Unethical marketing has long been a subject that has irritated me, particularly where animal services and associated activities are concerned because ultimately it is the animals and unwitting users of services that end up paying the price. Finally the ABTC has a code of conduct to address this issue (see http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/images/Ethicalmarketingguidelines.pdf).
The main trick that is employed by the unscrupulous marketers is making misleading statements or inferring something that is not quite true. This is the grey area between telling the truth and being downright untruthful which creates a mental image about the product or service that the writer wants readers to conclude despite it not actually being the case. The defence that is offered for such marketing practices is ‘the advert/article does not actually say that’ although it doesn’t take too much grey matter to see what image the writer wants to create.
In professional marketing terms the word that describes this practice is ‘puffery’, which means the product or service is ‘puffed up’ to make it look better, bigger, more successful or sophisticated than it is in reality. A hypothetical example might be when someone writes a letter to a major dog rescue charity suggesting a method of behaviour assessment and subsequently claims in their marketing material that they have advised said charity, a statement that is not technically untrue yet creates a false impression to the reader.
Another darker practice that I see from time to time is negative marketing, this is when people seek advantage by telling their audience how bad their competition is, being outright critical. There is no excuse for this. If someone cannot offer reasoned argument for their preference and allow their audience to make up their own mind it says more about the writer than the target of their criticism. What compounds this misconduct is when perpetrators sign up to a code of practice that does not allow such behaviour yet they continue to do it anyway.
The advent of the internet has made the situation considerably more prolific because now it is so easy and cheap to spread misleading statements to a huge audience and the more ‘professional’ a website looks, the greater air of credibility it lends to the message being put forward. There is, a practice known as Search Engine Optimisation, which website managers use to get their sites further up the rankings when a search is made. This is open to all sorts of abuse and ‘black hat’ methods. A method is referred to as ‘black hat’ when something is created out of nothing, like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Without getting into the technicalities involved it essentially telling lies about the product or service in the background so that search terms that people type in are directed to that site more frequently than others, thus pushing the site nearer to the No 1 spot. This can, of course, be achieved legitimately by simply providing the complete service that is stated and attracting genuine searches but the reader will never be sure until they actually sign up to what is being offered. I was even stunned to discover that it is possible to buy ‘likes’ on Facebook in order to make a page look far more popular than it actually is.
It boils down to a matter of conscience and honesty but there is constant pressure to compete and it is very difficult for those who do so in a truly moral fashion when faced with those that push the ethical boundaries. It has always been my belief that a reputation built on being truthful and fair is the only way to be because any short term gains achieved by behaving otherwise will eventually come back to haunt you.
To behave ethically is to know the difference between what you have a right to do, what is right to do and doing the right thing even when nobody is watching.