Ethical marketing is less of a marketing strategy and more of a philosophy that informs all marketing efforts. It seeks to promote honesty, fairness, and responsibility in all advertising. Ethics is a notoriously difficult subject because everyone has subjective judgments about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” For this reason, ethical marketing is not a hard and fast list of rules, but a general set of guidelines to assist companies as they evaluate new marketing strategies.
There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to ethical marketing. Unethical advertising is often just as effective as it is unethical (See also Black Hat Marketing). And since unethical behavior is not necessarily against the law, there are many companies who use unethical advertising to gain a competitive advantage.
Many people buy diet pills even though they are rarely, if ever, effective. This is because some diet pill companies use exaggerated and manipulative claims to essentially trick customers into buying these products. If that same company committed to using ethical advertising they would probably go out of business. However sneaky their business model may be, it is not illegal and it is keeping their doors open.
For companies looking to improve the image of a brand and develop long-term relationships with customers, this kind of unethical behavior can quickly lead to failure. Customers do not want to feel manipulated by the brands they like. Companies can use ethical marketing as a way to develop a sense of trust among their customers. If a product lives up to the claims made in its advertising, it reflects positively on the entire company. It can make the consumer feel like the company is invested in the quality of the products and the value they provide customers.
It is impossible to claim that any company is completely ethical or unethical. Ethics resides in a gray area with many fine lines and shifting boundaries. Many companies behave ethically in one aspect of their advertising and unethically in another.
Dove soap, for instance, ran a widely seen ad campaign featuring “real” models. The ad was meant to promote realistic body images and encourage girls to love the way they looked even if they were not supermodels. However, other Dove ads both during and since featured stereotypically beautiful models whose images have been altered to hide imperfections. Dove marketed ethically in one campaign and unethically in another. This illustrates how difficult it is to do the right thing in all circumstances. What is most important for any company that claims to practice ethical advertising is to make it a fundamental feature of their marketing process. With every decision they must ask themselves “will this sell” and “is this the ethical way to sell it?”
Every company has the opportunity to engage in ethical marketing. Any business, from the smallest mom and pop store to the biggest multinational corporation can choose to be open, honest, and fair when they advertise to their customers. When done in a thoughtful way, ethical marketing can be an economical and effective form of advertising. Similarly, unethical advertising doesn’t guarantee higher sales or lower advertising costs.
Some companies operate according to lofty personal principles. For these companies, advertising in an ethical way is a natural and necessary extension of their corporate character. Corporate responsibility can be a major selling point to consumers who are interested in more than just price and quality. Companies that are known for treating workers fairly, sourcing sustainable materials, environmental stewardship, and charitable donation have to reflect these principles in their marketing efforts. .
For other companies, ethical marketing will be little more than an opportunity to boost their credibility. Domino’s pizza, for example, carried out a well known advertising campaign in which they showed consumers pictures of real Domino’s pizzas without the studio photography that makes them look so perfect. This was a refreshing look behind the artifice of much advertising, but this did not signal a more open and honest relationship between Domino’s and the pizza buying public. The campaign was considered an attention seeking stunt at best.