Ethical Digital

5 Principles of Marketing Ethics for Advertising Professionals

We are in a time of ethical confusion. 

marketing ethics

When a mere promise not to be evil sounds less earnest than Orwellian. When every day brings a new outrage, a new protest, a new martyr, a new villain. The high cost of free technology is to set our core values of privacy, truth, and freedom against each other.

The internet is at once the source, battleground, and market for our disputes. Social media brings out the worst in us. Profiteers in the culture war want to keep it that way.

Those companies that win the public trust soon lose it in a scandal. Sentimentality is kitsch, marketing is manipulation, and commerce is viewed with suspicion wherever it is not outright opposed. To add to the confusion, disparate laws on advertising, privacy, monopoly, and access shed no light on what is right or wrong. We look to politicians for hope and change while seeking to reign in the technologists, entrepreneurs, and industrialists. Everyone hates everyone and everything sucks.

In this milieu of cynicism, shame, and outrage, how are you, a digital marketer with a job to do, supposed to stand toothbrush-in-mouth before your own reflection each morning and love yourself?

Friend, you need a code. A set of principles to live by to help you rise above the confusion, stand strong against the sowers of discord, and do right. To wit, you need:

The Marketer’s Guide to Marketing Ethics

Rule # 1: Tell the truth

Simply telling the truth sounds easy, but when you look at the amount of churn in this industry it’s clear that many clients are being misled, oversold, and strung along.

Dishonesty is endemic wherever incentives are misaligned. For example, salespeople who earn a living on commission are influenced by the timing of that commission. A front-loaded commission rewards the initial sale more than long-term retention, so sales reps have a strong incentive to make unrealistic promises in order to close the deal. By misleading the client at the beginning, they set the rest of the team up for failure.

Account Managers and Fulfillment Specialists can face perverse incentives, too. Mistakes happen, like typos in ad text or, worse, a mistaken geo target. When someone messes up, does the account manager go hat in hand to the client and tell the truth? Or do they concoct a story to explain a campaign’s poor performance, hoping the error will go unnoticed? Company culture is important, and a company that tolerates deception while punishing honest mistakes creates a powerful incentive to lie.

It is management’s job to structure incentives and expectations properly to nurture a culture of telling the truth. “Tell the truth” means don’t spin, don’t hype, don’t conceal, and when you mess up, fess up. If you are working for a firm or agency that does not consistently encourage you to tell the truth, you should consider finding another employer that will respect your integrity.

Rule # 2: Do your best

In your profession as in life, there is a temptation to do just enough to get by. An SEO specialist can neglect to keep up with the latest developments, content that the old techniques are good enough. A PPC specialist can build set-it-and-forget-it campaigns. A social media manager can reuse the same clichéd memes and captions, doing the bare minimum required to charge that monthly fee.

It’s not a crime to half-ass your way through life. The question is whether as human beings we are obliged to use our whole ass.

Enlightenment philosophers used the term “imperfect obligation” to distinguish certain voluntary duties, like helping a neighbor in need, from moral imperatives, like not stealing from your neighbor. The idea is that while you are not legally required to do certain things, you have social obligations that must be observed if you wish to be a virtuous, honorable person.

The stronger you are, the more you can help others. The better you are at your job, the more help you will be to your clients. And the more you help others, the better your reputation will be, and the better you should feel about yourself. Therefore win some glory in this life. Keep abreast of the marketing news and research, study up on the latest tools and techniques, expand your skillset, and crush it for your clients. Make the choice to do your best.

Rule # 3: Take the high road

Marketing is about appealing to people’s feelings. Their feelings of need, desire, attraction, empathy… and yes, even feelings of fear and anger.

Fear-based marketing can work. Nobody ever said the dark side of the force is weak.

You can write articles, social posts, and ad text that build a brand identity by disparaging the “other”. Our tribe buys X because their tribe buys Y, and we all know their tribe sucks. Don’t be like them. Buy X.

It’s not against the law to pander to people’s baser instincts. But does it make the world a better place? Does it accomplish the goal of marketing in its most enlightened sense – to connect people with the goods and services they desire by communicating their value in an honest, straightforward way?

In an era when advertising is saturated with cynicism and irony, and when consumers often view sincerity as a ploy, it can be tempting to join the crowd and use fear and anger to sell merchandise. But for every cheap shot there’s always another angle, a way to win with dignity. Focus on the positive, and with time you will imbue your brand with an aura of good feeling rather than a hangover of negativity. In the long run, positive brand messaging is the more effective strategy, and it will certainly help you feel better about the digital marketer in the mirror.

Someday you may face a fork in the road where you must choose between appealing to people’s higher or baser instincts. Either may get you where you need to go, but only one will reward you with a pleasant journey. Choose the high road.

Rule # 4: Build lasting relationships

From the client’s perspective, marketing is scary. You commit to spending money with no guarantee of a return, and you put your image out there to be judged by the world. If you hire a marketing agency, you must entrust them with your most valuable asset, your brand.

Most business owners know precious little about the details of digital marketing. When they hire you to run their campaigns, they are putting their livelihood on the line, trusting that you are an honest, competent person.

Consider the dentist fresh out of college, already burdened with student debt, who takes out a business loan to open her own practice. She has a bright new office, expensive dental equipment, a salaried staff, and a stack of crisp magazines in the lobby.

She has come to you for help with her marketing efforts. You both know that without new clients, she won’t last six months. She will have to close up shop, lay off staff, and possibly file for bankruptcy. This is in the back of her mind when she meets with you. She doesn’t have a dime to waste. Her fate is in your hands.

If this portrait doesn’t stir some sympathy in you, then you are in the wrong profession. There are real people on both sides of every commercial transaction, and your job is to facilitate an honest dialog between them. The dentist is a real person, and the person in the dentist chair is a real person getting a real root canal that really hurts.

It is easy to win clients by telling them what they want to hear, but lasting relationships are built on trust and empathy. Remember what your clients have at stake, and strive to serve their long-term interest. Sometimes that means telling them what they don’t want to hear. Sometimes that means telling them “no” when they ask you to do something that will hurt their campaign. Hopefully your employer encourages you to build lasting relationships with your clients, but if they don’t, perhaps you should consider finding another employer that will let you be an ethical human and not just a cog in the marketing machine. It’s essential to your self-respect.

Rule # 5: Work with, not against, the search engines

Ok, as platitudes go, this one is less universal than the others. But in this industry, it really is important to respect the platforms you are using and not try to game the search engines in ways that might imperil your client. Black hat techniques in SEO and PPC should be retired.

Instead, work with the platforms by supplying organized, relevant content and a great user experience. Follow their advertising policies, and reach out to them for support if you need clarification. By breaking the rules you risk getting your client’s account penalized or worse, and that kind of damage can be very difficult to repair. So wear the white hat and follow best practices, and that will help keep you on the straight and narrow as an ethical digital marketer.

Now go forth and conquer!

Notice that none of the rules instructed you to go soft on your competitors. No, compete like hell and win (see Rule # 2). Be like Wordsworth’s happy warrior,

Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;

William Wordsworth

It is the best way to serve your client, earn a living, and ultimately raise industry standards for your colleagues and competitors alike. Follow the five marketing ethics rules above, and you will be an ethical digital marketer, sleeping babe-like in the assurance that you are a force of goodness and light in this dark world. And if you want to work in a team of like-minded individuals, you should check out what we’re building at

Now go CRUSH!

Did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!

By Kevin Frei

Kevin Frei is an entrepreneur, paid media specialist, and intermittent nomad from Arizona. Ethical Digital is his third startup after and an online traffic school company. An avid traveler and economics hobbyist, Kevin's goal is to revolutionize the way service companies are organized so that more people can achieve the dream of professional (and locational) independence.

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