Ethical Issues in Marketing: What Practices to Avoid and How
Table of Contents
- Unknowingly Adopting Learned Associations and Stereotypes
- The Benefits of Ethical Marketing
- 6 Ethical Issues in Marketing and How to Avoid Them
- Final Thoughts: Ethical Marketing Starts and Ends with Proper Market Research
Marketing has become somewhat of a gray area, especially as political and cultural norms have shifted over the last decade. What was once acceptable is now a threat to consumer satisfaction and brand reputation.
As a result, ethical issues in marketing have taken center stage, and brands must understand how to maneuver correctly to keep their reputation intact and their customers happy.
When we talk about ethical issues in marketing, we're not just referring to shady practices such as buying email addresses and false advertising.
If you're reading this blog, you're likely concerned about staying above board, and you're probably not engaging in these offending tactics. Many honest marketers don't realize some of the ethical issues in marketing they might be facing and how they could be affecting their business growth.
What Is Marketing Ethics, and How Does It Benefit My Business?
The way you communicate with your customers directly affects your business's ethics and success. The invisibility of the internet doesn't help things and makes it difficult for consumers to assume your good intentions and eliminate bias correctly.
Consumers can't hear your verbal inflections, tone, or style in a Facebook post or email. Instead, they have to filter them through their own perceptions to figure out your message's intent.
This is but one example of how ethical marketing comes into play.
Unknowingly Adopting Learned Associations and Stereotypes
Learned associations and cultural characteristics are commonplace among most people, even if they don't realize it. The problem is that marketers can sometimes fall into the trap of perpetuating stereotypes and exploiting cultural sensitivities without even realizing they're doing it.
Brands can unknowingly become victims to societal and sometimes divisive perceptions that alienate consumers and prevent them from connecting to your mission.
Thankfully, you can prevent this from happening by understanding some of these ethical issues in marketing and shifting your messaging to prevent them from even occurring.
We'll discuss some of these instances in the next section of this article.
The Benefits of Ethical Marketing
What happens when you practice ethical marketing?
Your audience builds trust and positive perceptions toward your organization. They will be more apt to forgive when you make mistakes and champion your cause as much as you do.
And what happens when you don't practice ethical marketing?
Your reputation suffers, and it takes much longer to build trust if you even can.
How do you practice ethics in marketing? You must learn how to communicate correctly, exercise brand authenticity, and leverage solid research to understand your audience and how they think. Exercise full transparency and understand at a deep level the people you are serving.
We’ll now discuss some common ethical issues in marketing and what practices to avoid if you want to build trust and become (and remain) a solid force in your market.
6 Ethical Issues in Marketing and How to Avoid Them
1. Selling Products to Markets That Don't Want Them (i.e., False Promises)
Some marketers take the easy way out.
To sell more and hasten revenue production, they push products to multiple markets without proper research.
They're hoping to stumble upon a willing market by pushing their products to as many people as possible. This is a wasteful tactic, and it could also end up halting your progress and destroying your reputation.
Products are not products; they are solutions. Focus on the solution, not the sale.
Your products are someone's solution, and it's your job to find out who that someone is. Suppose you heavily advertise and push your products on people who have no need for them or lack the problem your product solves. In that case, you risk damaging your reputation with unhappy consumers and customers. Keep a customer-oriented attitude and avoid clamoring for the sale.
Half-truths are still half-lies
Be careful not to fall into manipulating your market with a half-truth just to gain the sale. Half-truths are not the truth, and false promises can come back to bite you in the end.
Modern consumers are savvy. If your product is not a fit for a market, it's not a fit, period. Avoid manipulating messaging and copy to fit your target's needs better without improving your product. Your product must always match your message if you want to remain ethical. This should be a priority over sales.
2. Relying on Assumptions and Guesswork
We talked about the danger of blanket selling to disinterested markets. Making assumptions about a target market can be just as disastrous.
It’s good to focus on a target market instead of trying to appeal to everyone. However, if you're relying on data from your own hunches and assumptions about that market, you still risk damaging your reputation and wasting marketing spend.
Modern marketing starts with data and ends with incredible consumer experiences that breed loyal customers.
When are assumptions ok? Only when you can back them up with solid market research data. Sound data can confirm (or deny) your assumptions.
3. Perpetuating Stereotypes (Without Even Realizing It)
Are you targeting a specific market or a stereotype? Without enough market research, it's challenging to remove personal bias and assumptions before targeting a demographic.
Even so you should avoid any campaigns or messaging that can potentially cross the line between demographic and stereotype.
The stereotypical woman cooking in the kitchen while the man works every day and acts as the home “handyman” puts genders in stereotypes. So, this messaging does not work anymore.
Gender, race, and age can be sensitive topics if not handled correctly. Your consumers are not afraid to call you out in public and let you (and all of their followers) know. Therefore, modern marketing must escape those stereotypes and become more fluid in its approach.
When you dive deep into market research, talk to your customers to learn how they think and study how your competitors promote similar products. This feedback will challenge your stereotypical assumptions so you can avoid coming across as shallow to your market and instead speak to their deep needs.
4. Lack of Transparency
An Ovum survey found that 68% of people said they would use a do-not-track feature on their search engine if it were available. Moreover, only 14% said that they believe Internet companies are honest about how they use their data.
Privacy issues have come to the forefront in the last decade as consumers become wary of company practices that track their behavior and capture their personal information. Yet, as marketers, we require this data to understand our market's interests and needs and to produce products they love and want.
The privacy line is an easy one to cross, which is why transparency in marketing is critical for brands to practice.
Most consumers are aware that brands collect information on them, but that doesn't exclude the need for transparency. Consumers want to know how and what data you will collect, and they should be fully aware of your practices.
Be aware of privacy differences among industries too. For example, the legal and medical sectors will have stricter privacy laws than others. Privacy laws change rapidly as well. Stay updated on your industry and speak to a legal professional if you need assistance.
5. Misleading Claims and Messaging
Misleading marketing can refer to everything from inconsistent and misleading messaging and promotions to making untrue claims about the quality of your products.
For example, it's misleading to launch a 50%-off holiday sale but increase your pricing by 50% to offset the discount. It's also misleading to promote a sale first to your loyal customers that only lasts for three days. But then, because the sale performed so well, to offer the same deal the following weekend to customers who aren't part of your loyalty program.
As marketers, it's also challenging to publish promotional messaging without turning away prospects from your brand. Many consumers recognize advertising techniques, and they know when brands are promoting their products.
But overt advertising is outdated. Use consumer awareness to massage your ad copy so that it speaks to your audience's needs (mentions benefits, reviews, value, attributes) instead of relying on in-your-face advertising (coercive copy that lacks empathy).
Modern ethical marketers use consumer awareness to their advantage. They exercise transparency and never mislead consumers.
Remember that business success is not always about the sale. Ethics in marketing promotes trust and relationship-building. These two attributes will grow businesses faster than any three-day promotion ever will.
6. Misusing Consumer Data
Whether you're unknowingly misusing consumer data or manipulating it for your own gain, both are unethical practices in marketing.
If you're not tech-savvy, you might not be aware of how you (or third parties) are misusing your customer data. The issue is that the fallout from these practices will affect your business, not the guilty party. Your customers will fault you for not being aware of what was going on.
Ensure your website and the data you collect are safe and kept private from third parties. Consult with an expert if necessary to ensure your customer data is safe from being manipulated and sold to other parties.
Final Thoughts: Ethical Marketing Starts and Ends with Proper Market Research
This article talked about six ethical issues in marketing and why they can be disastrous to your brand.
- Selling products to new markets that are not interested
- Relying on assumptions and guesswork instead of sound data
- Perpetuating stereotypes
- Lacking transparency
- Making misleading claims and messaging
- Misusing consumer data
The good news is that solid market research can prevent most of the ethical issues of marketing. Market research is the foundation of every marketing strategy and the key to staying ethically transparent and building trust and long-term relationships with your audience.
Has your market research paid off for you? Do you want to discover if your marketing is performing as well as it could? Find out with our FREE Marketing Audit and Review. Get a full website review, evaluation of your social media presence and engagement, keyword rankings, high-level messaging, and branding review, and so much more.