There are times in your marketing career where you will naturally question the ethics of a campaign, or may even be involved in something that is deemed unethical. Try as you might, it can be unavoidable, especially if you are pressured by third parties to get work done fast, without having the opportunity to think through your decisions. So, what is the difference between unethical and ethical marketing? This quote from Brafton puts it best:

Ethical marketers sympathize with emotions, while unethical ones exploit them.”

Once unethical practices are exposed (which is more than likely to happen during the age of the internet, given how quickly information can spread) consumers will have a deep-rooted mistrust in your company or brand which may never recover. Simply, people don’t like to be lied to, and they don’t want to feel like they’ve been used – whether your product or service is genuinely beneficial to them or not.

This article further explores the difference between ethical and unethical marketing, and why it should be avoided at all costs.


What counts as ethical advertising?

Ethical marketing is not just a strategy, but a philosophy[i]. There are no set rules to ethical advertising, as people’s opinions on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are so fluid, and change based on their personal experiences, culture and education. Marketers and advertisers must follow what is right by the general consensus of their audience and think about what works from a moral standpoint. These are the general pillars of ethical marketing: -

  1. Privacy and data protection – This is a basic requirement for marketers now, especially with the advent of stricter data protection laws such as GDPR. Consumers need to know their data is safe, not at risk of re-selling or data breaches[ii].
  2. Transparency with paid advertising – Advertisers must make it clear who is being paid to advertise their products. The same applies with people who are being paid to use/promote products. An example of this is Youtubers, who must ‘tag’ their videos as being paid sponsorships to abide by the rules.
  3. Be truthful – Staying honest and transparent about your product and brand is the only certain way to stay out of future situations where you might get caught out. If your company has unethical practices to hide, you’re better off writing them out of the company instead of trying to cover them up.
  4. No exploitation of emotions – Though provoking an emotional response is integral to the psychology of marketing, it is wrong to evoke negative emotions (upset, fear, rage) from your customer base. This is why more recently, you might see charities showing the impact donations have for their chosen cause, rather than the issue that they are trying to combat. People respond positively when they see where their money is going, rather than reacting from a place of sadness or guilt.
  5. No exaggeration – Over-exaggerating the effects of a product is a big no-no. Stay far away from false claims.
  6. No fake news – Any and all advertising should be distinguishable from news.
  7. Sustainability & the environment – Sustainability is fast becoming the core of many companies’ ethics. Although it might not be a focus, it’s definitely something to consider.

Ethical marketing examples

Now that you understand the core principles of ethical marketing, it’s time to see how these ethics look in real terms. We’ve found some great examples of ethical marketing to share with you. Many of these campaigns focus on the environment, and creating a positive impact on the wider community.



TOMS are a shoe company whose ethics are core to their business model. Founded in 2006 by Blake Mycoskie[iii] with giving in mind, to date they have donated 95+ million pairs of shoes, restored sight in 780,000 people, provided 720,000 weeks of safe water to those who had no access, and so much more.

So, how is this used within their marketing? Since the company was built on the value of giving, it is naturally incorporated into their branding. For example, they promote shoe sales through promising to provide a free pair to those in need with every purchase.

Ethical marketing runs deep in the company’s values, and they are a great example of how businesses can make a positive impact. You can see up to date information about TOMS here.


Conscious Coffees

Mark and Melissa Glennare founded Conscious Coffees in 1996 with an aim to improving the work environment for coffee farm workers[iv]. As well launching the CAFÉ Livelihoods Program to help those in disadvantaged countries set up their own coffee businesses, they regularly donate coffee to causes and offer expert advice to growers across South America.

This is another example of a great brand built on doing good. You can read more about their cause here.


Patagonia’s ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ Campaign

Patagonia are known for their more ‘unusual’ marketing campaigns, and this one in particular is a fantastic example of ethical marketing done right. Tired of the effects fast fashion was having on the planet, they launched the ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ campaign in 2011. Alex Weller, Patagonia’s European Marketing Director was quoted as saying

“The real message of ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’ – and it continues to be the real message of Patagonia in terms of consumption – is don’t buy this jacket if you don’t need it”

The campaign was backed up by other movements within the company, including: -

  • Using organically grown cotton to avoid pesticides
  • Free repairs offered on products with a lifetime warranty
  • 1% of annual sales pledged to environmental causes

What is unethical advertising?

Now we’ve looked at ethical advertising and what it entails, we need to look at unethical marketing. So, what is unethical marketing exactly? Unethical marketing pushes consumers to purchase a product or engage with a service by exploiting their emotions – using print marketing, TV adverts and other mediums to intentionally trigger feelings of sadness, rage and/or fear to make consumers react in a way they usually wouldn’t.

Examples of unethical marketing could include

  • Spamming – sending spam emails, letter, or generally attempting to contact one customer more than once
  • Plagiarising or copying content – directly ripping content from other companies websites or marketing materials
  • Slandering/trying to bring down the competition – obvious attempts at putting customers off choosing rival products
  • Spreading false information or lies – lying about the positives of a product whilst concealing the negatives
  • Exploiting emotions – this can be achieved in many ways, through controversy or intentionally upsetting content, or even guilt tripping customers into donating money or buying a product
  • ‘Black hat’ techniques such as buying links

Real unethical marketing examples


Volkswagen – low emissions scandal

In an unforgettable scandal, Volkswagen were caught out intentionally misleading customers by promoting low emission vehicles, using data from emission tests they had cheated on[v]. This is a prime example of why misleading customers isn’t worth it.


Activia yoghurts

In 2010, Activia claimed on its packaging to have ‘special bacterial ingredients’, and they claimed their yoghurts were scientifically proven to boost immune systems. For this reason, they could justify their products being a lot more costly than similar products from their competitors. Of course, this was false and landed Dannon with a with a class action settlement of $45 million[vi]



Olay landed themselves in trouble in 2009 for re-touching an image of former model Twiggy to make her appear wrinkle-free in an advert for their Definity eye cream. This was a blatant lie about the affects of the product, and hundreds of complaints were filed about it – though Olay’s parent company Procter & Gamble tried to defend themselves by saying Twiggy’s youthful appearance was due to their post-production retouching process.


Why choose ethical marketing practices?

All in all, it is better to do good than bad and this applies in marketing as much as it does elsewhere in life. Showing you truly care about your customers, the community around you and the planet as a whole can do no harm, but lying, twisting facts and exploiting customers certainly can.



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Hotten, R., 2015. Volkswagen: The scandal explained. [Online]
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Marketing Schools, n.d. Ethical Marketing. [Online]
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Pan, M., n.d. 3 Examples of Companies Getting Ethical Marketing Right. [Online]
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Shewan, D., 2020. Ethical Marketing: 5 Examples of Companies with a Conscience. [Online]
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Woolfe, S., 2019. The Five Dos Of Ethical Marketing. [Online]
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