3 Ethical Questions to Guide Your Marketing

How Kant, Mill, and Aristotle speak to the inherent tension of ethics and marketing.

4 minutes
By: John Milliken
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I once read something like this in a textbook on business ethics: “Consumers expect organizations to care about ethics. If you want to be successful, it would be a good idea to pay attention to this.” You can probably see the problem here: Taking ethics seriously because it will make you more money isn’t really taking ethics seriously at all. 

But let’s be honest – there is a tension between ethics and marketing. In higher ed, for instance, it means wrestling with the tension between wanting to present an institution in the best possible light while also being honest about what it’s really like. We might, in our lowest times, be tempted to think it would be easier to just stick to marketing and let someone else worry about ethics.

Here’s the surprising thing: that’s actually not possible. Ethics isn’t something that’s artificially tacked on to the work of marketing. Instead, marketing can be guided by three simple principles that, far from being artificial, are actually part of what it means to engage in quality marketing. 

Think of these as three ideas in the form of questions we should ask ourselves as we do the work of marketing. They are inspired by three important philosophers whose ideas drive much of contemporary thinking about ethics. Each highlights something important for us to ponder.

Question 1: Is the way we are marketing using people? 

The question that arises from Immanuel Kant’s concerns points out that we each have our own goals, interests and desires. Our temptation is to ignore the interests of others and to try to figure out only how we can get them to serve our interests. When we do this, we use others. They become simply a means to our ends.

I once had a group of university students tell me the picture of the campus presented in marketing materials was quite different from reality. The students were upset about this, and rightly so. 

It is always a temptation to present an ideal that doesn’t match the reality on the ground. When we do this, we are essentially saying, “If they had an accurate picture of what studying here is like, they wouldn’t come.” If we are distorting reality to get potential students to serve our goals at the expense of their own, we’re using them.

On the other hand, when we look for ways that the interests of others and our interests align, we are respecting others. We are essentially inviting them to do something that furthers their own goals and ours at the same time.

Question 2: Is the way we are marketing good for society? 

John Stuart Mill’s ideology extends to the practice  of social responsibility — we have become increasingly aware that, as organizations, we are accountable for the impact we have on the world around us. This is an especially important question for marketing, given how saturated our lives are with it. We are exposed to between four and 10,000 ads each day

Whether our marketing impact is positive or negative is harder to answer than the first question because each of us is only a small part of the picture. We can see trends in our higher-ed culture, however, that should give us pause. The pressure many young people in affluent communities feel to get into elite universities is taking a serious toll on their mental health. Why such a frantic race to gain admissions to the top schools? Many parents tell themselves and their kids that this is the ticket to the good life, and anything less is an embarrassing failure. This obviously isn’t true.

If we, as marketers, are selling that picture, we’re part of the problem. But when we, ourselves, accept and can internalize that higher education is not a one-size-fits-all solution, that rankings do not matter more than student outcomes, and that different offerings from different schools can be right for specific audiences, we can message that accurately and truthfully. 

Question 3: Is what you are marketing good for the individual? 

The final question rises from Aristotle’s thinking on  what allows us to thrive as human beings. When we stop to ponder the concept, it isn’t hard to identify important contributing factors to the good life. Friendship is good for us; isolation is not. Meaningful work is good for us; purposelessness is not. 

I am sure you can think of examples of companies who are marketing products that clearly do not help their users thrive. Those are the easy cases; we shouldn’t be involved in marketing something that is bad for people. More difficult are the instances where a product can be good if used responsibly but can also be potentially harmful. Social media belongs in this category.

When I was a graduate student in philosophy, I heard about a university that was starting a new master’s program in philosophy. At the time, there was a tremendous oversupply of doctorates in philosophy, such that only a small proportion had any real prospect of landing the sort of position that would make for a viable career in the field.

It is clear in a case like this that our first responsibility as higher-ed marketers is to make all of the relevant information available to potential students. Which brings us back to the first question. We don’t want someone buying a product only because they didn’t fully understand what they were doing.

Beyond that, and assuming we’re not talking about a product that is simply bad for people, we need not take on the burden of how the consumer will use a product. The individual is responsible for that. Students sign up for programs all the time that are probably not in their best interests. That’s a worry for their advisers, not marketers. But if we know that the product we are offering is good and offers value and the opportunity for positive outcomes when used responsibly, we can trumpet its benefits confidently.

Behind each one of these examples lies complicated issues. That’s the real world in which we live and work; the answers are seldom easy. 

The questions, however, are pretty simple. Is the way we are marketing using people? Is the way we are marketing good for society? Is what we are marketing good for the individual? 

In the popular imagination, marketing is basically the practice of getting people to buy stuff. If that’s it, then ethics isn’t necessarily part of the equation. It is tacked on and artificial. Contrast this, however, with what I think is a much better definition: Marketing is trying to present a good or service to those individuals for whom it is really good or actually serves them. Understood in this way, the ethical principles outlined here are just part of doing the job well.

John Milliken

John Milliken

John Milliken is a philosopher and freelance writer who likes to ask challenging questions. Get in touch here.

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Thanks John for passing this on.
Thanks John for passing this on.
11 months ago

The inherent value of What it is that one is choosing to market seems to me to be the primary question. After that, How to market and the integrity of such marketing follow. Thanks John for passing this on.

Juanita Smith
Juanita Smith
11 months ago

As a consumer, I too should be asking these questions. It would greatly reduce impulsive buying. Thanks, Juanita


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