Swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth and your customers will thank you. Do the opposite and you risk ticking off the people who help you keep your doors open.

Brands that mislead, exploit or spam consumers fall into the hole of unethical marketing behavior. And like your mother told you: The first fib seems minor but it only leads to more lies, eventually coming back to bite you real hard.

To make sure we all sleep soundly at night – and make our mothers happy – let’s talk about the ugly sides of marketing. Once we know what to avoid, we’ll all be on the right track to embrace ethical marketing like the responsible people – and companies – we are.

Defining unethical marketing practices

Funny or offensive? Delicious or repulsive? Good or evil? Ethical or unethical?

The answer often depends on who you ask.

Marketing is no exception – there are certainly gray areas to navigate. The difference is that most of the time, it’s the consumer’s response that carries the most weight.

Ethical marketers create genuine conversations surrounding their product or service, building strategies and making decisions with the customers’ needs and preferences in mind. If dishonest or misleading messaging sneaks into the picture, unethical marketing starts to take over.

It’s true that sometimes brands have good intentions but accidentally deliver offensive advertisements that instantly flop. (Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, we’re looking at you.) Regardless, there’s a lot that goes into avoiding such mistakes – starting with an understanding of what those mishaps can be.

Brands that are guilty of unethical marketing risk destroying their reputation and running into some less-than-favorable legal issues. Here’s what unethical marketing practices look like:

Sharing misleading information

No stretching the truth. No lies. No false exaggerations. No fake news. Sure it’s unethical, but it’s also the law. The Federal Trade Commission monitors truth in advertising, which means that advertisements should not portray misleading information. When appropriate, the FTC likes to see claims backed by genuine scientific evidence – especially when it comes to products or services that can affect consumer health or finances.

Of course, it’s natural for brands to highlight or exaggerate the best features of their products or services. This practice crosses an ethical line when it comes to messaging that can mislead consumers, such as marketing a product as a healthy way to lose weight when there isn’t significant evidence to support such a claim.

Take Activia for example. Marketed as the yogurt with special bacteria ingredients backed by scientific evidence, everyone believed it could boost immune systems and aid in digestion. Turns out that wasn’t quite the truth, and a case settled in 2010 forced Dannon to pay a $45 million fine and remove “clinically” and “scientifically proven” from Activia packaging.

Eight years later, Activia is, of course, still around, but it goes to show that not even the industry giants can get away with misleading or false messaging.

The ethical move: Stay away from distorted facts and unverifiable claims. What may spike sales initially will only hurt your business when consumers realize you weren’t truthful. Honesty really is the best policy.

Hiding the ugly

Leaving out pertinent details from the story is just as bad as lying. Of course you want to put your best foot forward, but you can’t hide information that could put customers at risk.

This is especially relevant for products and services in the health and food sectors. For instance, products made entirely with natural ingredients are usually pretty safe to use – but it doesn’t mean that side effects aren’t possible. While “made from natural ingredients” and “not tested on animals” may be the front and center of the marketing messages, potential side effects should still be made available for consumers before they purchase the product.

Yes, these details aren’t always pretty, but it’s better to have it out there than be the source of consumer anger after experiencing a side effect or negative result they didn’t expect.

The ethical move: Be clear and honest. Scrap any language that could throw customers off and lead to risky misinterpretations.  

Knocking down the competition

There’s a difference between beating the competition and beating down your competitors. The latter is far more ruthless – and not exactly admirable marketing behavior.

Picture yourself yelling at the screen when a commercial approved by a local politician running for office rags on the rival party rather than telling you anything worthwhile about what they actually plan to do if elected.

The same goes for marketing your product. Win the business because the customer believes in your brand – not because they’re dwelling on what you said about the competitor.

The ethical move: Don’t manipulate the results. Emphasize brand qualities that make you stand out from the crowd and you won’t even need to mention the competition’s name.

Offending the public

In the wake of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, it’s important to reiterate this serious point: Ethical marketing doesn’t offend, discriminate or stereotype.

When it comes to gender, sex, religion, nationality, race, age, politics and other identifiers, marketers must be careful not to offend their audiences with flawed stereotypes or generalizations. For those brands willing to take on the challenge, it’s possible for modern marketers to help rewrite the script, straying from messaging that reinforces the gender gap or other inequalities.

Now that we’re on the subject of offending the public, we’d be remiss not to mention the failed Pepsi ad again. The public did not hesitate to let the brand know that co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement and putting Kendall Jenner at the forefront put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

The ethical move: For starters, don’t co-opt a movement that isn’t yours for the taking. Respect the importance of diversity and consider how different groups of people may respond to certain messages or campaigns before rolling them out. When in doubt, if there’s chance it could offend someone, head back to the drawing board.

Exploiting emotions

All marketers know that appealing to emotions is an effective way to reach consumers – but only when done in good taste. Ethical marketers sympathize with emotions, while unethical ones exploit them.

This unethical marketing practice may include intentionally evoking rage or sadness to manipulate consumer decisions, using fear tactics, targeting disadvantaged people or tricking customers into buying a product or service.

The ethical move: Craft messages that appeal to consumer emotions without manipulating them.

Spamming

Don’t overwhelm consumers with an onslaught of emails, phone calls or advertisements – especially when they didn’t give you permission to contact them in the first place. It’s called spamming and it’s essentially the digital version of door-to-door soliciting. If anyone says this unethical marketing practice doesn’t rub them the wrong way, they’re probably lying.

On the prowl for a boost in mentions and organic search rankings, some marketers turn to black-hat link building techniques. Don’t follow their lead, as this involves the unethical practice of spamming comment sections, forums and websites with self-serving links.

Spamming is never really worth it, considering it typically angers and annoys rather than attracts consumers. Plus, the FTC also monitors this unethical practice, laying out guidelines in the CAN-SPAM act.

The ethical move: Build your contact lists organically. Earn consumer attention with inbound marketing techniques designed to start a conversation your audience is willing – rather than forced – to join.

Plagiarizing content

We all learned this one in school, so it goes without saying that you can’t steal words from another brand’s mouth. That includes marketing messaging from sales scripts to blog posts to landing pages.

The ethical move: Give credit where credit is due. Find inspiration in other content but make sure you’re delivering original pieces with your own spin.

Can consumers really tell the difference?

Hard yes – and that’s why it’s so important to practice ethical marketing.

If you don’t believe us, look for truth in the numbers. Released last year at the 4A’s Transformation conference, the “The Truth About America” study conducted by McCann Worldgroup intelligence unit reported some telling information about your potential customers:

  • 42 percent of Americans think companies are less truthful today than in the past.
  • 84 percent believe brands have the power to make the world a better place.

Via adage.com.

You may also be able to take pages out of the books of the most trusted U.S. institutions, according to the survey results. While political leanings influenced the responses, NASA, the CDC and the U.S. Army topped the list.

Steve Zaroff, chief strategy officer of McCann North America, offered his advice to companies eager to win consumer trust: Choose culture over politics and focus on positivity.

There’s even more evidence to support socially responsible marketing. According to results from the 2017 Cone Communications CSR Survey:

  • 78 percent of Americans want companies to address important social justice issues.
  • 87 percent purchase products because the company advocated for a cause they care about.
  • 76 percent refuse to buy products or services from companies who support issues that don’t align with their own beliefs.

While the data certainly encourages marketers to avoid unethical practices, it’s also enough to motivate brands to do far more than the bare minimum. Stand up for something important, make a difference where you can and be a valuable presence in your customers’ lives.

Don’t be the bad brand

Nobody likes the bad guy, so don’t volunteer your brand for the position. It’s a one-way street to ruining your relationship with your audience and losing out on the sales you need to reach company goals.

Here’s the key point: Unethical marketing practices destroy any trust brands build with their audience.

On the other hand, ethical marketing can lead to the favorable results you want to see from your efforts, including boosts in:

  • Brand credibility.
  • Audience engagement.
  • Customer loyalty and retention.

When ethics are at the heart of your decisions, you won’t have to clean up any legal messages or work doubletime to re-establish customer trust.

Added to everything we just discussed, there’s also the concern of how unimpressed your mother would be by your unethical actions. Worse – disappointed.

Is it sinking in yet? Going forward, let’s all promise to uphold our ethical responsibility and be on our best marketing behavior.

Stevie Snow is a writer at Brafton. Yes, she is named after Stevie Nicks. She’s a believer in "to life, to life, l’chaim!" because life is what brings us the Obamas, a really smooth vodka tonic and that moment on the dance floor when your favorite banger plays.