Words matter. Storytellers have known their power for millennia. Marketers have used their power for over a century. But using that power responsibly takes humility, respect for the audience’s intelligence, and the desire to serve readers, as well as whoever pays the bills.
It’s not always easy to be an ethical content marketer, though. Content marketing leaders and their teams tread an especially tricky line to use this power ethically. It is our job and our responsibility to create messages that help our employers attract attention and, ultimately, sell the products or services. But we also have a responsibility to the audiences we create.
Brands face more pressure than ever – from consumers, employees, and (in some cases) shareholders – to “do the right thing” when it comes to societal issues. Our words are scrutinized, shared, commented on, and acted on. And they should be.
Which leads us to ask: Are brands wielding that power responsibly? And what does responsible use of content’s power look like? What happens when a brands’ values don’t align with the audience’s best interests? What happens when our values as content leaders don’t align with our employer’s values?
Coming to grips with how to apply ethics to everyday content and marketing decisions is hard. There are no easy answers. That’s why I’ve gathered various pieces of insight, advice, and a few examples to help you choose a path that feels both responsible and ethical to you.
Why bring ethics into content marketing?
I’m willing to bet most content marketers want to feel good about the work they do and the impact they have on their audience. I know I do.
Whether we know it or not, we live by a code of ethical conduct – at work and home. Our ethic compass points toward “good” behavior. But what are ethics really? Ethics.org.au defines ethics as “The process of questioning, discovering and defending our values, principles, and purpose.”
Unfortunately, like ethics themselves, even the definition is easy to pin down. Or is it?
Some people – like Trent Moy, a marketer-turned-advisor who runs a consultancy specializing in ethics, culture, and corporate responsibility – believe the definition of ethics in marketing is simple: It’s how we make a decision when something important is at stake.
And since we make decisions all the time, Trent says, ethics permeate everything we do in business (and – by extension – marketing). Fortunately, he also says having the desire to make quality decisions means you’re already behaving ethically.
But, as wordsmiths, we have the power to inspire change – even behavioral changes – and that makes ethics especially important for us, says Simon Longstaff, author of Everyday Ethics. It also makes it easy to cross a line. “Marketing at its best informs and inspires, but it doesn’t manipulate,” he says.
Yet not every marketer succeeds in drawing the line in an ethical place.
In the foreword of Chris Arnold’s book Ethical Marketing and the New Consumer, Kelvin Collins says, “For some, the word ‘marketing’ seems unethical. After all, it’s the driving force behind churn and this instant, disposable society we live in.”
As I said in a TEDx Talk about why now is the best time in history to be in marketing, brands (and the marketers who work for them) can’t afford to lie today. It’s too easy to be found out – and it’s definitely not profitable.
Sometimes, though, “truth” isn’t easy to establish, and marketers have to make decisions based on murky information.
That can lead to a moment when the best brand intentions go horribly wrong – a moment I call the ‘Oops!”
2 examples of the oops
Two recent content examples perfectly illustrate the oops feeling when brands don’t stop to think about their ethics or don’t believe they’re important.
While this ad from Clorox was well-intentioned when it first aired, today, it misrepresents a situation that could inadvertently spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The ad shows a child running eagerly toward a playground only to stop to wait while a teacher sprays Clorox disinfectant on a cloth to wipe down the equipment.
What’s the problem? As Marketing Brew pointed out, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently said the chance of contracting COVID-19 from surfaces is very low. “It got us thinking: Is Clorox advertising addressing valid concerns or playing on our fear?” asked Marketing Brew writer Ryan Barwick.
Where do ethics come in? When the ad debuted in December, disinfecting was still part of the recommended approach to reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19. The choice to keep running the ad seems questionable, as Christine Alemany, CEO of creative agency TBGA, said in Marketing Brew:
The campaign “leverages the fear that parents have of school reopenings.”
It “ignores the overall safety of outdoor playgrounds that fresh air and sunlight provide, which misrepresents the risks around COVID-19 and may harm a brand’s credibility,” she explained.
The second example illustrates the power struggle between an organization’s leader and employees. Cathy Merrill, CEO of The Washingtonian, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post arguing employees who want to continue to work from home are risking their jobs.
The D.C.-based magazine’s leader wrote:
I estimate that about 20% of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities – ‘extra.’ It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday – things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’ Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match, and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes – benefits that, in my company’s case, add up roughly to an extra 15% of compensation.
That piece prompted immediate backlash from the magazine’s staff. Nearly 25% went on strike, refusing to publish content on the magazine’s site the day after the op-ed appeared. They told The Washington Post that they read the op-ed as a direct threat.
Did someone on her team, a content writer, or PR team member help Cathy craft that piece? How did the poor writer get stuck in a situation where they had to support what amounted to an attack on their job? What would you have done in that situation?
How to ensure your content marketing decisions are ethical
Marketing should be an inherently noble profession. Trent Moy says it’s about meeting someone else’s needs – providing a customer or stakeholder with the best possible option they can choose.
And marketing can be noble. Trent suggests that you’re already behaving in a way that meets the definition of everyday ethics if you are asking yourself these questions such as:
- Are we meeting someone’s needs?
- Are we considering how to make things better?
- Are we considering multiple viewpoints/opinions?
- Are we serving a higher purpose or just the purpose of profit?
- Does the company’s ethics align with my own?
Would asking these questions have helped the content producers make different choices in the oops examples I mentioned? I hope so.
Make them cry (in a good way)
The good news is that we know – and marketing results increasingly show – when marketing puts audiences’ hearts and minds at the forefront, passion and creativity create strong chemical reactions that engage audiences, encourage customers, and make prospects want to buy.
Neil Patel has been talking for ages about how emotional targeting converts more leads. For example, Conversioner increased the number of paying users for one of Asia’s biggest online dating sites by 340% simply by sharing photos of a diverse range of happy people (their potential users).
There’s a fine balance between using emotions as manipulative tools or for genuine human connections. How do you tell the difference? Here’s a simple way to differentiate:
The authenticity of truthful human stories brings on a feeling of overwhelming pride. When done well, content marketing helps a brand’s ethics shine.
Two examples come to mind. The first one still makes me cry when I watch it, eight years after it launched. That’s the Dove campaign for Real Beauty and their YouTube video: Dove Real Beauty Sketches. In this video, they don’t just embrace diversity; they help people be more conscious about how they judge others and themselves. Watching the video forces viewers to ask, “Is it OK to judge women harshly? Is it OK to judge ourselves like that?” In doing so, the viewer goes through the “process of questioning, discovering and defending our values, principles, and purpose.”
The second example comes from a campaign I was fortunate to be involved in, a video that Mercer’s consultants recorded about their work on improving careers for special education needs teachers in Singapore (scroll down to watch it.)
The video illustrates the process followed by the consultants on the project. You can see how this work helped them identify and define their values. You can sense the pride they shared. You can see the purpose they found. You can even sense the struggles they overcame, personally, while consulting on an ethically challenging topic, namely, how special education teachers are rewarded. To take a phrase from the video, “Through this project, the public will know that even students with special needs deserve teachers of the highest quality.”
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Using the power of words to effect change
Trent Moy says that the most practical way to address ethics in business is to be conscious of the values used in making a decision. That’s what the leaders of recipe site Epicurious did when they stopped featuring recipes that use beef:
For any person – or publication – wanting to envision a more sustainable way to cook, cutting out beef is a worthwhile first step. Almost 15% of greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock (and everything involved in raising it); 61% of those emissions can be traced back to beef. Cows are 20 times less efficient to raise than beans and roughly three times less efficient than poultry and pork. It might not feel like much, but cutting out just a single ingredient – beef – can have an outsize impact on making a person’s cooking more environmentally friendly.
Today Epicurious announces that we’ve done just that: We’ve cut out beef. Beef won’t appear in new Epicurious recipes, articles, or newsletters. It will not show up on our homepage. It will be absent from our Instagram feed.
We know that some people might assume that this decision signals some sort of vendetta against cows – or the people who eat them. But this decision was not made because we hate hamburgers (we don’t!). Instead, our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world’s worst climate offenders. We think of this decision as not anti-beef but rather pro-planet.
Interestingly, Epicurious stopped publishing beef recipes almost two years before it announced the change. And once the team was ready to explain it, they took care to anticipate and address reader questions and concerns:
Some of you will have questions (we’ve tried to anticipate those questions and answer them here). Some of you will wonder if Epicurious has become a site with an agenda. Rest assured, the beef recipes that were published in 2019 and before are still on the site; they are not going anywhere. Likewise, Epi’s agenda is the same as it has always been: to inspire home cooks to be better, smarter, and happier in the kitchen. The only change is that we now believe that part of getting better means cooking with the planet in mind. If we don’t, we’ll end up with no planet at all.
Now that the word is out, they might lose readers. But they’ve taken action based on their values and what they see as the best interest of society at large. Perhaps they don’t need to worry too much. Brands like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s have big content plays based on their ethics that could have worked against the business – and yet both are still admired, healthy brands.
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What if our company’s ethics don’t match our own?
Making conscious decisions also means being prepared to challenge thinking we disagree with rather than going with the flow. Here’s what Trent suggests:
- Be aware of what shapes our decisions – social conformity, external pressures, and so on.
- Make conscious decisions – don’t just go with the flow.
- Be prepared to challenge the status quo.
Let’s be practical, though. None of this is easy. The bigger a company is, the harder it is to ensure every person is making ethical decisions or they’re being made consistently.
Many brands can be viewed as ethical in some areas (see Apple’s new app tracking transparency feature) but fail miserably in others (Apple has a woeful history with environmental and human rights concerns.)
And let’s be realistic. Not everybody’s in a position to risk their employment to stand up for their values. In that case, an ethical decision might mean thinking through the consequences of saying something vs. the consequences of saying nothing.
If you’re the team leader, the responsibility rests heavily with you. Marketer and author Luvvie Ajayi Jones addressed this point in her talk called Speaking Truth to Power at Content Marketing World 2020: “If you’re the person who’s been at the company for 15 years and has amazing job security, what’s the consequence you’re afraid of?”
Maybe the ethical content lead needs to come from the top?
Ultimately, you’ll want to do something
As you think about the ethical considerations of what you write, it’s possible to find yourself in a situation where your ethics conflict with your employer’s ethics.
In that case, you face a choice. You can try to make a change from the inside or choose to move on (as nearly one-third of Basecamp employees said they would after a controversial memo from the company’s founder.)
But remember: You don’t have to change the world with every content piece. It might be enough to write content that doesn’t disappoint your audience or market with greater empathy.
The important thing is, as Trent says, to do something. “Doing is important. Maybe even more important than deciding.”
As wordsmiths, we have the power to change the world: One sentence at a time. But if you, as a content marketer, feel like you might be too small to make a difference, I’ll leave you with these words:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute