Ethics in Marketing

Ethics in Marketing

by Christian Bolorinos

Posted on June 4, 2020

As a Graphic Designer, the ethics of marketing has been a constant philosophical struggle for me. I found my first client when I was in college: a typo ridden Craigslist request for a logo and a website. I offered myself up for a ridiculously low rate and was hired on the spot. Two days later I found myself in a dingy office building in lower Manhattan under a picture of 50-cent wearing a bulletproof vest with “Spy Shops” written under him in underwhelming Arial Bold. This haphazard Arial, the CEO told me, was their current logo; and they needed something more substantial.

The bullet proof vest that 50-cent (who they kept mentioning was a frequent client) wore was probably their most ethical product. They also sold metal detectors, pellet sized GPS trackers and hidden cameras for husbands who didn't trust their wives. I was disturbed by their entire business model but I wasn't about to throw away my first client. So I made them a decent logo, an awful website and wrote them a new slogan: “You deserve to know”. Then I got out of there with my paltry pay and a pair of their office’s headphones as a clandestine bonus. But while I rattled home on the J line I made a promise to myself: I was going to be an ethical graphic designer from now on.

It’s a graphic designer's job to direct people's thoughts and opinions. The guide on the side of your Facebook feed, highway billboards, and the subway ads that you knew by heart even though you'd never looked directly at them. This is powerful stuff, and as Peter Parker's dying uncle said: “With great power comes great responsibility”.

I have kept relatively true to my promise. I did do an email blast for a personal injury lawyer once; but besides him and Spy Shops, my portfolio has done more good than harm. Now I find myself at a more powerful helm; Marketing. By the time I was a week into my first class in IE's Master in Customer Experience and Innovation, I began to feel that I had stumbled upon one of the most powerful forces shaping our world today. 

I also began to feel that with this newfound power came a new responsibility. And while there were some companies that were using it for idealistic ends, the bulk of them seemed to be using it mainly to fatten their wallets. Why is ethical marketing so scarce, and unethical marketing so prevalent? The aim of this essay is to identify why this might be, and in so doing, avoid ending up on the marketing team of a bigger and better funded Spy Shops. 

I started my research by asking people a simple question. Why are most organizations with ethical goals so terrible at marketing them? My uncle said it’s because money is the root of all evil, but that sounds cringingly simplistic to me. My girlfriend thinks that it’s because people who represent causes that are ethically based may see their argument as self evident. Who needs subtle psychological tricks to convince the world that polar bears are running out of ice caps? A compelling case, but I still wasn’t sold so I went where my generation traditionally goes for answers: the internet. 

On an obscure thread in reddit I found the argument that ethical companies tend to sink all their money into their cause, and therefore marketing becomes an afterthought at best. This sounded like a very reasonable answer to my question, however it didn’t stand up to scrutiny. The World Wildlife Fund spends 11% of its revenue on “Fundraising” (Bower), which I have to assume is NGO language for marketing. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals spends almost 50% of its revenue (Newkirk) on “International Grassroots Campaigns and Public Outreach” which I am once again lead to assume means marketing. If this seems like a lot it’s because it is. Coca-Cola, who is notorious for their advertising budget, spends 18.3% (Investopedia) of its annual budget on marketing, which is substantially less than PETA and marginally more than WWF. Of course, if you look at the actual numbers, PETA is spending about 26 million as opposed to Coca Cola’s whooping 5.8 billion, but the proportions make me question this hypothesis. 

Another theory I stumbled upon on the Marketing Ethics Wikipedia page was that marketing was inherently wrong. It relies on “Damaging personal autonomy”, “Causing harm to competitors”, and “Manipulating social values”(Wiki). If marketing is inherently wrong one could assume that no good could come of it. But once again, a bit of research debunked this claim. There were plenty of examples of good coming from marketing. The obvious example was Patagonia, who donated $10 million to environmental advocacy and who’s former CEO used the wealth generated by the company to create a 764,000 acre national park in Chile (Willingham). Other notable examples include Dr Browner’s, who have used their considerable profits to donate generously to a variety of social and environmental issues; and Conscious Coffee that not only holds itself to vigorous fair trade standards, but also has empowered farmers and communities all over Central America through their outreach programs (Shewan). These companies all use marketing extensively, and a tangible amount of good has come from it, so the idea that marketing is inherently wrong is yet another oversimplification. It also may be part of the reason ethical marketing is so scarce, which brings me to my next (and final) hypothesis.

When I asked my friend Laura (a veteran of WWF and multiple other NGOs) her opinion I found an answer that made a lot of sense. NGO marketing was weak because their teams were distrustful of people from a corporate background. NGOs didn’t want to hire marketing professionals because they viewed them as materialistic and heartless; the antithesis of what NGO’s strive for. Maybe that’s why ethical marketing is so scarce, because it still has a stigma that ethical people shy away from. And so like nuclear energy, cannabis and GMOs; marketing’s ethical potential remains largely untapped while it’s unethical uses dominate headlines. 

Marketing is power, and it’s my responsibility to make sure this power ends up in the right hands. That it’s used to protect, not destroy the environment. To inform the public instead of misinforming them. And to build trust instead of destroying it (looking at you Spyshops).

Bower, Michael. “Funding and Financial Overview.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund,

Newkirk, Ingrid. “Financial Reports.” PETA, 23 June 2010,

Investopedia. “How Much Coca-Cola Spends on Advertising.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 18 Oct. 2019,

“Marketing Ethics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Oct. 2019,

Willingham, AJ. “Patagonia Got $10 Million in GOP Tax Cuts. The Company's Donating It for Climate Change Awareness.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Nov. 2018,

Shewan, Dan. “Ethical Marketing: 5 Examples of Companies with a Conscience.” WordStream,

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