Grey Areas in Marketing

“Good people pay a far higher price for being good than bad people pay for being bad.”

Identifying what is “good” or “bad” is never easy and understanding the nuances of something in the middle is close to impossible. We cannot simply put our thoughts and actions into little boxes or draw lines and expect people to fall in between them. This blog aims to acknowledge the aspects of marketing that walk the fine line drawn between ethical and unethical. No matter how good your intentions are, you will, at some point, find yourself in the grey area of marketing and you need to decide which path to take.

One of the great grey areas in marketing right now is privacy.  

Delivering total privacy for users by ensuring they are not tracked is a simple solution. 

But that doesn’t stop the user from getting ads, it just stops them getting relevant ads.  That’s not great for the user or the Marketer. 

But sharing data between multiple companies is not appropriate for a user and does not respect privacy. 

But without strong advertising revenues, many platforms that help consumers will disappear and this lack of targeting may heavily reduce the income those platforms can make. 

But advertising that chases a user around the internet to get them to buy something they’ve already rejected is beyond irritating. 


Where this grey area ends up is difficult to say but likely with a degree of control with the user and a focus on first party data for the Marketer. 

In the meantime, let’s look at some examples of other grey areas in our field. 

1. Black hat SEO

When it comes to search engine optimisation there are two paths open to you – black hat or white hat. White Hat SEO is a term used to describe marketers who focus on developing great websites that are of value to other internet users and therefore, search engines will value them.  Black Hat SEO is used for those who focus on manipulating search engines by trying to trick them into ranking their sites higher. Common methods of Black Hat SEO like keyword stuffing, paying for links, setting up gateway pages and many more unfair SEO practices. Google has strict policies against these practices such as banning sites from search engines or deindexing websites. It’s vital for SEOs and anyone working in marketing or with websites that you understand the guidelines well and avoid anything that could be accidental black hat like keyword stuffing.

2. Clickbait

There is nothing technically wrong with clickbait, but it can be frustrating for users who are effectively tricked into clicking on something that doesn’t really deliver the result they were looking for.  This technique is not something I admire or respect.  If you can’t create content that is not compelling, then don’t try to deceive people into clicking on it.  This may result in more clicks, traffic, and revenue and congratulations on that, but you are wasting everyone’s time and delivering poor experiences so there is nothing to be proud of here. 

 If there was a brand ambassador for clickbait it would perhaps be David Dobrik. All of his videos have clickbait titles and thumbnails with big red circles highlighting the most irrelevant things. The titles are written in ALL CAPS; it feels as if he’s begging people to watch his videos. His clickbait persona is not only limited to his videos but has also extended to his merchandise. For years it seemed like David Dobrik was a storm on YouTube that couldn’t be controlled but when you focus purely on making cash with no real substance you will inevitably get burned. Once audiences got a glimpse of how far David can go for clickbait (as he forced people into participating in non-consensual sexual activities) his career met its inevitable end.  

3. Reputation Damage

Sometimes defaming a business is easier than working hard to beat them. The one thing about reputation is that nobody fact checks. Once misinformation spreads there is no going back, especially for small businesses as no one has the time to see the true story behind your reputation damage.  It can be a devastating practice, especially in the field of media. In 2019, cancelled YouTuber Shane Dawson was under fire for stating in his infamous Conspiracy Video, that pizza chain Chuck E Cheese reuses pizza slices that are leftover by customers and repurposes them into a whole new pizza that they apparently pass down to other customers. This led to a lot of backlash from customers and other YouTubers going to Chuck E Cheese to prove this theory right. This kind of reputation damage has no credibility as it comes from assumptions over facts or research. So sometimes the source of defamation can even be a customer (for their personal gain) over competitors.

4. Spamming

GDPR has tightened up a lot of rules about consent. If you want to add a user to your newsletter database, they need to give you permission and must be able to  opt out any time. Despite these rules, email addresses still find themselves in the hands of companies who don’t care if users have given consent.  Consent also applies when it comes to sending emails. There are a lot of guidelines businesses need to follow and if they do not, users can take legal take an action against them. You can check all the specific guidelines here. Would report someone for spamming you?

5. Copycats

If you create content for a living, I’m sure you have already experienced this. Some account blatantly copied your work and posted it as their own, without your consent. Did you know that you do not own your content, even on Instagram?  Instagram claims they do not own your content but its terms of use state that you grant them “non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use your content”. So, any content that you make is legally not yours, but Instagram’s and they can sell your work or use it for their purposes. You can read more about your content rights on Instagram here.  

6. Sexually Suggestive Content

Sex sells, whether we like that fact or not. Lynx deodorants have made their empire by telling people that using their deodorant makes them more attractive. It’s the same reason why the Kardashians became so popular  they have built an empire on selling sex. Have you bought something just because someone attractive was selling it? Media outlets like The Sun have a reputation for sensationalising mundane news by adding sexually suggestive elements  to their headlines. For example, whenever they mention female celebrities, they talk about their physique over their work. An example is the headline,Little Mix slammed for being ‘half naked’ during One Love Manchester concert. instead of talking about the band’s performance, some media outlets choose sexually suggestive titles in a sad attempt to get more clicks. 

7. Customer Data Collection

Have you ever received an email but couldn’t figure out how the company got your email ID? Or a spam email that contained  too much of your personal information? You probably shared your details with some company to get an   extra 5% discount and that company sold your data. Legally, a company is not allowed to sell your information to anyone. This aspect of data privacy is getting highly regulated, and businesses will not be able to continue this practise. Marketers will have to stay on their toes to continue to successfully reach customers. They must abide by the rules, or they will face grave legal repercussions. You can find out  more about specific laws relating to data and privacy regulations here.

8. Emotional exploitation

Billions of dollars have been spent on researching audience psychology. Even the colours that you see in an advertisement have a deep psychological meaning behind them. Have you ever wondered why so many companies use blue in their branding? It is because blue evokes the emotion of trust. Red is essential for many fast-food chains as it makes their customers hungrier than they really feel. There’s a fine line between creating feelings, tapping into feelings and exploiting feelings. I would advise against guilt tripping audiences or click shaming them into picking the CTA you want them to. I think if you treat your customers with respect, they will stay with you for the long term.

9. False Advertisements

False advertisement is defined as misleading or untrue information that encourages you to buy something.  Do you know of any ads that have done this? Here’s an example – the famous tagline – “Red Bull gives you wings”. In 2013, a man named Benjamin Careathers sued Red Bull as it did not give him wings. Ridiculous, right? Well, no! Red Bull had to pay a whopping $13 million to settle this case as people felt cheated. You can check out the whole story here.  

At the end of the day, it all boils down to two things – whether a company can get away with shady practices, and consumer awareness. These tactics will not just disappear; there isn’t much that can be done by governments as the internet is vast and regulating it is not easy. Laws change from country to country and what might be illegal in your country may not be elsewhere.  The only judge is you, so stay aware of the practices, make sure you don’t unintentionally exploit your audience, and that nobody exploits you. 

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