We all get them – letters through the post or emails encouraging us to buy something. Over the years direct marketing has become more intense as advertisers battle for our money. This intensity and need to be noticed seems to have led to clearly unethical practices such as selling names of customers to other firms against their wishes and bombarding elderly vulnerable people with multiple requests.
However, there are grounds to ask – in its methods, in its very being, Is direct marketing unethical?
Direct marketers are trained to deliberately exploit human emotions – to tap into the subconscious to get people to buy. For example, it would seem that you are a bad mother if you do not use a certain brand of soap power or if you do not give your child the right cheesy snack for lunch. Teenagers are targeted remorselessly – if you do not use a certain pimple removal cream you will not be popular.
Another unethical trick of direct marketers is to lie about scarcity and a time limit. For example, “…we will only allow 600 people to take up this offer so act quickly.” Or “This magnificent offer will close in 15 minutes so act now.” Of course, next month you get the make mail shot and when yo revisit the site they give you another 15 minutes to buy!!
Perhaps the most unethical trick of all is to “sell the sizzle”. Direct markets usually start with a story that tugs your heart-strings – how the seller came from nothing to be a success or how someone was grossly overweight and list 14 stone. They tell you how horrible life was and how if you buy their product life will be better in so many ways. You can tell all this is false because those who sell the product hire copywriters to fluff up the story. Not are probably untrue. Some sellers even hire celebrities to front their product and make it look as if the celebrity invented it and uses it.
Years of research have given direct markets a list of “heart strings” to pull. For example, the wish to be a good father or mother (provide for your family) , to be wealthy, to be free or work one does not like, to have a nice house or car or boat. In other words to sell their product they work up your emotions. There are books and books teaching direct marketers how to do this.
Is direct marketing unethical? On balance yes, you are using underhand techniques that tap into the heart of what it mans to be human to persuade people to buy things they probably don’t really want and definitely do not need.