighters, and New Yorkers, but the fact that these messages are being used to hock products are what make them offensive and unethical.
Ethical standards for companies are only going to grow more intense over the next several years. Consumers will have access to newer forms of technology and more quantities of information, which means greater overall transparency, and the number of businesses switching to organic and inbound marketing campaigns will similarly increase, adding competitive pressure to the mix.
Take inventory of your business’s marketing strategies, and be proactive in eliminating any tactics that could be deemed unethical. All it takes is one bad campaign to jeopardize your otherwise solid reputation.
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