Marketing Lacks Ethics

Note: I am working on a white paper about Moral Marketing. To that end, I’m publishing a handful of short, rough, and unorganized posts exploring aspects of the topic as I work out my thoughts. What follows is the second post. You can read the first post here.

As I stated in Marketing Starts With Profits, Not People, marketing starts off at a disadvantage because its main purpose is to make money, rather than serve people. Typically, we would expect a practice area like this to have a set of formal, or widely adopted informal, standards to guide it. The marketing profession has neither.

So, not only does marketing exist to make money, but it also does not have an accepted set of ethical standards by which to operate during its pursuit of profits.

Taking an oath

We see ethical frameworks present in other professions like law, public safety, and accounting. Each one has clear standards of which transgression results in serious penalties, including loss of livelihood or even imprisonment.

For example, medicine has the Hippocratic Oath as its underlying ethical framework. It’s been summed up by the popular phrase, “First do no harm”.

The actual oath is a little longer, enjoining the physician to respect his teacher, to always do what’s best for his patient, to never administer poisons or to knowingly harm those under his care, and to never administer an abortion.

All these commands are designed to provide a framework within which medicine can be practiced ethically and morally.

We marketers have no such obligations—no oaths, no governing bodies, no licensures, and no regulations.

To be clear, I am not arguing that there should be any of these things. I’m simply pointing out that marketing is a money-making discipline with no ground rules.

Imagine a world

Not every profession needs to be regulated by oaths, associations, or the state. A profession or industry can work for the common good if its practitioners have a strong innate ethical foundation informing their behaviors.

We can imagine a small business, maybe located in a rural area, where the employees are rooted in something deeper than just making a buck. Let’s assume these people value hard work, dependability, and honesty. We could be confident these people would always strive to do what’s right and best.

The truth is, these businesses exist across the U.S., but they are the exception and not the rule. It’s not typical to find organizations, especially as they get larger, that have innate, shared values. If it were there would be no need for the multi-million dollar company culture industry.

Why is it hard to find shared values in larger organizations—the kind that employ lots of marketers?

Ethics in the rear-view mirror

I hesitate to go too deeply into the “what’s wrong” aspect of this discussion, but we have to at least get a few things on the table if we’re to eventually build a framework for moral marketing later on. What follows is an attempt to capture some of the broader issues informing marketing’s lack of ethics, as well as the growing trend of ethical degradation we’re witnessing across most professions. (BTW, I realize that last assertion demands some sort of proof. Since this is an informal attempt to work out my thinking on the topic, I’ll ask the reader’s forgiveness as I move on.)

Shared values

Ethics are based on a society’s shared values; essentially a society’s understanding of what is true, good, and right. Our post-modern society struggles to find a set of shared values to inform our ethics. We can’t agree on what is true, good, or right. We can’t agree on what should be. We can’t even agree on our collective history or on the meaning of certain words.

Rather than seek shared values we’ve set our efforts towards the accumulation of power.


Specialization, the never-ending drive to deliver the efficiencies demanded by Capitalism, has a few effects on ethics.

First, specialization relegates each discipline and practice it touches to the application of an ever-narrowing set of technical skills. This trend causes a multitude of deep and narrow silos. To be able to thrive in such an environment, the specialist (a.k.a. the worker) must devote more and more of their time learning the specifics of their given practice area, almost always at the expense of other important topics, like ethics or the humanities. The generalist, meaning one who understood more than just their job, is becoming a thing of the past.

Second, the more we specialize, the further apart practices that used to be integrated or related become. In essence, our specializations become abstracted and decontextualized. The marketer is no longer just a marketer, or even a market researcher, but is now a quantitative data analyst in a giant marketing department with no concern over, or even a view into, how the data was acquired. This analyst may not ever interact with the data collection team, the people on the qualitative research team, or with the chief marketing officer.

This decontextualization and isolation removes the specialist (which is practically every member of the department) from the deeper questions of ethics, truth, or the good. all the specialist has to worry about is the quality of their technical competence and execution. Certainly, all organizations want their employees to behave in ways that benefit the corporation. They don’t want their people stealing company property, lying, treating coworkers poorly, or doing anything that will put the business in odds with whatever laws are on the books of the locality the business is operating within. Other than that, what is in place to guide this abstracted collection of specialists to what is true, good, and right for the society they are a part of?

Education, FTW?

Does ethical training take place in school? Sadly, the answer is, “no”.

Most students in a marketing undergrad program get scant ethical training, if at all. At the top marketing undergrad program in the U.S., students are required to take a general business ethics course that covers, “moral issues in advertising and sales; hiring and promotion; financial management; corporate pollution; product safety; and decision-making across borders and cultures”. The course lasts one semester and counts for one credit.

To those that think, something is better than nothing, how would you feel if your financial advisor’s ethical instruction consisted of a few hours of general business ethics including pollution, hiring, and cultural sensitivity? Would you feel confident that she had a strong ethical framework when dealing with your retirement fund? Would you trust her with $500,000 based on a one-credit-hour class?

No, you wouldn’t but that’s exactly what we’re doing with marketers. And, if you think for a second that they are less consequential and can do less harm to you than a crooked financial advisor, then you have no idea what power marketers now hold my friend.

I’ll explore the power of marketers in a subsequent post or posts.


It is enough for the purposes of this post to state that 1.) The marketing profession lacks any formal, or widely adopted informal, set of ethical standards. They just don’t exist. And, 2.) Individual marketing practitioners do not receive any meaningful training in ethics and that this is even more true when we consider training in ethics specifically developed for and applied to marketing. Couple the first two points with 3.) Marketing is fundamentally a money-making activity and you’ve got cause for concern.

Broadside: for people building businesses & living on their own terms.

Get twice-weekly newsletters with insights, strategies, and tactics—each written to help you navigate to success and thrive in today’s world.