Marketing techniques to promote products, services or ideas are constantly evolving. Brands and marketing agencies are always on the lookout for innovative ideas to attract consumers and increase sales.

However, some practices that may seem ingenious leave ethics by the wayside. Sometimes they even break certain laws, resulting in convictions.

In this article, we present 5 situations in which the marketing strategies employed by brands or their agencies were unethical. But first, let's try to answer a question.

Is marketing ethical?

Ethics in marketing depend on the strategies and tactics implemented by companies and marketing agencies.

We can say that marketing is ethical from the moment it respects the principles of transparency, honesty, respect for consumers, protection of privacy and promotion of CSR.

In short, marketing can be considered ethical from the moment it doesn't distort reality to sell.

What is an unethical marketing strategy?

Sometimes marketing is used in an unethical way. Some brands don't hesitate to employ deceptive, manipulative or even discriminatory practices to boost their sales. These include misleading advertising, exploitation of consumer vulnerability, abusive collection of personal data or promotion of products or behaviors that are harmful to health or the environment.

Here are 5 examples of unethical marketing practices by companies and agencies. You'll see that in most cases, they've experienced a backlash.

L'Oréal and its misleading advertising

L'Oréal is the world's leading cosmetics company. It has many subsidiaries, including Lancôme and Maybelline. These companies have been widely criticized for launching misleading photo campaigns. In the UK, these ads were even banned by the ASA (Advertising Strandards Authority).

The photos depicted Julia Roberts (for Lancôme) and Christy-Turlington (for Maybelline) with flawless skin. Naturally, the advertising implied that this perfection was due to the application of foundation. Except that, after being accused of misleading consumers, L'Oréal finally admitted that Christy-Turlington's photos had been retouched after the shoots.

No statement was made about Julia Roberts, but L'Oréal refused to provide pre-shoot photos on the grounds that a contract had been signed with the actress...

In any case, the group touted results that went beyond reality to sell its foundation. They paid the consequences.

Sony and its PSP promotion

Another example of unethical marketing comes from Sony. When the PSP (Playstation Portable) was released, an "All I want for Xmas, is a PSP" blog was created. A certain "Charlie", a hip-hop artist, was behind 2 articles promoting the portable console. It was actually a flog (short for false blog) created by Sony.

Except that Sony had created the blog under its own domain name. Expert bloggers were quick to identify the deception. Sony promptly removed the site.

However, the site continued to attract attention and tarnish the brand's image. In fact, readers of the website "The Consumerist" awarded it the title of "FLOG 2006" with 70% of views. Not sure that's very gratifying for the brand...

Volkswagen and the carbon emissions scandal

Volkswagen has been the subject of an industrial scandal, now known as "dieselgate". In September 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency revealed that the car brand was using various techniques to fraudulently reduce the polluting emissions of its vehicles. The primary objective being to enable its cars to be type-approved.

Nevertheless, they have not hesitated to use these falsified results in their marketing campaigns. In this way, they promoted a responsible vehicle that was not. Consumers felt betrayed, and the brand's vehicles plummeted in value.

The scandal cost the group over 1.6 billion euros. It was later revealed that other carmakers were employing similar methods. But Volkswagen will remain the brand associated with the scandal.

Dr Pepper and its misogynistic advertising

Dr Pepper is a relatively well-known soda brand around the world. They realized that one of their drinks sold mainly to women (9 out of 10 buyers of the drink were women). The 10-calorie drink appealed to women.

Men tended to regard the drink as a "woman's product". A real loss of earnings for the brand. To counter this phenomenon, Dr Pepper decided to change its selling points to attract more men.

The brand didn't hesitate to use macho arguments in its campaign. Phrases such as "it's not for women" were used. Dr Pepper even sets out 10 rules for drinking the beverage. We'll spare you the gender stereotypes these rules refer to.

Although some consumers considered this advertising discriminatory and "anti-woman", Dr Pepper recorded +7% sales as a result of this campaign. We can draw 2 conclusions from this:

  • Discriminatory marketing, however unethical, can work (but we wouldn't advise it).
  • Men still need to prove their virility.

Zaprod Studio and its fake stolen car advert

There's little chance you've heard of this story before. We discovered it thanks to @lemondumarketing on Instagram.This strategy isn't as deceptive as those presented above. You'll be the judge of whether it's deception or genius.

Zaprod is a Belgian recording studio. It's the only one in business in its region, but few people know about it. The studio owner wanted to remedy this, but didn't have enough money to advertise. However, a good number of people were already following him on Facebook.

So he came up with an idea that tripled his sales. He customized his van with his studio's logo prominently displayed. Then he took a photo of the vehicle. From his personal Facebook account, he published a post with the photo explaining that his van had just been stolen. He invited users to share the post to help him find the vehicle.

In less than 48 hours, he received more than 2,500 shares in his region. This strategy enabled him to record a dozen bookings for recordings. Now, many more people know that there's a recording studio in their area.

Finally, marketing is a practice in which sincerity seems the most effective weapon. Almost every time a brand tries to deceive its customers or act without considering its consumers, it ends up paying the consequences.

While the last 2 examples seem to show positive results in the short term, the impact on the brand's image is no less great. So, the best recommendation we can give you is: keep being creative to surprise your consumers, but don't deceive them.