Unethical Marketing Practices

Marketing is an essential part of any business. It helps to spread brand awareness and generate sales. However, it seems that over the last decade or so, marketing has become more and more unethical. Or, maybe human beings also became more conscious. Having grown up in this Online Marketing world (I launched my first online business in 2007) I’ve seen it all. And I grew seriously tired of it. So much so that I’m now leading a Humane Marketing Revolution that evangelizes for ethical and humane marketing practices for a generation of marketers that cares: for ourselves, our clients and the planet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In this blog, post I’ll expose the dark side and reveal some examples of unethical marketing practices – and give you alternatives.

Unethical Marketing

Unethical Marketing: a Definition

What is unethical marketing?

Well, without diving into a long essay on ethics (I’m not an ethics specialist), the way I understand ethics in this context is a set of unspoken guidelines, a collective and society driven rulebook on how we interact with each other for the common good. 

If we’re to use business as a lever for good, we also need to apply ethical behavior in our marketing.

So any marketing message that is

  • Deceptive
  • Misleading 
  • Shaming 
  • Discriminating
  • Only pushing for consumption
  • Abusive to humans and our planet
  • Exclusive instead of inclusive
  • Fueling anxiety
  • Pushing FOMO (fear of missing out)
  • etc

should be considered as unethical because it’s not acting for the common good. It comes from a broken, capitalistic system that’s pushing consumerism and patriarchy.

Isn’t Marketing by Default Unethical?

Picture yourself at a market in Italy. It’s 11 am, you just had a cappuccino on the piazza, and decided to go get a few fresh veggies at the market. Now you’re at your favorite stand, and Luca, the vegetable guy is seducing you to buy way more than you initially had planned for. Apparently his artichokes are extra tender ‘and to die for’! 

Is this unethical?

I would argue that it’s not. It’s a farmer sharing his passion and his work. And praising his product in the hope that you will buy it because you love artichokes. His intention is not unethical.

So marketing is not unethical by default.

So when did marketing become unethical?

In the early 1900s, marketers started tapping into human psychology and using tricks and techniques to tap into people’s emotions and create marketing campaigns that convert potential customers. Slowly that kind of emotional manipulation became the norm.

When we then moved from print media to digital media, with the invention of the internet and then Social Media and invention of more and more technology, that’s when marketing turned evil and unethical.

Marketing became this dirty thing we had to do to sell stuff.

And we also had to accept to be on the receiving end of these unethical practices.

We didn’t have a choice and more and more we lost touch with the humanity of marketing.

What do these unethical marketing practices look like? Let’s look at a few examples before we talk about an alternative and more humane approach.

Types of Unethical Marketing Practices on the Internet

(excerpt from the Marketing Like We’re Human book)

Overuse of the scarcity principle

It’s scary how many posts a Google search turns up with advice on how to use scarcity in marketing. It’s THE most common marketing technique that marketers have been using and teaching since what seems like forever.

The “scarcity principle” is an economic theory in which a limited supply of a good coupled with a high demand for that good results in a mismatch between the desired supply-and-demand equilibrium.

It’s often explained with the cookie jar study. Psychologist Stephen Worchel offered two groups two nearly identical jars of cookies. The only difference was that one jar had ten cookies while the other jar only had two cookies. When asked which jar they preferred, participants preferred the jar with only two cookies in it! That’s because, psychologically, people assume that if there is less of something, it must be in higher demand. Therefore, it must be of higher value.

It’s not the principle itself that’s wrong, it’s how marketers present it that doesn’t feel good. Consider two examples of a marketing headline that uses scarcity:

a.  “This is your only and last chance to be part of the go-getters. Tomorrow you’ll have missed your shot at building a successful business with XYZ program.”

b. “Tomorrow is the last day to register for XYZ program. If you’ve been hesitating, please get in touch. We’d love to have you join us!”

Example (a) uses urgency, guilt, fear of missing out, and some manipulation to scare the recipient into buying.

Example (b) reminds the recipient that there is an element of urgency and tries to help her decide to join, should the program interest her.

Both examples use the scarcity principle to convey that the window of opportunity is closing, but they trigger different feelings in the recipient. The recipient of message (a) will either sign up or be left in a state of anxiety that he’s missing out and probably will never have a successful business or join the “cool kids.” And even if he signs up, he will come to the program with this scarcity energy. The recipient of message (b) feels at ease to decide when she’s ready. She appreciates the offer to get in touch and have a personal interaction with the program host. When she signs up, she comes to the program with an energy of abundance, feeling like she’ll be taken care of.

Which situation would you rather put your customers in?

The cookie-cutter and one-size-fits-all approach (templates and success recipes)

Do me a favor: over the next few days, pay attention to how many times you see a mention of a “Template for…”, “Recipe for Success with…” (you’ll find that one on my very own website on some older LinkedIn posts!), or any other “step-by-step promise of success” formula. They’re everywhere.

Besides the scarcity principle, this is another thing they have taught us marketers: Come up with a formula about your technique and then sell it to everyone and their uncle. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the formula itself, but I see two major problems with this approach:

  • First, it assumes that the guru’s formula works for everyone! The formula is built to sell a maximum number of seats, so there is as little personalization as possible. The purpose is to sell, not to get the buyer actual results.
  • Second, the guru then often shares his templates and success recipes with his participants, which then leads to a viral infestation of unpersonalized, robot-like pitches via email, LinkedIn, and Facebook. For example, I found it funny when suddenly, in September 2019, I received several messages from LinkedIn members in Germany that all started with “I see that you are also in the coaching industry and I would love to connect.” Ah, I thought, another LinkedIn guru shared his connection request template.

In a conversation, on my Gentle Business Revolution podcast, well-known marketing consultant Chris Brogan shared this:

I have the unfortunate opportunity to receive a lot of incoming emails from people who bought some person’s course and the same course has been sold for ten plus years. And so I get the template emails over and over and I say, look, thank God you’ve spent some money with Marie Forleo. She’s a wonderful person and really smart. But Marie didn’t want you to copy-paste the template. She wanted you to write your own. Smart people don’t copy and paste it.

Make people feel less than (wealth-signaling, exaggerated promises, too much focus on success)

Using six-figure headlines (as in “Follow these four easy steps to build your six-figure business”) has become as common as sliced bread in the entrepreneurial marketing world. It feels like the online world has decided that a six-figure profit is everyone’s goal, so referring to it repeatedly is an excellent technique.

But wealth-signaling and other exaggerated promises of success are no longer working for us heart-centered entrepreneurs. This technique implies that only six-figure business owners are successful and happy, and everyone else who’s not there yet is essentially an amateur. The same thing goes for other exaggerated promises (also common in the wellness and fitness world) that make people feel not good enough in their current state and basically push them to buy out of fear.

Not only is that a marketing tactic that lacks integrity and contributes to an ever-growing feeling of anxiety, but it also doesn’t work from a business-building perspective. When people buy out of fear, they’re so stuck in that scarcity energy that they don’t get the promised results. The marketer ends up with all these clients with very mediocre results and therefore has to keep hustling because clients who get no results won’t refer their friends. It’s a downward spiral that just keeps generating more anxiety and more unhappy clients, eventually leading to the marketer’s failure.

One of my favorite examples is a business coach with an obnoxious ad on YouTube. I’m sure you’ve seen it, or at least a similar one. He shares how he went from the trenches to being a millionaire, gives you a tour of his office, shows off his fancy sportscar, and talks about his amazing lifestyle. What does he sell? A program to become a successful business coach like him. Selling what? It’s not very clear … something like him showing you exactly how he did it. Did what? Selling dreams (or illusions?) to people.

Overuse of technology

Never before have entrepreneurs had easier access to the tools needed to create a thriving business and make a positive impact in the world. The invention of the internet, and then all the technology that came with it, has given us entrepreneurs access to huge, almost unlimited opportunities.

The problem with no limits is that there’s a risk for taking it too far and a risk for disconnection. And that’s exactly what happened. We got so excited by technology that it became our main focus. Automated emails, ads, funnels, mass webinars, chatbots, retargeting … the more automation the better, right? But we’re coming to the end of that era. People don’t want more automation. They want more personalization. They want a human connection to the company.

In his book, A Whole New Mind, author Daniel H. Pink writes, “We’ve progressed from a society of farmers to a society of factory workers to a society of knowledge workers. And now we’re progressing yet again—to a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.”

The fundamentals haven’t changed. What clients really want is:

  • More purpose and meaning
  • More human connection
  • More community and belonging

Alternatives to Unethical Marketing

Like the unethical marketing examples demonstrate, it’s really that loss of humanity that made marketing unethical. And once we entered that cycle of greed for more, it has become really really hard to break away from it.

The alternatives are actually quite straight forward:

  • Care more (for yourself, your clients and the planet rather than more money)
  • Start with trust and honesty (instead of using psychological tricks)
  • Always share the truth (even if it’s scary)
  • And always focus on the human relationship (instead of seeing your clients as leads!)

Care more

It’s time to start caring more. Instead of focusing solely on making more money, it’s time to start considering the implications of our marketing and sales practices and find alternatives that do not involve exploiting our clients or the environment.

By caring more for yourself (read this post on how to find your authentic self), your clients, and the planet, you can create a better future for everyone. It’s time to start making the change.

Start with trust and honesty and always share the truth

We have been taught that marketing is about lying and making things look better than they are. That’s why nobody trusts a marketer anymore (like this 2015 study by 4A’s showed). So in order to regain the trust, we have to be very honest and always share the truth (even if it’s scary). Show that we are human as well, and not some type of guru who has it all figured out.

People want to connect on that human level. They want to be equal and they want to be heard and seen.

Always focus on the human relationship

Everybody talks about ‘leads’ in business (read this post called ‘what are leads in sales’). And lead magnets to ‘grab’ more leads.

If we think like that, then we also treat our clients like that: just another lead, just another transaction.

So instead of thinking of your clients as leads and one-time deals, let’s build long-term relationships that are based on mutual trust. Treat your clients like you would treat your friends.

Friends don’t want to be sold to. And neither do clients.

If you are being too pushy and rushing people to buy, you are not allowing them to make their own decision.

Here are two main ways to practice patience in the sales process:

  1. Listen to Your Ideal Clients. Make sure to listen carefully to your prospects and understand their needs and concerns. Listening helps you tailor the conversation to their specific needs and allow them to feel heard and understood.
  2. Give Them Space. Don’t rush your prospects into making a decision. Allow them the time and space they need to consider their options and make a decision that is right for them.

For more details, read this post about customer-centric selling.

You see, there are alternatives to unethical marketing. I call it Marketing Like You’re Human. You have a solution (a service, a really good product) and if you yourself truly believe in it and are aligned with what you’re selling, have a clear message around it, then people who need that will want to buy it from you.

Does ethical marketing generate less sales?

This is a question that I’ve been asked many times.

I’ll answer it with a heart-centered entrepreneur in mind. My answer would be different if I was talking to a big retail business.

I would argue that for heart-centered entrepreneurs, ethical and humane marketing generates the same amount of sales, but for a longer time. Letting go of funnels and other hype marketing schemes and instead focusing on building long-term relationships builds sustainable businesses, with less hustle and stress.

However, there can be a transition period like with all change.

Here’s how I describe the transition to Humane Marketing in the Marketing Like We’re Human book:

I like to compare the transition to Humane Marketing with the remarkable growth pattern of the Chinese bamboo tree. When you plant a bamboo sprout in the ground, you often have to wait four to five years (sometimes much longer) with no visible evidence that anything is happening. You water and fertilize, water and fertilize, over and over again, and nothing happens. However, in approximately the fifth year, things change dramatically. In a six week period, the Chinese bamboo tree grows to a staggering 2.5m (90 feet) tall. Wikipedia suggests that the tree has been measured to grow 122 cm (48 inches) in a twenty-four-hour period and can reach a maximum growth rate of 99 cm (39 inches) per hour for short periods of time. This happens without fail with Chinese bamboo trees.

The transition to Humane Marketing can be similar. It’s not necessarily a linear growth pattern. It might be slow in the beginning (but I promise it won’t take four or five years!!) because either you have the wrong audience or you have simply gotten your audience accustomed to hype marketing so they’re a bit confused. But eventually you will hit momentum, and then it’s like the bamboo tree. Remarkable growth can take place in a staggeringly short period of time. Your positive energy spreads and starts attracting all the right people that fit your frequency.

But during this transition period, it’s important that you focus on sustainability and financial safety. It might not be a good idea to completely stop and throw out all your current marketing activities. Instead, make an inventory and change only those that, after reading this book, you really can’t stomach anymore.

For me, the first ones to go were the “six-figure lines.” I had never used them in my own trainings, but I used to promote other people’s courses and trainings about “getting to six figures.” No more. Analyze your promotions and decide which ones need to go right now. Then look at what remains and see where you can make minor adjustments that are more in line with the Humane Marketing approach. Once you have gained some momentum with Humane Marketing, you can gradually change all your communications.

Just like I love the idea of slow marketing, I’m a proponent of a slow and gradual transition to Humane Marketing.

So no, ethical marketing doesn’t generate less sales. But it requires a bit of patience (and some savings) in the transition period. But oh man, it’s so worth it!

My conclusion on unethical marketing

Together we can reinvent marketing! And make it humane and ethical again.


By helping each other find our way back to human-centric marketing that makes us and our clients feel good.

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I’m still and always will be learning along the way—and catching myself when using phrases that include FOMO (fear of missing out) or false emergency. More than ten years of the old marketing training does that to you. It messes with your brain.

I have changed though.

And so has my marketing.

I’m showing up fully, quirks and all. 

I’m being Sarah, whether people like it or not. 

And guess what? 

My people like how I show up! 

And it’s not only in my business that I’m seeing the results of this transformation. 

I’m less stressed. 

I sleep better, and I make time for the things that truly matter to me, like yoga, nature walks, and time with my family. 

I invite you to join us in this Humane Marketing Revolution!

Other resources you might enjoy:

Other Resources You Might Enjoy

Blog post: Find Your People in Business: A Marketing Guide for Conscious Entrepreneurs

Blog post: Empathy in Marketing

Blog post: How to Find Your Authentic Self (as an Entrepreneur)

Blog post: The Humane Marketing Glossary: Humane Marketing Words we love


Podcast episode: Ethical Marketing

Podcast episode: Relationship Building: Nurture these 10 Vital Business Relationships




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Your contact information is safe, and will not be used in ways
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