Spelling it Out Without Selling Out: The Secret to Ethical Marketing

“Marketing invites critique because it invites attention.”
Brice Montgomery

If you’ve seen a television ad recently, you likely remember two things—a catchy tagline and a wall of text at the bottom of the screen that explains how the tagline isn’t quite true. You see a miracle cure with side effects including death or an all-expense-paid cruise that doesn’t cover most of the expenses. You’ve been primed to doubt what you’re told via marketing. If you’re involved in a ministry or nonprofit, you probably want people to know about your work, but it’s understandable that you might wonder—is marketing ethical?


Is Marketing Ethical?

The short answer is—it can be!



Ethical Marketing is Transparent

Marketing invites critique because it invites attention. This isn’t a bad thing, but it can certainly be uncomfortable and turn sour quickly if you aren’t forthright in your intentions.

Think about the recent He Gets Us campaign. It was a 100-million-dollar investment to promote a broadly accessible and politically neutral Christianity, and it was built on the appearance of openness. In fact, the website’s front page boldly proclaims, “He Gets Us has an agenda” while co-opting iconography from sensitive political topics. Visually, it’s a stunning work of branding, but the problem is that it rings disingenuous. Despite the campaign’s pretense of neutrality, much of the funding had a clear political affiliation that ran counter to the messaging. Responses within the church were mixed, and responses outside the church were largely negative because viewers knew they weren’t getting the whole picture. They had no choice but to ask—

“What do you want from me? What’s the trick?”

Ethical marketing should result in questions, but they should never be questions of intent.

Is marketing ethical? Yes, but only if it’s open and honest.

We believe that trust is central to communication, and one of the key ways to do that is by representing your organization accurately, even if it isn’t always pretty. Organizations are comprised of people, and people are not perfect. In the lifecycle of a church or nonprofit, it is almost inevitable that a situation will be mishandled or a stance will estrange some people. Be honest and preemptively address those concerns.

For example, if you’re a church planning an outreach, think about historical shortcomings within your local church and the broader historical church. What kinds of accountability might you need to take?

Similarly, if you’re a nonprofit launching a fundraising campaign, how can you be as explicit as possible about where funds will be allocated?




It’s Invitational

Building on the idea of transparency, ethical marketing also hinges on the idea of inviting people to become stakeholders in your brand. If that sounds a little technical, think of this as getting people on board with your vision and asking them to make it their own.

This means you’ll have to make room for outsiders to become insiders.

With that in mind, how can you create space for the audience you’re marketing to? What are you calling them into? Unlike marketing for a product or service, you are giving people an opportunity for their voices to matter. For example, if you’re a nonprofit leader and you launch a campaign seeking volunteers, think about the kind of messaging that would actually give volunteers a platform within your organization. Let’s say you run a food bank and you want volunteers to sort donations—consider the ways you can communicate the importance of a personal investment beyond just manual labor. Why do you need them as people?

If you’re working in a church context, this idea of marketing might make you feel pretty squeamish. Is marketing ethical in a church? After all, we often think of marketing as convincing people to want something they don’t need. It might be helpful to swap out the word “marketing” with “outreach.” If you’re a church leader, you likely spend a fair amount of time thinking about The Great Commission and how to connect with people outside the church—that’s a form of marketing. The trick is to consider what it looks like to strategically invite people in without making numbers the goal.



Ethical Marketing is Intentional

At this point, you may be wondering if there’s a simple, one-size-fits-all approach to determining what is ethical marketing. You’re in good company.

In fact, there’s an entire—growing—subfield of study dedicated to creating a systematic, ethical framework for marketing decisions, and they can get pretty complicated—Look up the Hunt-Vitell model of Marketing Ethics. There are multi-step maps and words like Kantian deontology and hundreds of different priorities based on which model you’re looking at.

That complexity is bad news and good news.

The bad news is that there probably isn’t a perfect system for identifying ethical marketing practices. People are dynamic and complex and unpredictable, and any effort to universally systematize how to reach them is bound to fail. But think about it—you wouldn’t want to be treated that way as the target of a marketing push either.

The good news is that this open-endedness can be really freeing. You probably don’t need to adhere to any particular model because your goals and context will often change, but you can prioritize the one thing all these models have in common—they argue that there must be a moral intention behind the action. You simply have to try.


So, is Marketing Ethical? Yes, But What is Ethical Marketing?

Ethical Marketing is making an effort to view your audience as more than consumers. It’s an easy question to answer and a difficult process to navigate. Thankfully, you don’t have to figure it out alone—it’s one of our specialties. If you’re interested in some extra support in navigating the is marketing ethical? question in your context, reach out! We’d love to talk more.

Brice Montgomery
Creative Director
Brice likes to think through how messages are best translated for different audiences and purposes. He also makes baked goods.


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