Many years ago I used to teach business ethics to government employees. Ethics is a world where you soon discover that black and white really is just a continuum of shades of grey. And while some things are clearly seen as sitting on the unethical end of the continuum, (taking bribes for example), other areas in business are not quite as easy to place on the scale.
When you think of people who manipulate others to achieve their ends, the words liar, cheat, fraudster come to mind.
Unscrupulous salespeople spend a small fortune learning the tricks of master manipulators to get people to buy their products or services. They enrol in weekend workshops in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, trying to work out how to rapidly build rapport and put people into a hypnotic trance to agree to anything.
They are only driven by the desire to sell their product or service – even if they don’t believe in it themselves, and their only intention is to make as much money as possible.
On the business ethical scale – this sort of behaviour is heading into dark territory. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the tools they are learning and using. The problem is the intent behind the use of the tools.
Their intent is to build up the self – at the cost of the other. The salespeople in this scenario only look to the next sale and the money it will bring, and not what the client really wants or needs.
Let’s take a slightly different scenario. A business owner deeply believes in their product or service. They believe they make a difference to their clients, and their greatest goal is to build supportive relationships with their clients that extend over many years.
A prospect is in front of them – someone that has been referred to them by an existing client. This prospect has been the one to initiate contact with the business. They are interested in the service that the business offers, but they are not really sure about the price or what to expect from the service.
The business owner then attempts to persuade the prospect by honestly sharing the facts and benefits of their service, through applying the persuasion skills they have learned in weekend business development workshops.
Most people see this as totally acceptable business ethics. Why? Because the intent behind the application of the persuasion skills is to serve the other person.
But what if the business owner is mistaken. What if their belief in their product or service is misplaced, or if they are only seeing the benefit to the other person through their own lens of reality? At what point does persuasion cross over into manipulation?
The line between persuasion and manipulation is a very fine line indeed. This ethical dilemma is one that every business owner has to face every day. At what point does their marketing tread into unethical business practices territory?
Questions to Help Make Ethical Marketing Decisions
Here are a few questions that may help you walk that narrow ethical line:
- What is my intent in my relationship with this client?
- Is my approach breaking any laws?
- Have I told the truth (or have I obscured or left out key facts)?
- Is there genuine consent of the person affected by the decision?
- Does the person have enough knowledge and information to make an informed decision?
- Can I prove the claims I am making?
- Do I have the skills and experience to deliver what the client needs and wants?
- Will I deliver a fair return for the client’s investment?
Ethics in Copywriting
When I work with my copywriting clients, I go through these questions before accepting the brief, and while writing the copy for my clients. My goal is to ensure all of my client’s copy sits firmly at the ethical end of the ethical continuum. I believe in ethical copywriting.
I go into bat for my copywriting clients – to be their best advocate and to clearly, and without fluff or flounce, to honestly tell their story about what makes their business great.
And I do not manipulate the words I choose, or use psychological tools in a negative way simply to get a monetary outcome for my clients. I want to find them clients for the next decade – not simply the next sale.
So, how do you walk the fine line between manipulation and persuasion in your business? I would love to hear your stories.