How to avoid common ethical marketing mistakes

February 16, 2021 · 2 min read · By ASU CareerCatalyst

Even marketers with the best intentions can still struggle with marketing ethics. Lecturer Brent Scholar and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Castillo in Arizona State University's College of Integrative Arts and Sciences share their expert insight about marketing ethics so you can ensure your marketing campaigns are always above board.

As a marketer you know it’s best to be ethical and transparent, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Ethics is often a gray area. It’s not always clear what’s right and wrong, and the determination of what’s “right” can vary from person to person.

In marketing, this is especially difficult because usually, it’s your customers who get the final say after your campaign or idea has already launched. If they admire your tactics, you can build lasting trust and interest in your brand. But if your audience finds out you’ve crossed into unethical marketing, you could become the target of a new Twitter-fueled boycott. An increasing number of customers are demanding companies to be honest and trustworthy. It’s now especially important to ensure all your marketing practices are ethical.

What is marketing ethics?

Marketing ethics is an overarching moral philosophy of fairness, honesty and transparency that guides your organization’s marketing department.

“Ethical marketing, like business ethics, is doing the right thing with an emphasis on telling the truth about what you are marketing,” said Brent Scholar, lecturer in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and marketing ethics instructor for ASU Continuing and Professional Education.

This means ethical marketing isn’t one plan or strategy. Instead, it’s a set of values that you use to evaluate all your marketing campaigns. When marketing is honest and fair, you can create genuine conversations with customers and build long-term trust in your brand.

“Ethical marketing is transparent, caring and authentic,” said Elizabeth Castillo, assistant professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts and a business ethics instructor for ASU Continuing and Professional Education. “It strives to build dialogue and meaningful engagement with stakeholders.”

This meaningful engagement is important and what makes ethical marketing so fruitful. When your customers trust your brand, they will be more willing to buy your product or service.

Ethical versus unethical marketing

Unethical marketing is the opposite of ethical marketing. Instead of being honest and fair, it’s misleading and offensive.

“Unethical marketing is parasitic,” Castillo said. “It takes advantage of customers through misleading information and half-truths, encouraging them to act in ways that are not in their long-term interest.”

This is something marketers would want to avoid. But even with the best intentions, it can still be possible to accidentally slip into unethical marketing practices.

Five unethical marketing practices to know and avoid:

  1. Spreading misleading information

    This can be one of the most difficult areas of marketing ethics to navigate.

    All brands want to highlight what makes them great. This means it can be hard to determine when you’ve crossed over from truthful emphasis to misleading exaggeration.

    This is an especially important ethical marketing topic to understand. Misleading customers is not only unethical but is also illegal. The Federal Trade Commission monitors truth in advertising to ensure ads are honest. If you get caught spreading untrue information, you could face false advertising charges.

    It’s always best to stick with verified claims that can be backed up with evidence. Don’t promise more than your product can deliver.

  2. Exploiting emotions

    Emotionally charged marketing is another common strategy that can become unethical.

    Ethical marketers are empathetic and sympathize with customers' emotions. Unethical marketers use fear tactics and false outrage to exploit people’s emotions.

    These unethical marketing strategies can include pressuring customers with a “limited time offer” when there is no deadline or being insensitive to tragic current events.

    Always ensure you’re appealing to customers’ emotions in a positive way without manipulation.

  3. Spamming

    You’ve probably been on the receiving end of unsolicited emails or phone calls and know how annoying it is. So, don’t be the person sending out those emails or making those calls.

    Instead, focus on inbound marketing strategies. This way you're only contacting people who have an interest in your brand.

    Even if someone gives you permission to contact them, it’s still a marketing best practice to be strategic with your communications. Always ensure each communication provides value to your potential customers. Nobody wants to be overwhelmed with useless emails or phone calls.

  4. Black-hat SEO

    In digital marketing, there’s a lot of competition to rank at the top of the search engine results pages.

    It can take a long time to organically rank in the top few spots for desired keywords. So, some marketers have turned to black-hat strategies to try and outsmart search engines.

    These strategies include showing a different website to the search engine than to users, buying links, keyword stuffing and more. These practices may give you a temporary SEO boost, but search engines are smart. You will get caught and your rank will plummet.

    Instead, be patient and develop a long-term SEO strategy. Focus on providing value to search users, creating your own quality content and staying up to date on webmaster guidelines.

  5. Plagiarizing conten

    We all learned about this one in school, so it should go without saying that plagiarism is unethical.

    It’s never okay to copy someone else’s work, whether it’s a slogan, a whole article or even a few sentences.

    You can look at another brand’s work for inspiration, but use your creativity to come up with something original. If you are going to use someone else’s work or research, always ensure you cite the source.

Ethical marketing benefits

Being an ethical marketer isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also a smart business strategy.

“Increasingly, firms recognize that a conversational, transparent approach to engaging stakeholders can generate new insights and enhance the firm’s capacity for value creation,” Castillo said.

Unethical marketing may give you a quick sales boost, but once you get caught it can take years to rebuild your brand’s reputation. Ethical marketing avoids controversy while also building long-term trust and customer loyalty.

“When one does anything from an ethical standpoint, it does not have to be just marketing, it builds trust because consumers know what to expect from your organization,” Scholar said. “They also know they are getting a quality product or service.”

Ethical marketing combined with strong business ethics across your organization can be an especially powerful tool to build a positive brand reputation and create long-term growth.

“Customers are eager to do business with this type of company,” Castillo said. “This leads to strong customer loyalty, which in turn strengthens the firm’s brand and market value, creating a virtuous cycle.”

Master marketing ethics with an ethical business certificate from Arizona State University


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