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Ethical Marketing: The Thin (Tempting) Line Between Persuasion and Manipulation

minute read

In our current economic environment, marketers are finding themselves at a crossroads - caught between the immense pressure to hit goals (and keep their jobs) and their ethics. This pressure has led some teams to use marketing psychology and behavioral science-based tactics known as deceptive (or dark) patterns - sometimes knowingly and sometimes not.

When Marketing Becomes Manipulation

Deceptive marketing is often cloaked (or self-rationalized) as clever marketing. Usually because people are excited that something's working, but they don't stop to ask themselves about the consequences of that particular strategy working.

It's why - along with the rise of behavioral design books like Hooked - we've seen the rise of watchdogs like Deceptive Patterns, that document sneaky marketing and design tricks. And as many users and consumers are getting savvy to these unethical uses of behavioral design, they're taking brands like Tinder and Instagram to court.

Below are three common deceptive patterns to be on the look-out for in your own designs. Each has the potential to break the foundation of trust and loyalty that your brand may have spent years building with customers: 

1. False Scarcity 

While leveraging true scarcity can be an effective way to drive demand, some unethical marketers might claim that only a limited number of products are available or that a special offer is expiring soon, even when none of these is true. The goal is to create a sense of urgency, but the result can actually be skepticism, eroded trust, and an overall "scam-y" feeling to your marketing. 

Steam's Summer Sale

Steam, an online games marketplace, got in hot water with customers (sorry, I had to!) for leveraging false scarcity in its annual Summer Sale. The brand sells digital goods, which are unlimited, but used scarcity messaging to imply that quantities were limited. 

Customers put two and two together, and were soon pretty upset that they were being manipulated.

The Diamond Industry

It's pretty well documented at this point that diamonds are much more abundanant that the De Beers Corporation's marketing would lead you to believe. In fact in this article, the Atlantic goes so far as to dub the De Beers Corporation a "price-fixing cartel" who, through various market manipulations, has made diamonds both expensive and seemingly (if not actually) rare. 

Maybe the world's most successful product placement, ever - Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

De Beers' advertising agency, N.W. Ayer, even went so far as to call the abundance of diamonds "a problem in mass psychology,” in a 1947 report.

2. Confirm Shaming

Another common manipulation tactic is confirm-shaming, where copy is designed to make people feel guilty or ashamed for not taking a specific action, like subscribing to a newsletter. The example below from Ann Taylor Loft says, "No thanks, I prefer to pay full price" on the link customers need to click to close the pop-up. 

This approach not only damages the customer experience but can also backfire depending on the severity of the confirm-shaming, leading to short and long-term brand damage. 

3. Roach Motels

One of the most frustrating tactics for customers is the "roach motel" strategy: making it easy to sign up for a service or subscription but difficult to cancel. This not only traps customers in services they don't want but also builds resentment toward the brand. 

In this example from the New York Times, customers can easily sign up online. But to cancel their account they are required to call in. Customer protection laws have made the "call to cancel" strategy illegal in many places, but unethical marketers and designers can skirt the law by requiring customers to see more screens or take additional steps to cancel. 

Customer protection laws have made the "call to cancel" strategy illegal in many places, but unethical marketers and designers can skirt the law by requiring customers to see more screens or take additional steps to cancel, like Amazon Prime does (and was recently sued for).

The Long-Term Cost of Short-Term Thinking

While these tactics could deliver a temporary boost in sales or engagement, they come at a significant cost. The immediate fallout can include customer complaints and negative reviews, but the long-term consequences are worse. Brands risk losing their customers' trust - which once lost, is nearly impossible to get back.

Here's how to resist using deceptive patterns - knowingly or not. Start by asking yourself: 

"Is this the right thing to do for the customer?" What secondary effects might occur if we go ahead with this feature? For example, does an infinite scroll feature make it easier for people to doom scroll or use your app longer than they probably should?

"Is this the right thing to do for our brand?" Do you think this feature has a net positive or a net negative effect on your customers? Can you observe any customer behavior or feedback related to its use?

In the never-ending quest for quarterly business growth, don't lose sight of what matters for the long-term health of your brand: the trust and loyalty of your customers. Ethical marketing practices may not always deliver those quick wins that shareholders crave, but they do build a solid foundation for future success, growth, and positive brand reputation. 

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About the author

Jen Clinehens, MS/MBA

Hi 👋 I'm Jen Clinehens (MS, MBA) the founder and Managing Director of Choice Hacking.

I started Choice Hacking in 2021 to help marketers and entrepreneurs figure out what makes buyers tick, and elevate their work using behavioral science, marketing psychology, and AI.

If you want to learn more, check out links to my newsletter, podcast, YouTube channel and other free resources below 👇


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