Is It Ethical to Use Human Psychology for Online Marketing?

The ethical use of psychology in marketing has been a source of debate for years. Most notably, the use of psychological tactics to sell a product or service has been criticized as manipulative and deceptive. In recent years, as the line between marketing and sales becomes increasingly blurred, the ethicality of using psychology in marketing has become a lot more complicated. At times, it can feel like a modern day conundrum: on the one hand, you have ethical concerns regarding the use of manipulative marketing tactics; on the other, you have the promise of getting more people to buy your products.

Human Psychology and Marketing

Let’s set the stage: you’re a marketer for a company that makes kitchen appliances. You’re in the process of planning a marketing campaign and want to run some experiments to check out what works and what doesn’t. You decide to test out different marketing tactics and find the ones that make the most sense for your business. You’ve heard about the psychology of buying and decide to try out some of the same tactics on your own. You read some classic psychological studies and decide to use a little bit of what you learned to grow and improve your business.

The debate over whether or not it’s ethical to use human psychology for marketing comes in a few different forms. Let’s look at a few of the most prominent ones.

Manipulative Marketing

One of the most debated topics in marketing circles centers around the use of unethical or manipulative marketing tactics. The concept behind such tactics is to use methods that cause discomfort or stress to the target audience in order to make them more receptive to the messaging of the advertiser. We discussed this type of manipulation before when we looked at the pros and cons of emotional marketing.

The most famous study that tested this type of marketing was performed in the 1960s by Donald Lambert and Joseph Breuder. In the study, the researchers asked people to read an article about a fictional diet supplement that could help them lose weight. They were then given different options for how they could respond to the ad. One group of people was asked to respond with a neutral tone and matter-of-factly read the article; the other group of people was given the choice of feeling stressed or worried about their health and responded with appropriate feelings to the article.

Those who responded with positive emotions to the article were more likely to buy the diet supplement than those who responded with neutral or negative emotions. In a nutshell, the researchers concluded that “positive emotional reactivity and memory enhancement can be used to constructively influence purchasing decisions.” So while the study was performed several decades ago, the implications for marketers have not changed: using tactics that increase the listener’s positive emotional response to your message is one way to ensure that they remember you and consider your product or service when making a purchase decision.

Deceptive Marketing

Another topic that has been extensively debated in marketing circles is whether or not it’s ethical to deliberately deceive the public regarding the contents of a product or service. Many marketers who subscribe to the concept of honesty in advertising believe that deliberately misleading consumers in order to trick them into purchasing a product or service is unethical. Some examples of deceptive marketing practices that have been heavily criticized include:

  • Advertisers that put misleading messages in bold, all-caps or colored text
  • Advertisers that exaggerate the benefits of a product or service in order to evoke an emotional response
  • Marketers that hide negative information about a product or service from consumers

It’s important to keep in mind that there is a difference between misleading and deceiving. For example, saying that a product is “high-quality” when it factually isn’t can be considered misleading; however, if a company states that a product is “high-quality” and they know that it isn’t, then that is considered deceptive marketing. Some marketing experts believe that this type of practice is simply another name for false advertising. If you’re going to engage in deceptive marketing practices, you need to be sure that you have a good reason for doing so and that what you’re doing is actually going to help your business thrive.

Beneficial Marketing

A third major area of debate in marketing circles involves whether or not it’s ethical to deliberately use marketing methods that are helpful and productive. The concept behind such tactics is to use psychological methods that make the target audience more receptive to your messaging. An example of a beneficial marketing practice is asking consumers to think about how your product or service can make their life easier. You want to choose marketing tactics that get your message across while also making the listener think about how your product or service can help them.

Many marketers believe that this type of practice is the way forward. Instead of using manipulative marketing tactics to get your audience to think a certain way about your product or service, use techniques that will help them understand and appreciate what you’re offering. One caveat to this type of practice is that you shouldn’t imply that the product or service is able to do something that it can’t; if you make such claims without proof, you could find yourself in legal trouble. Just make sure that you’re not misleading anyone.

The Blurred Lines Between Marketing and Sales

Over the past several years, the marketing and sales functions of many companies have become increasingly indistinguishable. In today’s world, marketing departments are responsible for creating brand awareness, driving traffic to websites, and nurturing leads into paying consumers. The roles of marketing and sales are blurring, which means that marketers are frequently having to take on the responsibilities of salespeople and conversely that salespeople are having to take on the responsibilities of marketers. In today’s world, the line between marketing and sales is becoming increasingly blurred.

As a marketer, are you worried about whether or not what you’re doing is ethical? Is being “transparent” about your product really that important? Is there such a thing as “good” marketing and “bad” marketing? You must decide what’s important to you and your business; if you don’t know where to start, then simply ask yourself questions and you’ll be one step closer to knowing what’s right for you.