Ethics and persuasion: Where do we draw the line in our marketing powers?

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Marketing and business development success largely relates to our ability to persuade individuals and organizations to do business with us, rather than others. In almost every circumstance, there are other options available and frankly, in many cases, the “other” would — if you think without your own self-interest in mind — be better for your current or potential client. (Conversely, I think you can recall many situations where you see businesses, large and small, throwing good money after bad into initiatives that you know are a waste of money — which, if you could, you know you would be able to offer a better answer.)

Here, we take on the thorny challenge of marketing ethics. When does “puffery” become misleading?  When does finesse become misdisclosure?

At the extreme, most scams are all about marketing and business development gone very wrong. The criminals construct a believable facade, rook the suckers, and walk away with the cash (if they aren’t caught, and I fear, many times, they aren’t.) Most marketing ethical violations fall somewhere in less extreme places and I admit over the years to stretching the lines.

After all, the relatively easy money from clients who spend a lot for relatively little help fund the business and personal expenses. And of course, as Matt Handal and Robert Cialdini report in their interview, things aren’t always black and white. In a complex project, we could indeed be “best” at some aspects of the work, and less stellar (but okay) at others. Does this make us better, worse, or even with the competition — and if we are even, is it wrong for us to figure out ways to gain the marketing edge?

Handal writes:

There is a marketing guru named Jay Abraham who promotes this idea that if you truly believe your client will benefit most from your service and going with another choice will do their business harm, you have a moral obligation to do everything in your power to help your client make the right decision.

I know ethics is very important to you. Do you agree with this concept? If so, where would you draw the line especially considering this concept of focusing people’s attention?

I think this, the ethics of these approaches, is an important question. I guess I would agree with Jay in a large respect that if you truly believe that this is the best thing customers can do, then it’s ethically appropriate to give them evidence of how they can improve their outcomes.

But there is a complication. Sometimes we can make ourselves believe that what we have is the best for our customers out of a bias we have toward our products or ideas. It’s tough to de-bias ourselves when we are associated with a particular product or idea and to take a truly objective perspective.

What I say is something a little different, not incompatible with what Jay is saying. What I’m saying is, among the various features of what you have to offer, which is the strongest? Which one is the best argument or the most superior feature of your case? Then raise that to consciousness first.

Even before you send people in that direction, highlight the strength of your case. That way people will be sure to have access to the best feature of what you are offering. Then they can decide compared to other possibilities whether this is the feature that will take them down the right road.

These are great points. We have the right to positively promote our strengths and not draw attention to our weaknesses, if they aren’t so serious that they would derail the job. In the end, we are ethical if we ultimately deliver genuine value to our clients.

This concludes my comprehensive report on the Handal/Cialdini interview. I welcome your comments and observations. You can email buckshon@constructionmarketingideas.com or contribute a comment.

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