Why marketers should return to ethics for a Return on Ethics

The North Face’s recent Wikipedia hijacking shows that there is still a lack of understanding of a basic tenet in digital marketing: just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.  

Marketers have always tried to game the systemThink back to the days of black hat SEO tactics, involving techniques like keyword stuffing, cloaking and private link networks, used to gain higher site rankings in search results.  

We’re still seeing unethical marketing practices if recent attempts to top Google’s image search results are anything to go by. And amidst stark political climate and a growing wave of tech criticism, a flush of scandals have occurred, the most famous of which being none other than the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data breach 

But what is the difference between what happened with Cambridge Analytica and something like Amazon recommendations gone wrong, for example? This is a question addressed by Professor David Weinberger, an American technologist and authorHe asks if the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was characterized as taking personal agency and autonomy against people’s personal will, was really all that different to what digital marketing does today. After all, the practices used by Cambridge Analytica and digital marketing are alike in that they are both data-driven, they target users and they trigger behavior 

The difference between them, he argues, comes down to this: the misalignment of interests. With Amazon recommendations, users are shown what influenced the recommendations – the user’s data – and are allowed to remove the sources of data. Amazon acknowledges agency, is transparent about how it works and gives some control to the user. The example is also low value and represents a shared interest between users and Amazon: users provide their data in exchange for better and more personalizeproduct recommendations 

With Cambridge Analytica, on the other hand, there was no shared interest, there was no personal agency, control or transparency and the stakes were high.  

The capabilities of technology and marketing today mean that we need to learn about the alignment of business and customer interests. Don’t do it just because you can. Don’t do it just because you think it’s good for your business. Only do it if you can make both your business better and your customers feel better.   

That’s why Phrasee launched Emotions Mattercampaign that is part of our mission to remove fear, anxiety and doubt from marketing. In 2019, marketers are still actively encouraging the use of negative emotions to sell more and, as an industry, we need to do better.  

As part of the second phase of the campaign, we carried out an online survey with Vitreous World into attitudes towards unethical marketing among consumers and marketers. Over 4,000 consumers and 400 marketers split evenly across the UK and the US were surveyed and the results really do prove that ethical marketing is a no-brainer 

Our research shows that unethical marketing not only leads to the erosion of trust for a brand, but it’s also bad for business. According to the findings, 68% of consumers say that they would not buy from a brand that used negative emotions in its marketing. Furthermore, 69% of consumers say they would buy more from a brand over time that used positive marketing.  

We are calling this impact that marketing and communicating to customers in an ethical and responsible way has on a business Return on Ethics (ROE). Brands wanting to boost sales, customer loyalty and team morale should swap pressure for positivity and put ROE at the top of their priority lists.   

Responsibility and good practice in marketing = better business results.  

Stay human and reap the rewards.  


Phrasee’s founders are committed to driving a more positive, ethical approach to marketing but we don’t have all the answers and we can’t do it on our own. We would like other marketers and brands to spread the word and join the movement to make #EmotionsMatter

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