Wiland Blog

Everything I Need to Know About Marketing Ethics I Learned in Kindergarten

There are many factors that make the modern marketing landscape a complex environment to navigate—from evolving data privacy laws to the hype surrounding AI and much more. But for new and seasoned marketers alike, the foundational principles about right and wrong that everyone is taught can help guide them toward marketing practices that are effective, transparent, and ethical.

By Will Clayton | March 22, 2024

I recently had the pleasure of presenting a guest lecture to Professor Senny Boone’s “Conversations About Ethics” class at Georgetown University as part of my involvement with the ANA Educational Foundation. The theme of my lecture, “Everything I Need to Know About Marketing Ethics I Learned in Kindergarten,” is just as appropriate in a corporate blog post as it is a college classroom—so today I offer you a summary of the content and key takeaways.

We covered a broad range of topics during my lecture and the Q&A that followed. The class discussed how the tools and technologies we employ in marketing—and the circumstances in which we use them—continue their dizzying progress. But the underlying rules for how to use them and how marketers should behave really don’t change. In fact, they’re similar to the rules we’re all taught to follow at a very young age to get along with others. More on that in a bit.

In the end, the class agreed that it is still possible to balance effective marketing—and efficient use of stakeholder resources—with respect, honesty, and integrity. To make that happen, it’s especially critical that both new and established marketers are proactively conscious of three key themes.

Brand Strategy and Consistency

The class discussed the perception that people have divided into widely separated tribes around social, ideological, and other beliefs. It is tempting for marketers (who are, of course, also consumers) to follow a similar path and only focus on speaking to cohorts who share their own beliefs, treat all consumers as if they believe the same way, or (worst of all) engage in contradictory or insincere communications that attempt (and nearly always fail) to resonate with every possible group. It is crucial for brands to resist these temptations, and to instead be honest, transparent, and consistent with their voice, their actions, and their values.

Data Privacy

Professor Boone’s class agreed that we are at an inflection point when it comes to data privacy. High-quality, ethically sourced data is the lifeblood of impactful marketing, but it is no longer safe to assume that any (or even most) of the data we can collect is ours for the taking for our use. Emerging state privacy statutes both codify and extend the practices that responsible marketers have self-imposed for years: consumers have the right to know that they are safe from misuse of their data, and must have controls over the ways that brands interact with them.

For their part, consumers don’t want those safeguards and controls disrupting their browsing experiences, but they need to remain confident they will be ready when needed. And both marketers and consumers are awaiting an authoritative federal statute that guarantees a single set of rights and requirements across the country. Until that statute is enacted, everyone must be content to wait, learn, and react as best they can to the current disjointed reality.

Artificial Intelligence

It would be impossible to talk about marketing ethics today without touching on the transformative influence of generative AI and other artificial intelligence tools. We’ve already seen marketers using generative AI in problematic and deceptive ways, as well as nervous lawmakers looking to legislate and control usage of AI for potential use cases that have yet to happen. As responsible marketers, we must quickly and effectively demonstrate the safe, natural, and impactful uses of this technology (of which there are many, which you can read more about here). If we don’t, we could find generative AI tools regulated to novelty status before their true potential is even known.

I always close my guest lectures with the following list and challenge all new and seasoned marketers to decide what their standards are and how they will stand by them in dynamic times:

The subject of marketing ethics is near and dear to my heart, and one that I have addressed in similar lectures before. I was impressed with the quality of the students in Professor Boone’s class and was reminded of just how important it is to provide practical guidance to the rising generation as they prepare to join us as effective marketers serving brands and consumers.