Are Marketers Sleazy?


Trust me!One of the common questions I’m asked at conferences and by reporters is whether neuromarketing techniques are ethical, or whether they are just one more way to manipulate consumers into buying stuff they don’t need. My response to this is to ask whether boring or annoying ads are preferable to ads that the viewer finds engaging. Personally, I’d prefer to watch an ad shown to light up the brains of viewers (like the highly engaging Darth Vader ad from VW) vs. one with less impact (like most 30 and 60 second spots). But that begs the question: are marketing and advertising themselves manipulative and fundamentally wrong?

I’ve certainly encountered individuals who believe that the only good advertising is no advertising, and who blame marketers for excessive consumer spending, destruction of the environment, and many other societal ills. Needless to say, I disagree. While there are bad marketers who push bad or inappropriate products, who manipulate consumers into spending money they shouldn’t, and engage in other evil activities, they simply aren’t the norm.

Cuban on The Best Salesperson

I just read Mark Cuban’s How to Win at the Sport of Business, and he describes what makes a good salesperson:

The best salesperson is the one the customer trusts and never has to question.

The best salesperson is the one who knows that with every cold call made, he is closer to helping someone.

The best salesperson is the one who takes immense satisfaction from the satisfaction the customer gets.

Cuban’s words should resonate with everyone involved in customer persuasion – substitute “marketer” or “advertiser” for “salesperson,” and you have the definition of how to build a brand. Real marketers solve problems for customers. They ensure that the product meets or exceeds the expectations they create, and work to fix situations where that doesn’t happen.

No More “One and Done”

There was a time when marketers could push products that didn’t meet expectations and thrive, at least as long as there were still new customers to convert. Today, social media has changed the market dynamic for the better – marketers must continuously engage with customers, both satisfied and unhappy, and have no choice but to quickly address cases where reality fails to match the marketing message. Instant, wide-reaching communication ensures that the bar is set high.

Do We Need All Those Colas and Shampoos?

Even when products are seemingly interchangeable, marketers can increase consumer enjoyment of a product. Brain scan data shows that for many consumers, drinking branded Coca Cola is more pleasurable than drinking the competition, even when the beverage actually IS the competition. Decades of successful branding efforts by Coke mean consumer enjoyment of their product is enhanced. Coke’s marketers have done what their development labs couldn’t: create a better-tasting cola.

Needless to say, with such a valuable and trusted franchise, a firm like Coca Cola would hardly engage in marketing activities that they expected would disappoint their customers but would make a quick buck.

Marketing Reality

Just as there are sleazy salespeople, there are sleazy marketers. These salespeople and marketers make inflated claims and promise results that won’t be obtained. Of course, this business model isn’t sustainable in the long run. Reality catches up, trust is lost, and reputations are trashed.

Serious marketers, like the true sales professionals described by Cuban, know that their reputations – company, brand, and personal – are their most valuable assets. Even as they strive to attract new customers, they work to ensure that the first experience will be positive and the customer will return again and again. As Coca Cola has shown, good marketing does more than move product off the shelves, it adds real value!

  1. Joseph Willis Jr. says


    Nice short article. I understand your point of views and agree in some cases. My own issue with commercials these days that receive the biggest and craziest fan following through manipulation. Such as Rhetological Fallacies and misuse of basic Neuromarketing tactics.

    It seems commercially, the answer on ethics (when it comes to advertising) is in a way presented as an ad, (Prove to me it is not wrong, until then it is right.)

    Edward Bernays, Paul Mazer, and other influential genius’ described and shaped how we got here today as a society, being a desires-based culture instead of a needs-based.

    What are your thoughts on these two quotes?

    “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”- Paul Mazer

    “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” -Ed Bernay

    I will admit, bc I do not have my books with me, I had to get these from Wikipedia, I don’t like how ” means they have left out parts that unfortunately I cannot recall at the moment.

    As always, great article

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great insights, Joseph. Don’t you think the Mazer quote is rather Maslow-like? Basic needs come first, followed by less tangible needs and aspirational desires.


      1. Joseph Willis Jr says


        I agree, statement I feel that even today is alive in some advertising. I just believe that on some level we are conditioned to think we need things we just want. Somewhere the lines get a bit confusing for consumers when let’s say…purchasing a computer or a similar task.

        Are we taught to buy based on our needs? Or are our wants validated by those selling us the products as a need. When I download a new internet browser or make a purchase, usually a message will come up like, “Great Job!” or “You’ve made the right choice.” or something to assure that the choice I made was the right one.

        1. Roger Dooley says

          Good points, Joseph. I think affluence is a big driver of the want vs. need issue. When someone has no resources, needs rule. In our relatively affluent society, though, wants can seem like needs. Then there’s envy and the drive for social status – my neighbor can readily afford a BMW, so I want one, too, even though it’s neither necessary or a wise financial choice.


          1. anp says

            some thoughts.

            actually, i think the point is that although people might have less money and shouldn’t buy things they don’t need, they do it anyway because of the phenomenon Joseph Willis Jr mentions. This is why the topic falls under the ethical category.

            I thought your argument about coke and branding was interesting. Making something more enjoyable because of branding would be less objectionable if the companies didn’t make a profit.

  2. says

    Too busy manipulating people to read this right now, but I felt obliged to comment, “yes.”

  3. says

    PS Best picture of a marketer ever

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ha, more of a sales guy, but he’ll do as an example of what we all aspire not to be, Kevin.


  4. Nick Faber says

    Great food for thought, Roger. Another quote to throw into the mix: “Advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things.” – David Ogilvy

    1. Nick Faber says

      Haha.. I kind of wish the comment didn’t pull in that tweet 🙂

      1. Roger Dooley says

        That’s a great Ogilvy quote, Nick, perfectly summarizes the post.


  5. jlundholm says

    I was listening to marketing guru Dan Kennedy speaking about the ethics of selling from the platform (when public speaking). He made the good argument that if a person believes his or her product/service is of true value to others, then ethically one must sell in that situation. The question is not of need versus want, since everything other than food/shelter/water is want not need. The question is of value, and that can only be decided by the person at the other end of the marketing/sales process. Neuromarketing is another tool for influencing other. As Alan Ladd said “like a shovel or an axe, no better or worse than the man who yields it “. (From the movie Shane-quoted from memory, so forgive me if it’s not exactly right.)

  6. BracingSystems says

    I would definitely agree with the point that I’d rather be watching something stimulating as a result of neuromarketing (or any other kind of research into my personal tastes and preferences) than some of the terrible commercials that are out there. I also like Nick’s quote from Ogilvy. Spot on!

    1. Joseph Willis Jr. says

      I would too, but in the process I wouldn’t want to be lied to either by the misuse of Neuromarketing tactics and misleading and implied false information. I believe that is the point I am trying to make on the “sleaziness” of it all. the argument I have is not against the tool, but the intent of those whom use it, and vulnerable/trusting consumers. Since no one is willing to take the hit in the professional world to point these things out for reasons such as lack of hard evidence among others, some people automatically would rather defend the tool (an easier route) instead of investigate the wielders of the tool (almost impossible to prove).

      1. anp says

        Well, like almost every tool or skill, the people who use it determine how it will be used. For good or evil (luke vs. the emperor). I totally agree that an engaging ad is better than a boring one (and I still remember ads from 20 years ago that I thought were cool). Almost all ads spin their products and get as close to the false information line that they can.

        I think there is a big difference between advertisers and salesmen. An advertiser simply puts out a static image or a video. It is much easier for me to accept using knowledge gained from neuromarketing to make ads more effective and help people sell their products. Salespeople on the other hand get much closer to manipulating and trying to get people to buy what they don’t need (convincing people they do need it) than I am usually comfortable with.

        example: I was buying cat food. I had mine already in my hand. 2 kg, $20. A nice old lady in the store is selling something similar for $6.50. She tries many things to get be to buy it, always coming down to the price difference. Finally I say, yes, you’re right. You are selling a cheaper cat food. But what you failed to include in your sales-pitch was that your food is only 600 grams. So, 2 kg is about the same price either way. I’m sure other people fell for it.

  7. Mike Quattro says

    The phrase you used “As Coca Cola has shown, great marketing doesn’t………it adds real value.” needs some explanation. What real value, other than selling more cola, has CC delivered? And how are you measuring it?

  8. Erik du Plessis says

    Here is an interesting TED talk (Why we are happy).
    The part that pertains to this discussion is how we find preference for the brands we own. If there was only one cola we would get less happines from the one we own.

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