The Essential Guide to Proper Marketing Ethics in a Digital World

You've heard the stories, and they keep you up at night.

Someone hires a marketing company to increase their impressions, they see excellent results, and then a month later, Google slaps them with a penalty or de-indexes their site altogether.

They're left flailing, struggling to compete in a digital world without access to the largest search engine available. Worse, they don't understand what happened or how to fix it.

Without morally straight marketing ethics, the same could happen to you. But there's good news: You have complete control over how you market your business online.

With ethical marketing, you build trust. And in the age of online reviews on third party sites, trust is one of the most impactful elements of a sustainable digital presence.



Maintaining Honest Marketing Ethics

Ethics reside in a subjective area. It relies heavily on what the general populace has agreed is morally good and what's not. Because morality is placed on a sliding scale, someone coined the terms White Hat and Black Hat in regards to marketing behavior, to help identify positive and negative practices.

White Hat is what we should all strive for and what we'll lay out later in this article. These are the actions that show you're trying to treat your customers and their privacy with respect. You're trying to market so well you can't be ignored, rather than playing a game of cheap tricks.

Black Hat, on the other hand, makes use of shady tactics to seek benefits they haven't officially earned. Since this is the approach that can get you blocked by Google and torn to pieces by your customer reviews, it's important to understand what they are so you can avoid them.

Top Black Hat Tricks

Black Hat marketing relies on cheating the systems that everyone has agreed to play. They're productive in the short term but can have catastrophic results later.

Link Farming

Link farming is the practice of linking to webpages that link in return. The goal is to spam the index of a search engines into thinking they have relevant content that others want to link to, when in reality, they've likely paid for the inbound links.


Cloaking shows one page to web crawlers and a different page to users. This causes users to arrive at a separate page than initially expected, and it's usually one that the search engine recommended. This tactic causes the page to rank for terms unrelated to its content.

Gateway Pages

Gateway pages are masked to users and are created solely to attract search engines. This approach is often called a 'sneaky redirect' and sends users to another website, whether it's related or not.

Hidden Content

This tactic is old and rarely used anymore. It makes use of hiding content within the code of a site. This includes stuffing keywords into comment tags, using no-scripts, or posting invisible text. These initially trick web crawlers into thinking the page is more valuable than it actually is.

Meta Stuffing

Since metas are no longer part of Google's search algorithm, this tactic has faded from use. Like the keyword stuffing in hidden content, it takes the same approach to a page's meta description. By lumping keywords into the meta, it used to catch the eye of the spiders, but didn't provide the audience with an actual description of the page.

Unethical Marketing

Before we can look at how to stay morally straight in marketing, we should also look at the gray area. These tactics aren't illegal, but they're also not good. If you're focused on customer-centric marketing, an approach that genuinely values your customers, you'll avoid these.

False Brand Comparisons

Some companies will enter unethical marketing wars with others. These are dangerous waters as any misinformation, or misleading claims, can be marked as libel. Many times, business will compete in a joking manner and other companies will try to capitalize on the fun. This is different than making false claims which should be avoided unless you're prepared for the consequences.

Unverified Claims

Some products will promise drastic results but have no scientific evidence to back up their claims. These products are commonly referred to as 'snake oil' and if you care about your brand's image, you should avoid making claims without proof.


Although you may have a target demographic you're trying to reach that lends towards a specific gender or race, stereotyping is frowned upon. Market the product to individuals who could find value in it, not to stereotyped groups.

Surrogate Advertising

This approach is actually illegal with some products. Surrogate advertising is a way to show products to consumers without directly referencing or acknowledging them. The laws prohibiting surrogate advertising are mainly for products like cigarettes and alcohol.

8 Principles of Ethical Marketing

With all the black and gray matters behind us, let's take a quick dive into the principles of ethical marketing so you can keep your business on a more virtuous path.

1. Marketing Communications Share a Common Standard of Truth

There's no doubt that consumers will place a higher value in honest and ethical advertising. People will generally assume you're telling the truth for a couple of reasons.

First, we have a natural inclination to believe people who we think are trying to help us. If your brand is trying to provide value, as it should be, that's enough reason for customers to want to trust you.

Second, they trust that if you couldn't back your claims, you wouldn't be able to market on large scale platforms like television and the internet. There's an unspoken idea thought that other consumers and any governing bodies would root out crooked businesses, and typically, they do.

Companies who are caught making false or exaggerated claims like we discuss above are going to lose customers and struggle to maintain a positive brand image.

2. Marketing Professionals Maintain Personal Ethics

If you want to exhibit high morals with marketing, you need to keep those morals in your normal life. A person who lacks morals is more likely to cross the line professionally.

Because there is an expectation from consumers that you are going to be honest in your marketing, it becomes your responsibility to uphold the highest moral standards as a professional.

3. Advertising is Distinguished from News and Entertainment

The line between news, entertainment, and advertising is constantly blurred. With actors marketing products, and news television aligning their business with the entertainment industry, it's harder to tell what's what.

As a marketer, it is essential that customers know the difference between an advertisement and new or entertainment. This is most misleading when news agencies cover or shape their stories to put sponsors and their products in a better light. This misdirects consumers into believing products have more benefits or fewer flaws and is highly unethical.

4. Endorsements are Transparent


The use of endorsements is growing as an ethical dilemma as social media becomes more prevalent in our society. Advertisers will reach out to profiles with large audiences and pay them to support their product.

This is misleading in the sense that a person paid to endorse may make claims about the product that they don't believe to be true.

Current regulations require all affiliate products and links to be marked as such. This is why most social posts for a product will now have a hashtag (#ad) at the start of the text or specify "affiliate link" somewhere.

On websites that make money from affiliate sales, the disclaimer needs to be provided either with each link or at the top of the page. Providing a separate snippet on a disclaimer page buried in your site is not good enough.

5. Consumer Engagement Strategy is Based on the Target Audience

This principle focuses on how the demographic you're targeting can be manipulated and why you should avoid that. This is especially clear when marketing to children. They are much easier to persuade than adults, so a firmer line needs to be established, so marketers don't take advantage of their naivety.

The vulnerability found in children is also evident in patients of life-threatening ailments. Targeting these consumers with a new prescription drug can be misleading because they may be at a stage where they'll try anything for relief from their affliction.

6. Consumer Privacy is Never Compromised

Consumer privacy is paramount to maintaining a positive brand. When Facebook testified against congress about data practices, their audience was in an uproar. Every time a company has a data breach, they lose customers. When you start receiving spam because your email list sold your info, you refuse to work with that company again.

Unfortunately, accidents happen. With hackers and other external issues compromising privacy, no company is bulletproof.

What matters is that you've done everything you can to protect their data. If a company honestly cares about their customers' data and does what they can to keep it safe, consumers will have an easier time forgiving the failure.

7. Marketers Will Comply with Regulatory Guidance

This is where a marketer can run into real trouble if they choose a Black Hat approach.

There are governing bodies for almost everything in modern society. There are also larger groups that monitor those. The Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission are two of the organizations that protect consumers by ensuring advertising, product claims, and other marketing is ethical.

If your industry has set expectations for how companies will conduct themselves, it's best to adhere to those guidelines.

8. Ethics Should Be Discussed with Every Strategy

Finally, the discussion of ethics should be a key topic of every marketing strategy.

Even if you're planning a simple campaign, taking a look at the other seven principles and ensuring you're not crossing the line can go a long way towards keeping your company on the straight and narrow.

For further proof that ethics are vital to marketing, the starting salary for an Ethicist is nearly $80k. Companies take this stuff seriously, and so should you.

It needs to be part of the planning so you don't take a wrong step.

Remaining Morally Straight

There's no reason to stay up at night with worry. Following the eight principles outlined and avoiding the Black Hat and gray tactics will lead you to morally-sound marketing.

And while you're looking at how you stay on your consumer's good side, you should consider how Inbound Marketing could help you both. Our guide, Conquering the Inbound Marketing Mountain, will help you understand how to set goals, create personas, build an Inbound team, and develop an editorial calendar. It's got everything you need to be successful, and it's free.

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