Advertising can fall into the gray zone of what constitutes morality and integrity. While it exists exclusively to make consumers aware of what their life lacks, does that in it of itself condemn it as dissolute behavior? Could there be nuances that differentiate truly unethical marketing tactics from ones that may not be helping humanity, but certainly aren’t contributing to the general decline of society? Let’s find out.
How do advertisers persuade people to buy their products?
Perhaps the most well-known author on the subject of persuasion, Robert Cialdini, has written the “bible” on how to manipulate people. His seminal book, “Influence,” launched a thousand advertising campaigns and distilled tactics that people have been utilizing unconsciously since the dawn of time into six principles:
- Reciprocity – Give someone a token and they’ll be more likely to respond by giving back. Non-profits and charities frequently use this technique: how many times have you received a pack of customized return address stickers accompanying a request for money?
- Scarcity – The rarer the commodity, the more valuable it becomes. Diamonds, first edition books, the elusive McRib – the examples are endless. Unsurprisingly, humans always want what they may not be able to have.
- Authority – “Nine out of 10 dentists approve this toothpaste.” Sounds familiar, right? People are more willing to trust those with credibility, which authority figures possess in spades. Logically speaking, it makes sense. Would you rather take a tire recommendation from your mechanic, who has seen thousands of tires in his life, or cubicle-mate?
- Consistency – People like to be seen as consistent in their behavior, especially when it’s public. Committing to a small favor paves the way for future favors in the same vein, even though they may be more significant asks. (Not entirely unrelated, Benjamin Franklin used this concept in a slightly different way to turn a rival into a friend. He did this by asking to borrow a book from him. Doing a favor to a sworn enemy created cognitive dissonance – the discomfort felt after encountering new information that goes against long-held beliefs – in his rival’s brain. The brain hates this and will subsequently adjust mindset to avoid it. In complying with Franklin’s favor, the rival unconsciously and completely illogically reasoned that he graciously lent the book to Franklin because he liked him.)
- Liking – As a species, humans tend to gravitate towards those who are similar to them, whether the point of comparison is income, beliefs, age, interests, or other ethno- or demographics. The more you can get someone to like you, by mimicking their behavior, sharing similar interests, or even flattering them, the more likely they are to do what you ask of them.
- Consensus – In general, humans are wired to be social and to “go with the flow” when it comes to their peers. Thus, educating people on what many others are doing (this is important) is a way of convincing them to do the same. If 95% of your neighbors are only using 10 gallons of water per day, do you really want to be the person who uses 20?
We’ve all probably used one or more of these tactics at some point in our lives to convince someone to do something for us; it doesn’t mean we are deceitful or duplicitous. But at what point do you or advertisers cross the line between “acceptable” and “morally objectionable” persuasion tactics?
Could some advertising tactics be more harmful than we think?
Except for those who avoid all contact with the outside world, virtually everyone on earth is exposed to advertising. You’d be hard pressed to find a country where Coca-Cola has not provided branded outdoor menu signs, umbrella covers, and other vehicles of real-life “native” advertising. As more and more people around the world acquire internet access, their exposure to advertising grows exponentially.
In most cases, advertising is considered relatively anodyne. However, not everyone may not react to it in the same way. David Swallow of TPGi has taken a deep dive into how marketing tactics — including those that leverage the “scarcity” principle — affect those with anxiety disorders. In his blog post series, he shares an example of how utilizing urgency (insinuating limited quantities or time to purchase) as a commonly cited source of anxiety. While it may seem benign to those who do not suffer debilitating anxiety, how deeply does it affect those who do?
How to avoid crossing the line
Despite its potential for causing unintentional negative consequences, most advertising is not ill-intentioned. After all, at its core, advertising is simply a way to educate potential customers about products and services that may enhance their lives. While we may ignore 99% of the estimated 4,000 ads we are exposed to each day, the ones that do break through the clutter may actually be relevant and (gasp!) introduce us to helpful products. The key is to capture consumer interest without actively causing distress without due reason.
As a rule of thumb, Swallow recommends sticking to truthful statements that genuinely inform potential customers. Abusing Cialdini’s principles, like creating a false impression of scarcity is deceitful; honestly telling customers that there are limited quantities of a product available is acceptable. After all, if you are looking to book a hotel room and the website informs you there is only one room at that price left, wouldn’t you rather know this so you can snag it before anyone else does?
The upshot? Ethical advertising is quite simple when it comes down to core principles.
Marketers who want to utilize Cialdini’s principles to sell their wares are well within their rights to do so, as long as they are doing so honestly. After all, maybe “nine out of 10 dentists prefer Crest” because it really is the superior toothpaste!