Why The Ethical Marketing Movement Is Dangerous

Why The Ethical Marketing Movement Is Dangerous

When I first saw the Ethical Marketing movement, my heart soared. Seconds later it dropped through my body.


“They’ve got it wrong, and everyone is going to believe it.”


At first, I’m likely to appear low-grade villainous to call such a movement dangerous. What’s not to love? A movement toward transparency and against manipulation. A movement where businesses treat with care the asymmetry of power their communications implicitly have. A movement that makes conceivable a world where commerce is deserving of trust.

This promise is powerful and is also why, in its current form, Ethical Marketing is damaging to all whose behaviour the movement seeks to change.

There is a strategy that has been labelled ‘charm pricing’. Think of the times you’ve seen an item priced at $19.95 instead of $20.00. That’s the pricing strategy it refers to. It works because your mind anchors to the lower number and makes it feel like you’re getting a good deal by manipulating human bias to bypass your conscious choice.

In Ethical Marketing this is put side-by-side to using pricing with round numbers to imply that rounded numbers more often than not, are a more honest strategy. Some proponents of the movement even recommend pledging that for the strategist to be more ethical, all pricing should be changed from ‘charm prices’ to round numbers.

It is correct that the first mentioned pricing strategy is designed to bypass conscious choice. What Ethical Marketing misunderstands is that all deliberate framing of information does this too.

We know that buyers tend to choose based on emotion first and then rationalise later. To understand why this is the case, we need behavioural economics. Human decision making is made up of two systems, System 1 and System 2. System 2 is at play when you learn to drive for the first time. Even though you might be driving down the street you live on, you’re attempting to be consciously aware of everything. Our brains hate doing that because it is taxing and it is slow.

What makes a human brain able to think is the ability to filter information. Every filter is a bias, so more or less, thinking = bias. There is no panacea of “no bias”, only whether or not those biases are leading us to helpful outcomes, or unhelpful ones. This is a bit of a reductive explanation but I want you to stay awake because we’re nearly through the dry bit.

When our brains evolved life was a lot simpler than it is now and there were a lot less decisions to make in a day. For all intents and purposes, those biases usually led us to helpful outcomes. In today’s world there are lots more decisions to make and our biases increasingly lead us to unhelpful outcomes.

Now, humans make tens of thousands of decisions every day and that slow System 2 makes close to none of them. How could it? Remember how slow learning to drive is? When an experienced driver is heading down the street they live on, they’re on autopilot. Whilst they are conscious, the system driving the car is bypassing their conscious awareness. A scary thought, but completely true. This is System 1 and it is fast, emotional and our brain’s primary decision maker. It’s the system that is looking at prices, however they’re presented, and deciding what and whether to buy. How it decides is an emotional not a logical process, it is up to the seller to decide which emotions will be targeted (not if they will be).

Ethical Marketing as a movement (not a personal value) is based on not only the incorrect assumption that people can choose consciously if they wish to, it is also based on the incorrect assumption that we can communicate without persuasion. Enter the other player in this game. The price setter.

It is important to understand that every single act of communication frames decision making in a certain light whether we intend it to or not. When a doctor communicates a life or death statistic to a patient, they can say 1 in 10,000 people that have a given condition will die. They could also say 9,999 people that have a given condition will live a completely normal life. The same information is received very differently, with real consequences either way. Even if you were to decide to base your pricing on internal business reasons that have nothing to do with your customer, there is no opting out of influence.

All attempts to influence your customer, from the way you craft your website copy, to your brand storytelling and your choice to use round or ‘charm’ numbers in your pricing is bypassing conscious choice. The critical point here is whether or not the price setter understands how. Choosing to use round numbers over the alternative is to choose to feel good about yourself because you’ve conflated not knowing how round numbers pull behavioural strings beneath conscious awareness, with the incorrect idea that they do not at all.

The sense of responsibility weighs heavy. It can seem like the only option is to choose between different evils because the agenda of the communicator, however transparent, cannot be separated from the impact of the words they use.

By focusing its message on comparing and contrasting tactics, Ethical Marketing does a disservice to its own goals. This is because it is not aware that it is pointless to discuss tactics. We are always bringing an agenda to the table and that agenda is what makes a tactic ethical or not.

Ethical Marketing often (but not always) implies that framing and influencing are synonymous with manipulation and lying. I hope I have shown you that this does not have to be the case. Of course there are times when information is literally framed in such a way as to be a blatant lie, but if you’re going to suggest to me that Ethical Marketing is about stopping blatant lying then my response to you is that you are wasting your time, because the people lying on purpose do not care for your movement.

That brings me to the topic of honesty. In its current form, Ethical Marketing largely equates framing information with dishonesty. As I demonstrated in the doctor example honesty is not enough to be ethical. What is needed is due diligence.

Like with communications between business and consumer, the doctor patient relationship has an imbalance of power. It is a fact of life, even outside of capitalist structures, that there will be many situations where people have an asymmetry of power between them. Parent and child is a classic example. Sometimes those with power will be corrupt and sometimes they will be benevolent, we cannot control this.

A concept known as paternalism is important here. It posits that when there are asymmetries of power those in the position of power should be able to exercise that power to guide the decisions of those with lesser power. We hope that the person with power is benevolent and uses due diligence when they exercise that power. In business I can be as honest as I like and still completely bypass my responsibility to wield that power IF I do not understand how that power is guiding my customer. This is why talking tactics and honesty is the wrong conversation to be having, and I believe, a dangerous one.

Right now, what we have is a movement called Ethical Marketing. The movement makes recommendations about guiding the decisions of others, but does not understand decision science.

It calls its audience to be more ethical by creating their own guidelines or following a template, but without the due diligence of understanding how to ensure honest communication doesn’t have unintended consequences. Due diligence is a cornerstone of ethics.

A true understanding of how decisions work is the key to a society that is able to make better decisions for themselves and when guiding the decision making of others (customers included). I would love to see an Ethical Marketing movement that matched the potential I see in it.

We have an opportunity to restart Ethical Marketing. I would love to see a movement based on good intentions, backed up by good decisions. A new Ethical Marketing would understand that we are always puppet masters and it is crucial to not look at which strings to pull but who has the right to pull them. This would move the current conversation from focusing on tactics – lets ban advertising tobacco – to focusing on the right to use tactics – lets not let tobacco companies exist at all. A new Ethical Marketing would understand paternalism and use the power of influence to create a win-win impact by bringing good solutions to those who seek them. This is what doing business can be, an opportunity to make a better future available in the present moment.

Is the way you do business more spaghetti on a wall than deliberately ethical? If you'd like to reap the benefits of creating a more effective business in a more deliberate world, watch my free masterclass how to reimagine your niche.
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