Marketing Ethics: Selling Doesn’t Have to Be Sleazy (5 Real-World Examples)


During any discussion about marketing ethics, I’m always reminded of a comment a former coworker made decades ago: “I’d never date anyone who works in marketing.”

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When I inquired about his reasoning, he replied:

“It’s just so sleazy. Choosing that line of work says a lot about a person.”

Since I was young and impressionable, that sentiment stayed with me. So I was naturally conflicted years later when I wanted to learn how to become a freelance writer and discovered copywriting and content marketing.

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Marketing ethics 101

At that time, I had two challenges:

  1. Promoting my writing business to prospects
  2. Justifying competitive rates and delivering a return on investment to the clients who hired me

Learning about ethics in marketing solved both of those issues. At the risk of being viewed as “sleazy,” I dove into storyselling.

Marketing ethics bring integrity to your business by displaying a steadfast commitment to the best interest of your customers. You promote your products or services with honesty, in a fashion that helps the exact right people find your offers.

Ethical marketers don’t want to be seen as shady

This topic is similar to when I wrote about the difference between clickbait and damn good headlines.

When conscientious, ethical marketers who have legal, safe, and useful offers don’t want to be associated with those who don’t use ethics in marketing, they often hold back from fully promoting their products or services.

But if you have a great offer, weak marketing actually does everyone a disservice.

It reminds me of one of Sonia Simone’s rules of making a living online

Nothing sells itself

I had to first feel confident that my writing services could help businesses achieve their goals, and then realize my marketing wasn’t tricking anyone into hiring me. I also wasn’t scamming anyone by not delivering what I promised.

My services deserved to be marketed, and the same is true for your writing business if you want to make money as a freelance writer.

Any remarkable product or service you offer deserves stellar ethical marketing.

What does ethics in marketing look like?

Luckily (assuming you’re an upright citizen to begin with), you don’t have to overcomplicate this part of your business.

Marketing ethics for professional writers can be as simple as:

  • Telling the truth
  • Citing proper sources in your content
  • Respecting different opinions
  • Putting your prospects’ needs first
  • Delivering excellent customer service
  • Managing a civil online community
  • Taking responsibility for your actions

See? You don’t have to abandon your pre-existing values to run a business. You can (and should) make them work for your online business ideas.

5 real-world examples of marketing ethics

As bestselling author Daniel Pink has said:

“We’ve moved from buyer beware to seller beware.”

Consumers have a lot of choices, and they can perform extensive research to make smart buying decisions. The consumer is in charge.

Here are five real-world examples of marketing ethics and ethical advertising that help educate prospects about their options in the marketplace.

1. Go-to wine

Years ago (I’m taking it back again), I was in the checkout line at the grocery store and the woman behind me was buying a bottle of Yellow Tail wine.

Even though I knew nothing about wine, I liked Yellow Tail and frequently brought it as a gift to parties.

Feeling chatty, I said to her, “That’s a good brand of wine.”

“Oh? I’ve never had it before,” she replied.

“The bottle stands out. It’s my go-to,” I informed her.

A few months later, I started seeing commercials for Yellow Tail wine on television, dubbing the brand “the go-to.”

Coincidence? Was the woman a copywriter for the company’s advertising agency?

We’ll never know.

But I thought the campaign was a great example of marketing ethics. It communicates that the brand is fun, playful, and a good fit for any casual occasion.

2. Catwalk pants

I always get a lot of compliments on a long “skirt” I like to wear.

However, it’s actually a pair of pants.

When I asked the saleswoman inside the boutique where I got them if she could direct me to “the skirt in the store’s window,” she told me they’re called “catwalk pants,” which are similar to harem pants.

I liked that even more. Sold.

If the store didn’t highlight some of the unusual items it sells, it wouldn’t attract the right prospects.

The window display led me to the lovely fashion find.

3. The ethical marketing of soft drinks for $1

McDonald’s often runs an ad about their $1 any-size soft drinks.

If a thirsty prospect looking for a large soda didn’t know about this deal and chose one of McDonald’s competitors, McDonald’s wouldn’t get the sale and the prospect would pay more for a soft drink.

Because of the marketing ethics of this ad, a prospect has the information to make a choice that will save him money.

4. Haircut reminders

At the salon my friend Marie goes to, they ask customers for their email addresses and about how often they cut/color their hair.

Every time a customer comes in for an appointment, they start tracking that customer’s “hair journey” and send her an email reminder that it’s time to get her hair cut/colored at precisely the time the customer starts thinking about her hair needs.

This is Marie’s favorite part: They also offer 20 percent off the customer’s next visit, every time.

The salon knows the customer could easily go elsewhere, so the email reminder and discount encourage returning business. This is a solid example of marketing ethics.

5. Upcoming events

You know I’m picky about adding my email address to lists, but I rarely unsubscribe from newsletters I get after purchasing concert tickets.

Even if I don’t go to 98 percent of the featured shows, I like knowing about the live music events going on around where I live.

These newsletters are a free and convenient way for me to find out about my options, and I’ll eventually buy tickets from the vendors again.

Ethics in marketing helps you overcome short-sided notions

If you know you have a great product or service that can help people, overcoming any mental blocks or short-sided notions about marketing ethics is an important step.

Marketing isn’t a scheme that tricks people into paying attention to you. It’s a form of communication that bridges the gap between interested consumers and the companies that can fulfill their wants and needs.

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