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Keep it ethical!: Socially responsible digital marketing

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysippus, c. 330 BC.

In Aristotle's Treatise on Rhetoric, he offers the following definition of rhetoric: "The faculty of observing, in any given situation, all available means of persuasion." He continues by defining three key "means" of persuasion: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Logos-based appeals are persuasive messages that find their roots in formalized rules of logic: a thesis supported by arguments supported by evidence. Pathos-based appeals use emotion to move an audience to act or think in a certain way. Ethos-based appeals rely on the character or credibility of the message source to move an audience.

According to Aristotle, an action (or message) is ethical if it does not reduce the speaker's ability to make future ethos-based appeals. In short, if you are doing something that hurts your credibility, Aristotle finds that action to be unethical. In the digital marketing world, the explosion of new tactics for getting your content in front of viewers has resulted in many companies skirting, if not entirely crossing, the ethical line in their marketing activities. Here are three key things some digital marketers do that are unethical:


  1. Unethical Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques. Having a website that is on the first page of a search engine's results for certain terms is of significant value. As such, many digital marketing departments have engaged in unethical tactics for increasing the page rank of their digital properties. Some strategies include using hidden content in pages filled with keywords that search engines see but are invisible when viewing the page, link farming to obtain inbound links to your content that are not organically derived, and article spinning, where an article is automatically re-written dozens or hundreds of times using synonyms for the original words and then posted around the Internet on other websites to provide backlinks to the author's site. All of these practices are legal, but are ethically questionable. Before you employ "black hat" SEO tactics like these, consider the following question: If your audience knew you used these techniques to get them to visit your site, would you lose credibility with them?
  2. Spam Email Marketing. Not only is spam illegal in many countries, it's also unethical. Sending unsolicited email to millions of addresses may be profitable, but for the vast majority of recipients, it will reduce your company's ability to make future appeals based on your credibility.
  3. Paid Likes and Follows. To be sure, your company's social media credibility is enhanced when visitors to your pages see that you are "liked" or "followed" by hundreds or thousands of others. However, companies should be wary when they use marketing services that promise to have your pages liked or followed by hundreds or thousands of users. In almost every case, the accounts that will be following you are nothing more than computer-controlled bots that like and follow all of the accounts who pay for their services. In terms of organic reach, your paid likes and follows will not generate any social contact with your customers or potential customers. Further, consider Aristotle's definition of ethics - would you lose credibility with potential customers if they knew that your thousands of followers were all paid bots? Probably.


Ultimately, digital marketers still engage in these activities because they are (at least marginally) effective. However, the damage the use of these tactics can have on your companies reputation and credibility is considerable. Ultimately, socially responsible companies use ethical digital marketing strategies to connect with customers and maintain relationships while maintaining their own credibility with future potential consumers.

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Reader Comments (3)

Hey Rob, very interesting post. I agree there is a fine line between unethical and illegal. Getting tons of spam in my inbox does waste my time and my inbox space, however i'm not sure it hurts the credibility of the sender. I understand they want me to see their message or product, just like all other companies do. Every once in a while I click on it, and sometimes I do not. I agree that spam is a lazy mans game, but I also understand it's a necessary evil sometimes to reach the masses. Our company too is working on our "approved" list to receive e-blasts as it is become illegal in most countries to send spam. I just don't think it's necessarily unethical.

In regards to paid "likes" and "follows", as a consumer it doesn't matter much to me. That's really not something I notice as a consumer. In some instances i'm more surprised that they don't have more followers. If I knew that a company I liked to shop with had paid likes and followers, it wouldn't make me a hill of beans honestly. As long as they provide what they promise to me as the consumer, I would just say it was a wasted marketing effort on their part.

Going back to the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques, this is fascinating, and sneaky. Tech people can do all kinds of things that I would never even think of. This, I agree, can be considered highly unethical. I understand the purpose from the marketing standpoint, but agree with you that it's too "shady" so to speak. Very interesting none the less.

Thank you again for your interesting post and insight into ethical behavior as it ties to corporate social responsibility.

October 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria Roberts

Victoria - I think it's important to understand the difference between spam and email marketing. In order to qualify as spam, the message must be unsolicited AND devoid of any mechanism to remove from the list. Email marketing may be unsolicited (or seem unsolicited), but typically you found your way to the list because you might actually be interested in the product/service being offered.

October 6, 2014 | Registered CommenterRobert N. Yale

Robert, very well done and I like the reference to Aristotle at the beginning. I feel as though it set up your post with an understanding that allowed me to have clarity with the topics you covered (Unethical Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Techniques, Spam Email Marketing, Paid Likes and Follows).

To tell you the truth, I never really knew about the concept of paid likes and follows within social media platforms. There is a famous saying I have come across in my sports career, which is, "The game knows." In other words at the end of the day, everything unravels. This is why it is so important for corporations to maintain transparency within their CSR programs.

October 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick Rose

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