Ok. I’ve been talking about marketing ethics for about nine months on this blog. In that time, I’ve asserted that marketing can be ethical, defined marketing ethics, proposed ways to give marketing ethics a seat at the table in any organization, and most recently, prescribed how to build ethical marketing messages.

Clearly, I’m all in for marketing ethics.

And yet, I can understand the argument that many marketers and business owners use to justify their unethical marketing practices. “But unethical marketing messages work!” they say. They wonder why we should upset the apple cart when marketers have been successfully using manipulative and deceitful tactics for centuries—especially when these tactics are akin to “little white lies.”

Exaggeration and puffery may not bring actual, physical harm to our audiences. In fact, many unethical marketing tactics could be considered small offenses of an inconsequential nature. As a marketing professional of 13 years, I would be lying if I said that I never used unethical tactics myself. It’s practically part of the playbook on how to do marketing.

Can vs. Should

The fact that black hat marketing tactics work (in the short-term) doesn’t mean that they should be used. Nuclear bombs are extremely efficient at destroying an enemy, but that doesn’t mean that we should go dropping them around the world whenever there’s a conflict. There’s a difference between what we can do and what we should do.

There’s also a difference between what’s good in the short term and what’s good in the long term. If you truly want your marketing to be successful, then it needs to be sustainable as well. It can’t just solve the short-term problem of increasing subscriptions or spiking product sales. Instead, it needs to inspire trust and loyalty among its audience. Unethical marketing practices are focused on the short term. They trade trust for urgency. They shout, “Buy now! Or else…” In the worst cases, they back us into a corner, making us as consumers feel like we have no other option but to do what they tell us to do. Black hat marketing tactics hold your audience hostage.

The Key to Successful Marketing

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the key to successful, sustainable marketing is NOT striking fear in the hearts of your audience. It’s not trickery or deception. The key to successful marketing is inspiring trust and loyalty in your audience. This is what marketing ethics has to offer.

Marketers help people by connecting them to the products and services that they want or need.

By this definition of marketing, even an unethical marketing message can help people. But being helpful doesn’t cancel out unethical practices. The moment that your customers sense malicious manipulation in your messages, they will lose trust for you and your brand. Even when a product or service is the ideal solution for a customer, distrust can cause that customer to boycott your business altogether.

Large companies like Google are not immune to the virus of mistrust. When you stop prioritizing your customers, they notice. The relationship between businesses and customers is held in a delicate balance.

Don’t Rely on Unethical Marketing

What more is there to say? Plenty, which is why I’ll continue writing about and advocating for marketing ethics. But for today, suffice it to say that unethical marketing tactics may work in the short term but they’re not sustainable. If you’re looking for longterm success, then don’t rely on black hat marketing. Prioritize your audience above all else to develop a sustainable marketing strategy and it will reward you for years to come.

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