Alcohol makes you attractive! Vaping is cool! Some marketing is obviously unethical.
But most unethical marketing isn’t so cartoonishly blatant. Not only can it be unknown to the customer, but even the marketer may not necessarily be aware that they’re doing anything wrong. So, how do we make sure our emails are morally sound?
Firstly, let’s agree on what is meant by unethical. Merriam‑Webster defines the word as:
not conforming to a high moral standard
And in turn, moral is defined as:
conforming to a standard of right behavior
So we’re dealing with right and wrong, good and bad. A subjective topic to an extent, and one with blurry boundaries.
With regards specifically to the ethics of marketing, let’s refer to some third party sources. Forbes, Kendrick PR and Brafton are among the top results when searching for the topic. They all agree that misleading information is unethical. Some other factors include the incitement of controversy, marketing without consent, and exploitation of emotions.
Tell the truth
Honesty is a recurring theme in the ethics of marketing. No legitimate marketer would misrepresent a product. Or would they?
You don’t have to make outright false claims about a product to be dishonest about it. It’s not uncommon to employ Photoshop or other trickery to simulate – and likely exaggerate – a product’s properties. That de-ageing cream works wonders… in the digital realm!
Or what about the offer itself? A get‑it‑while‑it‑lasts 24‑hour sale certainly creates a sense of urgency, especially under the ominous presence of a countdown clock ticking down to zero. But if the offer’s surprise extension is pre‑planned, then it is dishonest. A lie is a lie.
Your customer is not a fish
So don’t bait them. A misleading or vague subject line might lure some openers. But ultimately that does customers a disservice. If the big surprise turns out to be a little disappointing, then people rightfully may not be so tempted next time.
It’s respectful to the customer to be transparent in subject lines and message previews. State the offer up-front and let the reader – a human being – make their own decision.
Subscribers come and go. But they don’t always close the door when they’re leaving. It’s good practice for various reasons to ultimately remove inactive subscribers from your mailing lists.
Strive to make emails for everyone
Somehow we’re in the mid-2020s and accessibility is still often skimped on or outright ignored in email. Image-heavy emails with insufficient alt tags, a confusing tab order and lack of semantic code are not uncommon.
Worryingly, there is sometimes an attitude based on pre‑conceived notions of the audience’s level of ability. Our readers are young and hip – we don’t need to worry about accessibility! Don’t be that marketer.
Even in a hypothetical and statistically-impossible scenario where 100% of a company’s mailing list is completely able, there’s an important point to remember: an accessible email is a better email for everybody.
Take the bad with the good
Don’t take our word for it… take the word of these glowing customer reviews that we have cherry‑picked! For a more balanced and believable view, a link to Trustpilot along with a live score combines the powers of brand advocacy and honesty. Bad reviews will naturally happen from time to time. Take it as an opportunity to show the world how you put a problem right.
Some fundamental contradictions
I mentioned earlier that the customer is not a fish. And yet this is an industry in which hook is an accepted piece of terminology.
Kendrick PR cites fearmongering as an unethical marketing practice. But marketers swear by FOMO – the fear of missing out.
Similarly, Brafton criticises the triggering of negative emotions as a means of manipulating consumer decisions. What is fear if not negative?
Does it matter?
Honesty may be the best policy, but is it good for business? If relatively minor sins help to bring in the numbers, and customers aren’t even aware of being played, then it could even be perceived that there’s no harm done. Doing the right thing might not always be a sufficient motivator when there’s pressure to hit targets.
But what if a company can earn a reputation for transparency? What if customers become aware of one brand’s honesty in the face of their competitors’ tricks? Maybe that’s hoping for some unrealistic karmic justice, or maybe it’s something worth striving for.