Last Updated: November 18, 2020

Business ethics is one of the most complicated and contentious subjects in human history. The relationship between doing the right thing and making money has been studied by both academics and business leaders for years with little concesus reached. A survey by the Ethics Resource Center found that 43% of respondents believed their supervisors lacked ethical integrity. One overriding question surrounds many business practices: what is the ethical way to sell things?

That question has never had a satisfactory answer, but in recent years it has become a hot button issue. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, corporate profits soared to all time highs in 2011. At the same time, the world was suffering through a crippling economic downturn made worse by unscrupulous business practices. The vast disparity between corporations and their customers has made ethical business practices an extremely relevant issue.

Companies realize the importance of acting in more ethical way, and broadcasting this transformation to their customers. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is through their marketing practices. If a company makes an effort to advertise more ethically, it reflects positively on every area of that business.

What is ethical marketing?

Ethical marketing is less of a marketing strategy and more of a philosophy that informs all marketing efforts. It seeks to promote honesty, fairness, and responsibility in all advertising. Ethics is a notoriously difficult subject because everyone has subjective judgments about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” For this reason, ethical marketing is not a hard and fast list of rules, but a general set of guidelines to assist companies as they evaluate new marketing strategies.

Principles of Ethical Marketing

  • All marketing communications share the common standard of truth.
  • Marketing professionals abide by the highest standard of personal ethics.
  • Advertising is clearly distinguished from news and entertainment content.
  • Marketers should be transparent about who they pay to endorse their products.
  • Consumers should be treated fairly based on the nature of the product and the nature of the consumer (e.g. marketing to children).
  • The privacy of the consumer should never be compromised.
  • Marketers must comply with regulations and standards established by governmental and professional organizations.
  • Ethics should be discussed openly and honestly during all marketing decisions.

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to ethical marketing. Unethical advertising is often just as effective as it is unethical (See also Black Hat Marketing). And since unethical behavior is not necessarily against the law, there are many companies who use unethical advertising to gain a competitive advantage.

Many people buy diet pills even though they are rarely, if ever, effective. This is because some diet pill companies use exaggerated and manipulative claims to essentially trick customers into buying these products. If that same company committed to using ethical advertising they would probably go out of business. However sneaky their business model may be, it is not illegal and it is keeping their doors open.

For companies looking to improve the image of a brand and develop long-term relationships with customers, this kind of unethical behavior can quickly lead to failure. Customers do not want to feel manipulated by the brands they like. Companies can use ethical marketing as a way to develop a sense of trust among their customers. If a product lives up to the claims made in its advertising, it reflects positively on the entire company. It can make the consumer feel like the company is invested in the quality of the products and the value they provide customers.

It is impossible to claim that any company is completely ethical or unethical. Ethics resides in a gray area with many fine lines and shifting boundaries. Many companies behave ethically in one aspect of their advertising and unethically in another.

Dove soap, for instance, ran a widely seen ad campaign featuring “real” models. The ad was meant to promote realistic body images and encourage girls to love the way they looked even if they were not supermodels. However, other Dove ads both during and since featured stereotypically beautiful models whose images have been altered to hide imperfections. Dove marketed ethically in one campaign and unethically in another. This illustrates how difficult it is to do the right thing in all circumstances. What is most important for any company that claims to practice ethical advertising is to make it a fundamental feature of their marketing process. With every decision they must ask themselves “will this sell” and “is this the ethical way to sell it?” (See also Consumer Psychology)

Who implements ethical marketing?

Every company has the opportunity to engage in ethical marketing. Any business, from the smallest mom and pop store to the biggest multinational corporation can choose to be open, honest, and fair when they advertise to their customers. When done in a thoughtful way, ethical marketing can be an economical and effective form of advertising. Similarly, unethical advertising doesn’t guarantee higher sales or lower advertising costs.

Some companies operate according to lofty personal principles. For these companies, advertising in an ethical way is a natural and necessary extension of their corporate character. Corporate responsibility can be a major selling point to consumers who are interested in more than just price and quality. Companies that are known for treating workers fairly, sourcing sustainable materials, environmental stewardship, and charitable donation have to reflect these principles in their marketing efforts. .

For other companies, ethical marketing will be little more than an opportunity to boost their credibility. Domino’s pizza, for example, carried out a well known advertising campaign in which they showed consumers pictures of real Domino’s pizzas without the studio photography that makes them look so perfect. This was a refreshing look behind the artifice of much advertising, but this did not signal a more open and honest relationship between Domino’s and the pizza buying public. The campaign was considered an attention seeking stunt at best.

Types of Unethical Advertising

  • Surrogate Advertising – In certain places there are laws against advertising products like cigarettes or alcohol. Surrogate advertising finds ways to remind consumers of these products without referencing them directly.
  • Exaggeration – Some advertisers use false claims about a product’s quality or popularity. A Slogan like “get coverage everywhere on earth” advertises features that cannot be delivered.
  • Puffery – When an advertiser relies on subjective rather than objective claims, they are puffing up their products. Statements like “the best tasting coffee” cannot be confirmed objectively.
  • Unverified Claims – Many products promise to deliver results without providing any scientific evidence. Shampoo commercials that promise stronger, shinier hair do so without telling consumers why or how.
  • Stereotyping Women – Women in advertising have often been portrayed as sex objects or domestic servants. This type of advertising traffics in negative stereotypes and contributes to a sexist culture.
  • False brand comparisons – Any time a company makes false or misleading claims about their competitors they are spreading misinformation.
  • Children in advertising – Children consume huge amounts of advertising without being able to evaluate it objectively. Exploiting this innocence is one of the most common unethical marketing practices.

How is an ethical marketing plan developed?

Ethical marketing doesn’t refer to a plan in and of itself, but offers tools for companies to evaluate the marketing strategies they use in the past, present, and future. If a company decides that an ethical marketing strategy can increase their profits or advance their public image, they can take steps to revise their existing marketing (See also Public Relations Specialist). In some cases this involves minor changes; in others it will require entirely new ad campaigns.

Any ethical marketing effort will begin with a careful analysis of the company, its customers, and the markets it operate within. Ethical marketing has many advantages, but few companies would undertake an ethical marketing strategy if it reduces profits. Careful research is the best way to predict the effects of a change in strategy. If ethical marketing proves to be cost prohibitive, many companies will abandon the effort.

A company will then decide which features of their advertising to perform in ethical ways. As previously mentioned, the field of ethics is notoriously abstract. What is right to one may be wrong to another. Marketing professionals must reach an agreement about how they want to deliver their campaigns. They might decide to focus on making honest claims, avoiding marketing to children, or falsely criticizing competitors. A delicate balance has to be struck between the truth of the ad and its ability to persuade the customer.

Finally, ethical marketers need to make difficult choices about how to leverage the capitol of their ethical decisions. For most companies, the simple knowledge that they are doing the right thing will not be enough of a motivating factor. Ethical marketing often highlights the ethical choices a company has made in order to improve their public reputation. This can be a powerful way to connect with customers, but it also runs the risk of seeming self congratulatory. Any effort at ethical marketing has to balance a company’s self interest with their social responsibility.

One company which embodies the spirit of ethical marketing is The Body Shop, a worldwide chain of bath and body stores. Since their inception they have been committed to treating workers fairly, avoiding animal testing, using organic products, and promoting healthy body images. These values are often at the center of their marketing efforts. The ethical nature of the company is highlighted as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the cosmetics industry.

Careers in ethical marketing


What do they do?

Salaries of Ethical Marketers

  • Ethicist
    entry level – $50,000-$80,000
    after 10 years – $90,000-$115,000
  • Marketing Manager
    entry level – $50,000-$90,000
    after 10 years – $100,000-$150,000
  • Copywriter
    entry level – $40,000-$60,000
    after 10 years – $60,000-$90,000


Ethicists study the practical and philosophical dimensions of ethical choices. Many work in academic departments, but some larger companies employ their own in-house ethical officers. In a corporate setting, they will draft policies outlining the ethical obligations of the company, evaluate the ethics of decisions and offer counseling when ethical ambiguities arise.

Education and Skills

An advanced degree in philosophy is necessary to find work as a professional ethicist. Corporate ethical offices will also need to have bachelor’s degrees in business, marketing, or communications. Specialized training in the industry or department the ethicist works for will make the counsel they provide more relevant

Marketing Manager

What do they do?

Marketing managers supervise every aspect of a marketing campaign. They will conduct market research, guide the design of ads, monitor performance metrics, and negotiate deals with ad buyers. As the person responsible for making the final call about advertising decisions, the marketing manager will decide how ethical a company’s marketing strategy will be.

Education and Skills

A bachelor’s degree in marketing is the minimum educational requirement for marketing managers. Many have advanced degrees in specialized forms of marketing. Additional training in business, public relations, or graphic design can also be helpful. Managers get promoted into their positions after several years of working in the industry.


What do they do?

Copywriters draft the words that are used to sell products. This can range from the text that runs below a print ad to the voiceover that accompanies a TV commercial. Their words become the claims a company makes about its products. Ethical copywriters will focus on being honest in their claims and fair to their customers.

Education and Skills

A degree in marketing is helpful but not absolutely necessary to become a copywriter. Some people enter the field after getting degrees in English, public relations, or communications. Strong language skills and an ability to write informatively and persuasively are the most important features of a copywriter.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

    GCU's Colangelo College of Business offers leading edge degrees that address the demands of contemporary business environments.

  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

Ethics are an abstract subject that can easily get overlooked in the high pressure world of business. Some companies treat ethical behavior as an obstacle and make only shallow efforts to behave responsibly. In some cases this has consequences, in others it does not. The only way to remain aware of the ethics of business decisions is to have a team constructed of ethically minded business people. Getting a degree in marketing from an accredited institution is a proven way to maintain this ethical focus.

The ethics of marketing will be a feature of any marketing program. Students will study famous examples, consider case studies from the world, and have in-depth discussions about what is “right” and “wrong” in marketing. Using hypothetical scenarios in an academic environment gives students the opportunity to work through ethical conflicts that they might eventually be exposed to in their working lives. This kind of wide ranging study is the best way to fully understand the consequences of ethics as they apply to marketing and business.

A degree in marketing proves to employers that the new marketers they hire can respond to the complicated challenges of 21st century business. As consumers are flooded with choices, they are increasingly looking for socially responsible businesses to patronize. Academic training in marketing equips young advertisers to make thoughtful and meaningful decisions about the ethics of their marketing strategies.

Skeptical Consumers

Most consumers approach advertising with a healthy degree of skepticism. Even the least informed consumer knows that not every claim made by every advertiser is true. The chart below, compiled from data from an AdWeek Media poll, shows just how skeptical consumers really are. Fewer than 20% of respondents believed in advertising even most of the time. It is clear that consumers have become cynical about the ads they see. Ethical marketing can be an effective way to restore some of the trust that has been lost between consumers and advertisers.