This one’s a bit long – so if you only have 90 seconds, skip to the heading, “the web makes dehumanizing people easy!“
I’ve been obsessed with internet marketing info products for almost a decade now. For most of that time, I was afraid to specialize here because of how bad a wrap those things get.
Even in 2013, about half of business owners I’d meet with had already been burned by an “SEO.”
And when I think of internet marketers, “SEOs,” and info product funnels all at once, it’s hard to not imagine young men with unexamined privilege with their piles of counterfeit money and slick hair on a backdrop of rented Ferraris selling snake oil.
To think of someone else thinking of me that way is a deep fear. And to exacerbate that fear, I totally get the allure of fast money, get rich quick schemes, and your-best-life-now type products.
To compensate, I think about ethics in marketing all the time, and want to understand the following as deeply as possible:
Why is it so damned easy to be unethical when selling information products online?
This is also important for you to understand too.
Not because “you should be ethical.”
I’m sure you’re an ethical person.
But because, increasingly, doing unethical things is a business liability and it’s become so easy and seemingly pervasive that without careful consideration, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
Maybe people don’t buy from you because you’re being ethical, but they’ll stop buying from you if you meet a certain threshold or callout for being unethical.
If you want to amass wealth with your business, customer loyalty (as measured by customer lifetime value and repeat sales) will be the main driver.
Being unethical is the number one loyalty killer.
Ultimately, I’d love to come up with a quick-and-easy framework for ethical marketing that improves your bottom line, but I haven’t worked through all that just yet, so let’s start with some definitions and then, the why.
What’s “unethical” in marketing?
To define “unethical” in this context, let’s just say it means being a jerk.
The litmus test is doing anything that you, a decent person, wouldn’t do to someone else on a personal level. If light was shed on the activity, it would look bad for you and your company and result in measurable impact on your bottom line.
Defining “ethical” in marketing
Being ethical in marketing for our purposes means “helping people get from where they are now to where they want to be in a way and for a price they won’t regret later.” More simply, keeping the gap between a marketing promise and a product’s delivery on that promise, small.
Why being unethical in marketing is so easy
Science and tech make it easy
We live in a time when you can now convince most anyone to do anything at least once with enough understanding of their situation.
This is thanks to developments in science and technology. Re science, I’m thinking of the growing field of behavioral economics and breakthroughs in neuropsych (Hat Tip to BJ Fogg). Re tech, I’m thinking of how it’s enabled us to continuously expand our reach with the plethora of ad targeting options and ever new ways to spam people.
As our power to do things online increases, it’s hard to resist all the little tactical temptations.
Information is power
Info products are packaged up solutions to, very often, the most important things people care about: losing weight, looking good, making more money, increasing status both professionally and socially, finding a partner, solving a key business problem.
These also happen to be all the things they don’t teach you in school.
Simply by saying you have a solution to a base desire people have to look, feel, and be better, you now have power over those people.
With so much power, where’s the line between what’s okay and what’s not?
Imbalanced cost-benefit perception
Any desire to be unethical is proportional to the expected value of whatever unethical marketing thing you’d consider.
But any cost associated with being unethical is impossible to measure. The effects compound over time and we can’t see the future, so the long-term effects are always an unknown.
In the info product world, if you are audience-first, you don’t know the lifetime value of a customer. Ideally you are selling things to the same core audience for x years. So any unethical impact on your LTV is unknowable.
Demand context matters
If you have something people need and there are no alternatives, “ethical marketing” isn’t particularly important. If people need water, you could be the devil and if you had the only cup of water for sale around, they’d happily buy from you.
Big Pharma is a good example here. We could fundamentally cure AIDS but it would not be profitable for Gilead Sciences to do so.
For monopolies, being ethical matters only when their monopolistic status comes under threat. For oligopolies, maybe it matters a bit more but the bar is only as high as it is for competitors. When “being the best” just means being better than Comcast or Wells Fargo, the bar is pretty low.
The web makes dehumanizing people easy!
A most interesting insight I think.
In her badass book, “Evil,” Julia Shaw describes two neuropsychological processes that help explain why people do bad things. And internet marketing info products fosters these processes like nothing else.
Revealed in a 2011 paper, “The dark side of social encounters: prospects for a neuroscience of human evil,” (Reimann & Zimbardo, 2011) they identified patterns of anti-social brain activity when we engage in two mental processes:
Enter deindividuation and dehumanization
Deindividuation is what happens when we think we are no longer accountable because we’re anonymous.
Dehumanization is when we stop seeing other people as people. This happens when you start categorizing people into “us” and “them,” “good and bad.”
When these two things happen, we biologically stop being able to “see people.”
Brain activity cascades through a “pathway to evil.” This starts in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with:
the processing of risk and fear, as it is critical in the regulation of amygdala activity in humans. It also plays a role in the inhibition of emotional responses, and in the process of decision making and self control. It is also involved in the cognitive evaluation of morality.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ventromedial_prefrontal_cortex
And then the pathway goes down the frickin’ brainstem and ultimately creates a fight or flight response in the central nervous system.
So the web, with its inherent lack of accountability associated with anonymity in groups and the tribal self-organizing we do into “ingroups,” is a breeding ground for evil.
As neat as it is terrifying though!