It’s a topic that’s getting more traction as more people become more conscious about the way we consume, create and feel about the way we’re marketed and sold to. It’s also gaining more traction as the boiler plate on social issues starts to spill over. There’s an urgency to addressing these issues because we see the collective negative impact they’re having on society.
The good news is that as marketers (and to be clear, if you’re a business owner, you are a marketer) we have the ability to change our ways for the better.
So what exactly is ethical and inclusive marketing?
Well, before we get into it, a little disclaimer from me. This is an area I’m personally addressing. As a marketer of over 16 years, with more than 20 years of continuous learning in the field, I have a lot to unlearn, but also a lot to feel good about. I’m not going to claim to be an expert in this space. It’s simply an area that connects with where I am in both my profession and personal life and one which I’m passionate about addressing, sharing learnings on and raising awareness about.
Ethical and inclusive marketing is conscious of the negative impacts traditional marketing and sales tactics have on humans. It’s the view that we as marketers have a responsibility to society to not use fear, shame and manipulation – because marketing shapes the society we’re all a part of.
To be an ethical and inclusive marketer is to be more conscious of the language we use to market and sell. It calls us to check our inherent privilege and biases. It is to be transparent and honest in our activities – both on the stage and behind the curtain. It demands we consider how accessible our messages are to people who aren’t just like us.
It’s bloody challenging and certainly, in some cases, confronting.
We don’t like to hear what we’ve been saying or doing is wrong and hurtful, especially as we’re mostly likely to be pretty bang up humans. But this is absolutely one of the most crucial challenges for us as marketers (and consumers) today.
What do unethical marketing tactics actually look like?
Common tactic #1: False Urgency
This is when an offer is presented with a false deadline and so messaging is centred on activating FOMO (fear of missing out) in the audience. This is classically paired with countdown timers to give the audience a push to make their decision (and in some cases, not leave the audience with enough time to make an informed decision about the purchase).
False urgency is designed to force quick buying decisions to make the sale (it is to the benefit of the perpetrating brand, not the benefit of the prospective buyer).
There are many other ways this plays out, but most notably, messages like “this offer won’t be around again!!” without transparency around why that is the case for us to determine its legitimacy.
It’s important to note that the emphasis is on ‘false’ here, because of course, some deadlines are real, for instance, if there’s a legitimate start date for a course of workshop. A sense of urgency can of course help people make decisions, but for it to not be pure manipulation, it has to be genuine, with clear and open explanations of why there is a deadline.
Common tactic #2: Charm Pricing
Pricing psychology is a seemingly benign tactic that gets easily overlooked compared to some of the more sinister tactics we see. But it still has the potential to make an impact.
Charm pricing or psychological pricing as it’s also known, does what it says: it taps into our psychology to make us believe we’re paying less for something, and therefore getting a good deal.
It’s not $500, it’s $497. Oooohh LESS THAN $500.
That’s why you’ll see loads of 7s and 9s in pricing everywhere – online and offline. So what’s the harm? The original intention behind charm pricing is to manipulate and for us to short-cut our thinking.
Add to that the concept of ‘trip wires’ (the literal definition of a trip wire is ‘passive triggering mechanism’), which, in online sales funnels and ‘value ladders’ is designed to ‘trip’ us into buying a low value offer before upselling us to a premium offer the further into the funnel we go. Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of ‘tripping up’ my customers to get them to buy from me.
I wrote more about charm pricing here.
Common tactic #3: Shame-provoking language
This is far more common than you might think. My anti-favourite is seeing it in website pop up windows with a prompt to sign up to a newsletter, downloadable or offer, and to decline or exit out of the pop up you must ‘agree’ to a shame-based, negative statement like ones you’ve no doubt seen before.
“Nah, I don’t like discounts / deals / specials / free stuff”
“Oh Koala, for an otherwise pretty great brand trying to disrupt the status quo as a brand for good, this kind of copywriting loses a few points in my book”
“Privy clearly aren’t privy to ethical copywriting”
“It’s a no brainer”
That was used in my all time anti-favourite business bundles fiasco of 2020 (and plenty of times prior, despite, of course, it ‘never coming back). That language was also used by those promoting the bundle, so they did a great job of keeping their message consistently fear and shame based.
“Ignore all the proof you’ve seen today and make less money”
This guy is a REAL DOOZY. He does not hold back and hits you with the quadruple:
WHAM 💥 a dose of false urgency with a vague threat.
BAM 💥 an initial touch of shame, suggesting not taking action is therefore ‘the wrong thing’.
WHAM AGAIN 💥 a second dose of shame to really pile it on.
FINISHING MOVE 💥 the fear-inducing threat of your life and (domain) reputation being completely f*cked.
“Nah mate, I’ll be right thanks.”
And the worst part? We let these people into our social media feeds and inboxes EVERY DAY.
Common tactic #2: False Authority
This is the fabrication of authority or vagueness around credentials. It might look like a classic ‘rags to riches’ story, where the reason we’re to believe someone has the authority to teach us into a particular formula is because they’ve seen transformation in themselves.
Again, this can be a legitimate story to tell… but what is often missing is context, acknowledgement of privilege and additional facts that might make this ‘result not typical’.
False authority can look like using ‘celebrity’ in one area as a reason to comment on another, unrelated topic. This can just get downright dangerous.
The reason false authority works is because we are conditioned to believe people in positions of authority. An experiment was conducted by a psychology professor back in the 1960s to determine the impact of authority on a participant’s willingness to ‘do evil’. Shockingly, over 80% of participants inflicted what they were told were electric shocks on strangers, without blinking – all because the person in the ‘white coat’ told them to. Hence, the ‘white coat effect’.
We believe the traditional – and the modified for convenience – symbols of authority.
In an era of fake news, alternative facts and ‘opinions’ held in as high a regard (if not higher regard) than data-backed scientific evidence, this tactic just feels like a few steps shy of heading us for the dystopian future presented in Idiocracy (for anyone who isn’t familiar with this movie from 2006, it’s a comedy, but actually I think it fits more into the horror genre).
Unfortunately, I could go on, because there are loads of other problematic tactics happening all around us. But I’ll save that for another time so we can instead get to what positive change could look like.
Well then, what can ethical and inclusive marketing look like?
Check your language
There are words, phrases and terms we use commonly without realising how offensive and harmful they can be. Carefully craft your words to avoid using shame and fear to coerce your audience into making a buying decision. If it doesn’t feel nice, switch it up so it does.
Allow your audience to make fully-informed decisions by providing clear, truthful information. Give them an avenue to ask questions, and when they do, give them timely, honest answers.
If you’ve seen a phrase or tactic used by someone in your travels that doesn’t sit right with you, makes you question your value, increases your anxiety or incites FOMO, fear, shame or other – it’s unethical / exclusive. Consider how you want to be marketed to and create the same respectful experience for your audience.
How are folks who are hearing impaired to consume your video content? Captions. How are folks who are vision impaired going to know what your hashtags say? Capitalising each word within the hashtag allows text readers to identify each word for it to be read aloud. And how will vision impaired folks know what your gorgeous images look like? Alt text. (Check out this blog from Later explaining how to add alt text in Instagram natively).
Oh and you know those special fonts you see more of in Instagram bios and captions now? Well they may look fun, but they’re actually problematic for some screen readers, meaning they cannot be read clearly aloud. This makes for a highly distracting and inaccessible experience for the end user.
For websites, there are lots of tools available to enable greater accessibility and inclusiveness. Full disclosure, this is an area I am currently researching to improve my site. Here is a handy article I’ve found with some helpful, actionable advice I intend to dive into. Your web developer/designer will no doubt have their preferred tools ready to recommend as well.
Commit to keep learning
Embrace the opportunity to continuously become informed from multiple reputable and diverse sources. Consider where you get your information from and what you fill your own newsfeed and inbox with. Start following and consuming content by more diverse humans – if your feed is full of one flavour of person, for goodness’ sake, mix it up! Diversity isn’t just about who sits on the board of a company – it’s about who we’re all mixing with (virtually and in real life) every single day.
And that’s not all, folks!
All this is to say that you can be a good and considerate marketer. It starts with being a good, considerate human being. This will all make for better brands that last the test of time. We’re seeing plenty of examples of brands having to respond to outrage over long-standing names* and iconography which are offensive. We’re hearing more about ‘bro marketers’ and suspect business models that uphold systems of oppression.
To have our brands remain relevant long into the future, we urgently must address the way we market and sell. We must create empathy-based experiences with a broader worldview than we ourselves grew up with.
Marketing is at its core centred on empathy.
That’s what made me fall in love with it all those years ago – a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 17-year-old in the first year of my business degree. It was always meant to be about understanding what people need (in some cases, before they can even articulate it) and then crafting it and an experience around it to serve it up to them – and make their lives actually better as a result.
To finish, I will add, I’m learning too. I’m not currently, have not been and will not be perfect. I’m following these guidelines for myself and evolving with each new piece of information I absorb on the topic. At the time of writing, I’m undergoing a rebrand which involves scrutinising every single word that appears on my website to ensure it fits with my evolved and clearer position on this.
If this is a journey you too are embarking on, or wish to embark on, I highly recommend working out what your personal and brand values are. This exercise is useful for life as a human in the world, as well as a brand owner looking to build a meaningful and enduring brand. You can read more about brand values here (in my legitimately written and submitted article for Entrepreneur. It is (unfortunately!) kept behind a paywall).
Recommended Ethical Marketing Resources:
Here are just some of the resources I’ve found invaluable so far for unlearning and reassessing the way I approach marketing. I’m sharing these because they’ve been a part of my journey as a professional marketer and human on a mission to become better every day.
The more I consume around this content, the more I’m able to evaluate what aligns with my personal ethics – and make positive changes off the back of it. I implore you to use your own nous when evaluating ANY advice.
The Ethical Move – a movement to raise awareness about unethical and exclusive marketing. I have pledged to The Ethical Move as a sign of my commitment to being a better marketer, because the tactics they outline as being unethical align with my evolving views. Before making the pledge, I thoroughly considered how I felt about each, using my values as key criteria. (Sidebar: this is yet another benefit of having clearly articulated personal and brand values).
Kelly Diels – the feminist copywriter. Kelly is a thought leader in feminist and inclusive marketing and generously shares incredible insights and tips centred on becoming a conscious culture maker (because as brands, that’s what we are).
Small Business Boss – by Maggie Patterson. Maggie holds no bars and calls out bullshit across the online business world. Her insights are thought-provoking, detailed and accessible all at the same time.
“I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) – Telling The Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power” – by Brené Brown. This was my first foray into Brené Brown’s work. I just recently finished it (February 2021) and found it an incredibly insightful piece of work about shame. It has had a transformative impact on me personally, which will do so professionally.
*Yep, this is a link to a Forbes article I legitimately provided comment for – read right to the end for my mic-drop moment!
Tell me, which area are you focussing on to become a more inclusive, ethical marketer? DM me on Instagram