Ethics in marketing. Really?

Uh-oh… JohnnyBTruant has just posted an article I wrote, and I realized that it’s been three weeks since I wrote anything here. So, go check out the article:

I’ll see you back here when you’re done.

Ethics in marketing. Really?

Have you ever seen a kid in a store launch into a frenzy of  covetousness upon seeing some candy or a toy? ‘Mommy mommy, I want this, can I have this? Please?’

Of course you have. Adorable I say, but that’s probably because I don’t have any children. My abbot wouldn’t let me.

I started thinking about this when last week a pretty heated debate started somewhere on the web about the ethics in marketing and sales.

It reminded me of ‘All marketers are liars’ by Seth Godin, which I admit I haven’t read, but I’ve been reading his blog for years and I feel I’ve got a bit of an inkling as to what he means. I hope I do, at least.

The point is we all have a greed-faculty. It’s a small lumpy organ just below the pit of the stomach and it works automatically. And it’s well nigh impossible to get rid of. Believe me, I’ve tried. I spent twelve years in a monastery trying to starve the bugger but I still want things that I don’t need, or even can not find any reason for wanting.

That new iPhone? Yes, I want it. Very much. And why? I’ve tried smartphones before, in fact I forked out 1000 dollars for a Nokia communicator a few years ago, which now sits elegantly on my nightstand and is arguably the most expensive alarm clock in the world.

Smartphones are not for me. Probably because I’m not smart enough. Just give me a stack of cards to take notes and I’m happy. Apps? Nah, can’t be bothered. Camera? Well, I like good pics, and on all the phones I’ve had, the camera has been better each time, and still I never ever use it. Music? Nah. There is no possible excuse or reason for me to have a smartphone. And yet, I want an iPhone.

The culprit? Human nature. We want things. Pretty things, flashy things, seemingly useful things, things that your neighbor has.

As a marketer, or indeed as any sort of business person, you are plying that selfsame human tendency. You talk or market to the person so that you’ll create in them a want for whatever it is you have to offer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Economy floats on two things: Wants and needs. Clever marketers know how to make a want seem just like a need, and Bam! Sales!

What crosses the line though, is trying to sell junk. My fancy Nokia? Junk. Useless junk. Wasted money. I don’t need it. I have no use for it. It’s cumbersome. It makes my trousers billow in the wrong places if I put it in my trouser pocket, and if I put it in my coat pocket it makes my fancy handmade bespoke jackets look like something that the hunchback of the Notre Dame wore when he went to get quartered because the sheer weight of the phone pulls the entire jacket askew.

Please note here that I didn’t get suckered into buying it. Nobody tried to sell it to me. I suckered myself by coveting it. It’s not junk in itself, but it is to me because I have no use for it.

Ethics are totally personal. There is no such thing as objective and verifiable ethics. Everybody decides for themselves what is right and what isn’t. But for some reason, the common denominator will immediately tell you when you’ve crossed the line.


  1. Martin,

    I hope that Johnny’s Balls went viral; did it?

    It’s an incredible word dump, bloody incredible.

    I just came across a piece I wrote a few months back that I’d like to share with you just because I think you make like it.

    It was just sent to a few friends. Like you, I’m at the beginning of the journey of being a “paid” writer, and I think this piece will show my abilities in a very offbeat way, kind of like Mr. J’s Balls.

    Let me know if you’d like to see it, and where I can send it?


  2. Hi Terence!
    I can’t say it went viral but I got amazingly satisfying reactions. Such as yours, for instance.

    It was a long write, that’s true, but I felt I needed every word. In fact, I’ve re-read it several times now (almost whenever a new comment shows up :) and I’m well-chuffed with it.

    Send me the thing man, I’d love to see it! Looking forward to it!


  3. I think marketing can be ethical and I think it is moving in that direction more and more everyday. The internet is helping. Anyone can pay a lot of money for marketing and shove ads in your face – but people are seeking REAL and MEANINGFUL relationships now. We can’t be sucked into the “buy now! buy now!” mentality forever.

  4. You’re very right. We’ve all been beaten silly with ads and sales pitches and cold calls.

    That’s why I like the new ways so much: you just broadcast your existence and leave it up to the individual to choose what they want. They prefer a competitor? Fine. At least they’re making an informed decision. Hopefully, that is.

  5. Hi Martin,

    followed you over from JP site cause i enjoyed your comment! first time there for me and now here. I like what you’re saying on your blog — we’re all beating ourselves up for being human.

    I guess if you want something enough to buy it, then the seller hasn’t done anything unethical. Otherwise, we are all victims all the time.

    Probably, the better way to deal with ethics issues of the buying sort would be to question why we think we need all this stuff in the first place. What’s missing in our lives that we want it. When we find out it still doesn’t fill the hole, look into that.

    People seem to be searching for the way out of the yucky place in other things and people when only we know the way out — or that’s what I’ve figured out for myself.



  6. Hi Giuletta

    Did I say we’re beating eachother up for being human? That’s funny, but actually you’re quite right. Never thought of it that way but there’s a lot of truth in it.

    You also make a very good point about wants. So much of marketing is aimed at selling an imaginary solution: It’s substitute fulfillment. You don’t need to buy another ‘fix your social life’ sprocket – Just go out and drink a beer or join a football club, whatever.

    But no, the folk who build stupid stuff hire the folk who sell stupid stuff to make us believe our ailing social life can be brand spanking new – if only you get our sprocket. Bleh.

    Thanks for showing up! Looking forward to talking to you in the future :)

    Oh and congratulations on your guestpost. Nice one!

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