Tag Archives: philosophy

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.

From small beginnings

A few years ago, at an otherwise hideously-bombastic, we’re-Christians-and-everyone-else-sucks Christmas Eve service, there was, nonetheless, a wonderful Christmas sermon which I’m going to share with you now.

From small beginnings come great things

From a baby boy in a tiny stable came one of the most important messages humanity has ever had.

Every great person is the result of a zygote smaller than the tip of your little finger.

The US civil rights movement started with dozens of tiny events: a decision by a single person to sit at a lunch counter, or at the front of the bus.

Google started as a class project for a couple of geeks at Stanford. Facebook started as a way for college alums to contact each other. The entire world wide web and everything that relies on it started as a way for scientists to get files to each others’ computers.

From small beginnings come great things

Your results may be small right now. Your efforts may seem pathetic compared to the volume of work yet to be done. But that doesn’t mean they will stay small. Every building was once a single stone on bare ground; every success was once a lone individual saying “I wonder if I could…”

Whatever your spiritual beliefs and practices, I wish you a merry Christmas, and hope that your small beginnings become great things in the year to come.

Optimism vs Panglossianism

There’s a well-known cognitive bias known as the Framing Effect, where (for example), people are pretty pleased with a medical procedure that has a 95% success rate, but displeased with one that has a 5% failure rate. Humans have a tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive — a practice with sound evolutionary advantages, but one that can be a bloody nuisance if you want to get something accomplished.

Yes, optimists are sometimes pretty irritating; sometimes you just want to wallow in misery and don’t want to be cheered up. And it’s easy to justify pessimism by calling it “realistic.” You’re with it. You’ve been around the block. You’re not foolish, you know how the world works. If you can’t learn to face the truth, you’ll never grow up.

Pessimism Is Easier…

It’s often easy to be pessimistic: if you can’t find the downside to a situation, you can always find someone to point it out to you. And pessimism doesn’t require you to do anything. If it won’t work, then there’s no point in trying. If you’ve lost, there’s no need to put forth effort. If the project is doomed to failure, there’s no need to fret about it.

…but Optimism is More Helpful

Optimism, on the other hand, requires action. If the machine usually works, then you need to try to fix it; if the project might succeed, then it’s your fault if it fails; if you have a great idea, then you ought to try it out. And there’s frequently a shortage of people willing to help you find the bright side to things.

So… pessimists never do anything. And thus the only people who get stuff done are optimists.

But Try to be Smart About It

That doesn’t mean that you have to believe the world is full of sunshine and rainbows and cuddly kittens. But you do have to be open to the possibility that good things could happen, and moreover that they could happen to you. If you are determined to believe otherwise, you can make a crisis out of any opportunity you come across.

In Risk Analysis we talked about how to determine how much risk you’re taking on, and to be prepared for both the best-case and the worst-case scenarios (they can actually be equally difficult to handle).

Know risks. Analyze risks. Reduce risks as much as possible — eliminate them if you can. But don’t let the possibility of risk convince you to give up hope. When there’s a 95% survival rate, consider the possibility that you might be in the lucky 95%.

Resources for Further Reading
Quieting The Lizard Brain

Is It Evil To Make Money?

There’s a pervasive notion in our culture that being rich automatically means being sleazy, greedy, and uncaring (and admittedly Hollywood residents don’t help a lot with dispelling that stereotype). There’s also a pretty strong feeling among many people that not working for your money makes you bad or greedy or lazy.

If you strongly believe in not making money, I won’t try to change your mind; I strongly believe in letting people decide for themselves. But I’d like to other some alternative points of view that might help you in deciding where you stand.

Money Myths

Any time you argue with a belief that’s widely held in society, you have to call it a myth; that’s the rule. But in fact most of these ideas have a pretty sound basis. None of them are 100% wrong. But I think many of them are overgeneralizations, and I’d like to point out some distinctions that I think are important ones.

Money Is the Root Of All Evil

Actually — if you look in 1 Timothy 6:10 — you’ll find that what Saint Paul said is that love of money is the root of all evil. Money itself can do good things or bad things — the church collects money, after all — but to love money, to desire it for its own sake, and especially to love it more than God, more than people, more than goodness, more than virtue… that may not be the root of all evil, but it is the root of a whole lot of it.

On the other hand, loving most things is good. If you love your kids and want to send them to college — wanting money for that is not evil. If you love your partner and want to make sure they’d be safe even if you were hit by a truck — wanting money for that is not evil. If you love 3rd-world countries or inner city kids or spotted owls or cancer victims, and want money to help them get out of their bad situations — wanting money for that is the opposite of evil. So I think it’s an important distinction.

Why do you want money? What would you do with it if you had it?

Making a business is less work than getting a job

Owning a business is less work than getting a job once the business has been built. But my experience so far suggests that actually building the business is as much work as 40 years’ worth of employment, rolled into one decade. Certainly it’s much harder work.

At my day job, all I have to do is show up, do what my boss tells me to, and be average enough not to get fired.

In my business I have to motivate myself, plan where the business is going, decide the most important thing to do today, and be good enough to compete with every other business in my industry, including some really big companies. I must have or learn self-discipline, organization and planning, and prioritization, as well learning enough in my field to excel at some aspect of it.

It’s a lot harder than my day job. But I love it. It’s work that challenges me. It’s work that makes me a better person. And I hope that it’s work that makes a difference, that by my writing this blog, making my time management website, I can make some people’s lives a little easier.

What kind of work do you want to do? How much are you willing to do?

Power Corrupts

This one is the most true of all. It’s very easy to take advantage of having power — any kind of power, and money is a great example — to do things that you wouldn’t if other people had the courage to scold you for it. And it is a risk of being rich; we see it all the time in our tabloids.

But you can also abuse power without being rich. Being promoted to manager was a test of power and character for me; would I use it to force my coworkers to do things my way, and to do the grunt work I didn’t want to do? I made a few bad decisions; but getting the promotion, and seeing the results of those bad decisions, has made me a stronger, better person. Losing my temper was no big deal when it only affected me; learning to keep it was much more critical when it had the power to affect half a dozen people who I liked and respected.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — Abraham Lincoln

What challenges would face you if you were given power? What would you have to change about yourself to be able to handle it? Would you be a good leader? What would have to change for you to be able to say yes?

Other things to consider

Most Men Live Lives Of Quiet Desperation

Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately, away from the prejudices and preconceptions of society. And one of the things he found there is that, when you take a look at it, most people are pretty unhappy with their lives, due in large part to money or lack thereof. Or, to sum up middle-class America succinctly: most people go to a job they hate so they can spend money they don’t yet have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.

And living like that is crazy. Everyone knows that, at some level. Blogs like The Simple Dollar and Zen Habits help you with this problem by helping you recognize which expenses can be cut from your life without problems; blogs like Itty Biz and Personal Development for Smart People offer advice on making more money without going to work every day. But everyone agrees that you need to do something.

What would you do if you didn’t have to go to work, ever again? It’s all very well to say that you’d play golf all day, or lie on a Caribbean beach. But you know as well as I do that you’d get tired of that after… oh, say, a year or so. And you’ve probably got more than a year left to live. What would you do when you got tired of doing nothing?

Why not make your dreams come true? Live the life you always wanted… whether that’s helping kids learn baseball or making stained-glass windows or discussing holy books with learned men. A life that you want. A life that means something to you. Instead of quiet desperation.

What WOULD you do if you didn’t have to go to work?

You Could Make A Difference

Odds are good, actually, that you have a secret dream, so deep down that you may never have admitted it to yourself, where you make a difference in this world. The particulars will vary from me to you to Bob Gomez over there, but you dream of doing something that matters… maybe writing a history or philosophy book that clarifies everything, or working for your church, or volunteering at the soup kitchen 5 days a week, or traveling to poor countries and helping people get by, or making a difference in government, or….

If you didn’t have go to work every day in order to get money, you could do that.

What could you do to make a difference in this world if your job didn’t get in the way?

You Don’t Have To Keep It

If worst comes to worst, and you just cannot bear the thought of making that much money, but the idea of building a business still appeals to you….

give it away. There are plenty of people who will take it; you can give it to bums on the street, or worthy charities, or to me, if you’d like. (I’ll use it to build my business so that I’ll have time to help save the ethnosphere.) If it turns out that you’re not trustworthy with that kind of power, get a financial manager who will give most of your money to designated charities and dole out a small amount to you each month (it’s worked for British aristocrats for years).

So, is it evil or not?

I can’t answer that question for you.

I don’t think it is. I think that accepting a job that is less than I can do, to create less benefit than I am capable of creating, and in turn preventing both my selfish dreams and my dreams of helping others… I believe that’s evil. And the opposite of that: following my dreams, educating myself to do the best job I can, to build a business that will help others — in turn — follow their dreams… I believe that’s good. But you have to answer for yourself.