Digital Marketing Ethics

Date: December 23, 2021
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Digital Marketing Ethics Liar has shadow with long nose. Conscience concept.

It is now possible to know just about everything about anyone. We leave digital breadcrumbs wherever we go. And since we spend so much time online, that’s a big reveal. As digital marketers, we are in possession of incredibly powerful tools, tools that can be used for good or ill. Personally, I am optimistic. We all drive cars, too—which can be used to take our family to the beach or kill someone. And, if everyone was as evil as they appear to be in movies and even on some social channels, we wouldn’t even be able to drive down the freeway.

What matters is 1) our intent and 2) how we use the information. 

So what is our intent? Is it good or evil?

People work so they have enough money to buy what they need and want. Free markets reward hard work. If you are willing to learn and put that knowledge to work to help others, you will earn money. If you are careful to spend less than you earn, you will be able to save some of that money, and that saved money will help you buy a car, a house, a college education for your children, and ultimately have enough to retire on. That is the promise of the free market system.

So is it evil to disrupt this happy scenario with temptations? Promises about how people can look better, feel better, age more gracefully, and impress their friends? Not a simple question. What about the entrepreneur who comes up with a wrinkle-reducing product that actually works? What if the people who buy the product feel better about themselves and more confidently go about their work? 

On the other hand, if the product doesn’t work at all, the intent is to make money at the expense of the customer, who will not see the promised positive results. The line between good and evil is pretty obvious in this case. By extension, marketers who help promote this non-working product are as guilty as the manufacturer. 

So it comes down to truth. Is the product or service really what we promise it will be? Or are we making promises that the product or service cannot fulfill? 

As the digital marketing tools have become more powerful, allowing those with non-truthful intentions to blanket the digital landscape with their messages, a compensating, counteractive wave has come into play. As we are all well aware, customers can tell each other what their experiences were. “This stuff does NOT do what it promises,” the reviewer might type into Amazon. If enough people have that same negative experience, the chances of that product being successful are greatly reduced. 

The customers can easily share their truths. 

The good guy/gal quandary

In my experience, most entrepreneurs have good intentions. I’ve worked with hundreds of company founders and owners; except for the occasional jerk (granted, we avoid them), they were all hard-working, well-intentioned people who wanted to “make a difference in the world” on the positive side of the scale. 

And yes, of course, there are bad apples. They get a lot of press, because they behave in a way that is slightly (or massively) outrageous. 

The company owners who go about their business in an ethical and honest fashion, and treat their employees and customers with respect are just not very newsworthy. That kind of goodness is boring, frankly. 

Which means, of course, that the good guys and gals have to work harder to get their products and services in front of others. They don’t have any desire to be outrageous or controversial; on the contrary, they want to be good providers and protectors of their families and companies. They’d rather not be a target. They don’t thrive on controversy. They thrive on succeeding, while being guided by their conscience. 

Ethics: Where is the line?

I’ve noticed a slippery slope sliding into conversations about business, from those entering the workforce for the first time. “Everybody else does it,” is one of the phrases that are bandied about when discussing what is ethical and what is not. But just because everyone else is doing it, and yes, they have profited by it, doesn’t make it right. 

One of the tests of whether something is ethical or not is the “How would I feel if it were done to me” test. If you were considering buying something that, unbeknownst to you, had a dangerous flaw, how would you feel if someone lied to you about it? How would you feel if the salesperson “left out” something that you really needed to know, but didn’t want to wreck the sale by bringing it up? How would you feel if the manufacturer of a rather amazing foundation that “erased wrinkles” failed to mention that, over time, the product permanently damaged your skin?

Interesting how we all know that when we are being taken advantage of, we definitely don’t like it. We decide, once we realize the deception, that we never want to do business with that company again, and we make sure we also warn others away. 

There is a related issue at work here. I have hired more than a few people to work for our company who have worked in situations where they were uncomfortable because of the way their employers treated customers and employees. These employers took advantage and were deceptive. 

So it is not only the business owners who face the ethical dilemma, but those who work for them. Sometimes one person in the company can practice or encourage deception, thus creating a toxic environment that negatively affects everyone who works within it. 

“I’m not calling to sell you anything.” 

The phone rings at dinnertime. The person on the line wants to engage you in a conversation that will, according to the script they are following, turn you into a customer. They start asking you questions. You know where this is going, and you really aren’t in the market for what they’re selling, so you interrupt the flow and say, “Sorry, I’m not a good prospect for you. We have that situation well in hand.” Or something similar. In other words, “I don’t want to buy what you are selling.” 

“Oh, I’m not calling to sell you anything,” the person says. This is a boldfaced lie, one that is also on the script. 

Personally, I can’t resist laughing when this happens, because it is so ridiculous. Of course they are calling to sell me something. Why else would they be calling? 

And, frankly, it’s insulting. The caller is treating the customer like the customer is a fool. 

Would you like it if someone treated you like a fool? Of course not.

This brings us back to the fact that selling honestly is much more difficult than selling deceptively and non-respectfully. But selling deceptively is not really selling. It is lying. 

What is ethical selling, then? It is, obviously, telling the absolute truth. Telling the customer the specifics, without garnishment, and also the pros and the cons. Helping the customer make a regret-free decision. Educating the customer on the tradeoffs, because there are always tradeoffs. 

During our time on earth, we have two choices. We can contribute to the goodness that helps others and elevates all human activity, or we can contribute to the destructive behavior that diminishes all human activity, and makes everyone uncomfortable. What we do in business every day makes the world a better place . . . or not. 

Digital or not. Doesn’t matter. The principles are the same. 

I know where I want to be.  

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