Is Marketing & Sales Unethical?

I’m writing in response to a blog post on SEOMoz by randfish, discussing whether SEO is immoral. (Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of modifying the layout, structure, and content of your website in ways that will make your site more likely to appear high in search engine results.)

The question, as posed:

    We search for relevance via the search engine. By learning and manipulating the system to accomplish its goal, SEO makes it more likely that you will come upon a target that is irrelevant. Thereby, wasting the user’s time and resources. It could be considered advertising in the form of a search result.

    Is this misleading and counter to the public welfare?

Randfish argues that in fact, SEO is almost always used to make you come upon search results that are more relevant, and that it’s no more misleading and counter to the public welfare than any other form of marketing and advertising.

Is Marketing Unethical?

While I agree completely, I’m not sure that his argument helps much, since a good number of people feel (at least vaguely) like all marketing and advertising is “misleading and counter to the public welfare”. So that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Lying is Unethical

So let’s start with a basis on which we can all agree: advertising that states or implies untrue things is unquestionably misleading and counter to public welfare (and also illegal).

Lying by omission (“Well, you didn’t ask if this car would explode when rear-ended”) is also immoral (although it has more of a gray area based on what you might reasonably expect a customer to ask about; it is also more frequently legal).

So I am assuming, for the purposes of this discussion, that all the ads, all the marketing ideas and sales pitches and SEO techniques that we’re discussing are accurate, true, and disclose all important negatives (indeed, I’ve argued that you’re better off disclosing all negative features when you’re trying to make a sale).

Putting forth good arguments

In that case, marketing or sales both come down to making good arguments in favor of buying. Any type of persuasion can be done on an unethical basis (persuading voters to elect a new politician by spreading lies about the incumbent, for example), but barring those, sales is simply a matter of making your product look as attractive as (honestly) possible, using facts, analogies, lighting, testimonials, placement, and so on. (SEO is, in most cases, simply working to make the customer aware of the product at all).

Our question then: is that unethical?

The Moral Obligation to Look Bad

Turn it around: if making your product look good is immoral, than morality must lie in making your product look bad. For example, Ford Motors must not say

    Our trucks don’t last as long as many cars, since most of our customers use their vehicles so hard that they’ll need to get a new truck every few years anyway. They have a lot of power for hauling heavy loads and moving quickly, although you pay for that with lower gas mileage. And they look great.

But is morally obligated to say

    Sure, our trucks look good and have a lot of power, but the gas mileage is terrible and they’ll only last a couple of years

    (Honda would presumably be reciprocally obliged to say “Our cars get great gas mileage and they last forever, which means you’ll have to spend 20 years in the slowest, weakest, dinkiest car on the road”)

Should politicians be banned from using pictures of themselves in suits & makeup, and be required instead to use pictures with uncombed hair in their bathrobes, taken with a cheap disposable camera?

Should artists assembling a portfolio be required to include only their bad works, and none of their good? Should a band applying for a record contract be required to use uncut tracks made on cheap mono-feed recorders, preferably on a day the lead singer had laryngitis?

Neutrality isn’t usually an option

The simple and obvious answer is to avoid making your product look good or bad: simply put it out there neutrally and let people make their own decisions.

But how do you go about making a neutral presentation? As you can see, simply reversing the order in which data is presented can have a huge effect on whether it looks good or bad, and you have to present it in some order.

And it’s easier to lie with huge reams of data, anyway. Think Enron: all the data about their business was in their SEC reports, which you would think is as neutral a document as you could desire. But ALL their business data was in that report, making it easy to hide the few bits of incriminating data.

Is it immoral to look good?

So in most cases, neutrality is not possible, and we’re back to two choices: Are you morally required to make yourself look bad? Or may you, within the bounds of accuracy, truth, and legality, make yourself look as good as possible?

I cannot answer this question for you, of course. Many people through history have decided that looking good is a sin — some sects of Judaism, many of the Puritans that immigrated to North America, and some parts of Islam — and dictate a hunched posture and shapeless clothing. Every person must make their own ethical judgement.

But I stand on the side of presenting yourself well.

This article was cross-posted on my business blog, NeoAgora Marketing. You can browse there for more information onsmall business marketing if you’re interested.

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