What Constitutes Unethical Marketing?

June 26, 2019

An overwhelming majority (92%) of marketers consider themselves to be ethical, according to research [pdf] released by Phrasee. But the same research also reveals that one-quarter have been pressured to use unethical marketing tactics at work.

Consumers tend to have a dim view of industry practitioners: Gallup surveys consistently show that advertising practitioners are among the least trusted professionals for honesty and ethics – putting them among car salespeople and members of Congress. These survey results come at a time when brand trust is gaining in importance with consumers.

So what best describes unethical marketing practices? Here are a few notes from Phrasee’s research.

Distorting Truth and Lacking Transparency

Out of the options surveyed, it’s quite clear that marketers feel that ethical marketing needs to tell the truth and provide transparency to customers.

At the top of the list of unethical practices, some 7 in 10 (69%) marketers cited marketing that distorts or exaggerates the truth as one such behavior. Closely related to that was using unrealistic or altered images (56%) – an important consideration given the fact that consumers prefer visual information, at least when shopping online.

These are considerably important when establishing trust: research has found that consumer satisfaction is linked to brands delivering value that matches the marketing message.

Meanwhile, on the issue of transparency, around 6 in 10 (62%) said it was unethical for marketing to conceal important information, while around 4 in 10 said a lack of transparency around the use of data in targeting (40%) and a lack of transparency around the source of adverts (37%) was also a red flag.

Previous research has shown that honesty is often the best policy – people want brands to be more transparent, particularly on social media, and shoppers are much more comfortable about sharing information when brands tell them what it will be used for.

Exploiting Vulnerability and Negative Emotions

The second-most commonly cited unethical marketing practice by marketers surveyed in the US and UK was marketing that targets and exploits vulnerable groups (64%). A smaller proportion (19%) also said that marketing which is population selective (i.e. excludes or targets some groups) was unethical.

Continuing this theme, around 6 in 10 (58%) say that marketing that shames is unethical, as is that which induces anxiety or fear (56%), or that which directly uses negative emotions like fear, anxiety or guilt to sell to people (52%).

Unfortunately, people have come across marketing that leads them to such reactions. In an accompanying survey of 4,000 consumers in the US and UK, Phrasee found around half (48%) saying that marketing can make them feel angry. Other negative marketing-induced emotions that respondents reported include inadequacy (39%), sadness (38%) and anxiety (38%). In addition, more than half (56%) agree that brands are using negative emotions that are, in part, responsible for harming people’s mental health.

Do Marketers Want This?

Turning back to those responsible for communicating to customers, it’s clear that most marketers want to use ethical practices, but there may be a minority of companies giving the industry a bad reputation.

The vast majority (88%) of marketers say that marketing ethically is important to them and that they would not work for a company that they did not consider to be ethical in its marketing (83%). But some (18%) also agree that the company they currently work for is not as ethical as they would like it to be in its marketing practices.

Ultimately, it may be the bottom line that improves the industry, as one-quarter (26%) of marketers say they have seen negative results from using unethical marketing practices.

And on the consumer side, while roughly one-quarter (27%) agree that anxiety-inducing marketing has made them buy things (which they have later regretted), about two-thirds (68%) said they would not buy from a brand that used negative emotions in its marketing.

The key findings from the study can be found online here.

About the Data: 400 US and UK marketers were surveyed, along with 4,000 consumers from the same countries.

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