Ethics in Marketing


Working for a small business that attracts some amazing clients, I’ve never run into a situation where I’m asked to carry out a task or promote something that I’m morally opposed to (and, I have the freedom to politely turn down such a project). It’s a freedom I often take for granted, until I hear stories about people who don’t necessarily have such freedom.

A couple weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast (Real Talk Radio with Nicole Antoinette) where a woman was being interviewed about her blog (Super Strength Health). Part of the podcast that I found intriguing was towards the end, when she spoke about being approached by various brands to promote their product (a fairly common occurrence for lifestyle bloggers). Usually when this happens, the brand has done a bit of research to determine if the blog’s message meshes well with the brand’s message. As a bit of background, Super Strength Health shares very raw material about eating disorder recovery. The brand that approached her had a tagline along the lines of “guilt-free snacking.” You might see the problem here.

So, the blogger was a bit frustrated. “If you spent any time on my blog, you’d know that we were not a good fit.” Which is true. The discussion goes on to discuss the slippery slope of assigning guilt to food/eating in marketing, and whether or not that is unethical. Regardless of where you or I stand on that particular issue, it made me wonder about the messages I’m putting out there. How can I be ethical (or more ethical) in what I produce?

As mentioned before, I have the freedom to turn something down if I feel it is unethical or immoral. We never really get those clients. Usually when I think “unethical marketing,” it’s the blatantly obvious not-cool marketing, like promoting unhealthy habits, tearing down a competitor’s product or service instead of focusing on why your product/service is valuable, or ignoring glaring flaws or safety concerns with a product (think recalls). These are all easy for me to avoid (in that I’ve never encountered them).

So, instead, I thought of a few little ways to be even more ethical. Here’s what I have:

Do the Research. Make sure you know your facts, especially if others are coming to you for information.
Be Objective. Do you really think this product/service would benefit other people, or do you maybe have dollar signs in your eyes?
“Is this Something I Would Do?” If you’re having a hard time being objective with the facts, ask yourself if you would follow your own advice.
Be the Good. This is my way of remembering my bottom line: whatever I put into the internet/world should make it a little better, even if in a small way.
Get Better. There’s always room for improvement, and as someone who produces content for the internet I could in theory find a rhythm and rest on my laurels. But I could also keep an open mind and look for ways to improve my work (because this isn’t just about me).

My hope is that following these five points in a more thoughtful way will help me feel even better about what I produce, and be more helpful for our clients. (I say ‘more thoughtful way’ because I usually perform research or try to be objective, but it can be reflexive).

The cool thing about marketing ethics? Marketing Schools defines it as “less of a marketing strategy and more of a philosophy that informs all marketing efforts.” It’s not a strategy or a game-plan, but more like having a Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder asking if you believe in the message you’re about to share with the world.


Why Everyone Needs A Matt

If you are lucky, you have some days where you can feel like a rock star at your job. And to balance out this feeling, other days you will really mess up. Most days, I have both these feelings, and today was no exception.

The great thing about my line of work is no one dies if I mess up. Bonus is there is literally (usually) an ‘undo’ button. The bad thing is because everyone thinks the internet is easy and instant, people think that you can fix an internet-based problem in five minutes.

Over the years, I’ve had several mentors who have ‘taught me to fish’, the most important being Matt Baya. When I want to use my charm to get out of coding or otherwise exhibit not-confident-in-my abilities behavior, Matt calls me out.

More importantly then making sure I am and act confident, Matt has been able to reframe my thinking, give me just enough information, and let myself try to get unstuck. He does all this over chat hundreds of miles away.

Matt has taught me a lot about not just fixing my own problems (forcing myself to learn new things) but also how to let other people help me. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the past five years with Matt:

1) Give it time (ideally sleep).
Sometimes, when you are completely frustrated by something, walk away. I royally screwed something up yesterday afternoon and looking at it at 8:30 AM after sleeping, having breakfast, and walking my dog, it was solved by 9 AM. Worried about something being messed up overnight? Remember, no one is going to die. Unless you are a surgeon or something, in which case, get enough sleep!

2) You are not who you were in high school/college/last year.
For years, because the crappiest grade I ever got in college was computer programming, I have stayed away from coding. Matt has pointed out several times that I am no longer in college. And he’s right. Point is, don’t let who you think you are limit what you can do. Because you aren’t even that person anymore really.

3) Backup.
This is to say, do whatever you can to minimize loss. When you bake something tricky, you may measure your ingredients to be precise. If you are going to do something crazy on a website, you back up. It’s a lesson I relearn at least once a year.

4) If you need someone smarter, there’s always someone who can help.
In this world of informational forums, search engines, and social networks, you are hardly even in a position where you have a problem and no one can help.

5) If you are asking someone to help, isolate the problem as much as you can. 
Rather than say ‘x isn’t working’, try to take the problem as far as you can. I’ll try to isolate the variables (Is it the server that’s causing the problem? The website theme the person is using?) I try to look up and implement any obvious solutions. Then I write a detailed summary of what the problem is, what I tried, and what I might have done to cause it. Trust me, if you can articulate the problem and what the solution isn’t, you are that much closer to what the solution is.

6) If you are smarter, teach the other person to fish.
Matt teaches me to fish, I teach Alice to fish, Alice teaches clients to fish… soon the world is full of fishermen. And we can all get together and come up with better ways to catch fish.

Matt says that someday I won’t need him anymore. I have a hard time ever seeing when that day will be. Because there are always new problems to solve and I hope as time goes on, I’m moving from mentee to colleague for Matt.

If I do this right, I know someday, I can be a Matt for somebody else.