I’ve been invited to join a group to discuss Ethics and privacy in digital conversations next week. It’s a great panel of interesting thinkers and a very topical topic. So I thought I’d better do some pre-panel pondering. What are ethics? Why do they matter? And what do they mean to marketing? Here’s where I got to.


“Ethics” comes from the Ancient Greek word, Ethos, which basically means "character" and is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterise a community, nation, or ideology. In other words, what’s the stuff we all agree to believe in.

It’s a group-think idea that keeps people on a similar path and helps them establish rules. If those rules are challenged or changed, people start to feel uncomfortable and it can often lead to unrest. If you’re after a contemporary example, look at the Mexican border. The fundamental ethos that we look after anyone who needs it, is being challenged by a group who think it makes more sense to “look after our own” first. Now everyone has an opinion.


Ethos was explored at length by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He wrote prolifically about the convergence of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in the power of persuasion. If you’re slightly rusty on your Ancient Greek, we've just learned that Ethos is ‘character’, which could almost translate as ‘brand’. Pathos relates to suffering, but could loosely translate as empathy and a clear understanding of customer. Logos basically means logic. So, if you play that up to brand values, customer understanding and rational product benefits, ethics are vital part of what we do in getting people to buy stuff.


Staying in the zone of a long time back, there’s plenty about ethics in the bible. Whether or not you buy the detail of the world’s most famous 52 books, there are few who would argue with its guiding principles. Be nice to people. Look after people who need it, “do unto others” and other such soundbites and philosophies. Essentially, you could sum much of it up with the oft-used “Do the right thing.”


Doing the right thing always makes sense. But the right thing for some isn’t always great for others. That’s the challenge on the Mexican border. Everyone’s ‘doing the right thing’ according to their ‘Ethos’. But not everyone agrees. Different ethos.

This challenge plays out in marketing. It’s a no brainer to ‘do the right thing’ by our customers. If we don’t, they won’t come back. But as practitioners of added value we should also be ‘doing the right thing’ by the businesses we work for. Collecting rich, insightful data to help businesses micro-target and sell more stuff is totally the right thing to do for a business, but not always hugely appreciated by their customers. Different ethos.

If we agree that marketing communications are the craft of persuasion. You can't argue that marketing is also the murky work of manipulation. The difference between the two is finding the balance. It's ethics. Is there a line? Can we define it? Are there absolute rights and wrongs or is it a question of evolving ideology?  I’m pretty sure the answer to all of those questions is “Yes”. And I'm hoping it’ll make a pretty good debate.

That’s what I reckon, what do you think?

Want to know more? Join us.
Digital Conversations:
Ethics and privacy, where is the line?

WHEN: Weds 27 June, 5.30pm to 7pm
WHERE: Generator, Level 1 22-28 Customs Street East, Auckland.
FREE event hosted by the Marketing Association. 

Michael Goldthorpe