Is Marketing Manipulative? Exploring The Ethics Of Online Advertising

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With mental health being better understood in recent years, we’ve been wondering what effect advertising could have on our brains. Last year, we wrote an article exploring addictive algorithms. This year, to continue our exploration of the psychology behind advertising, we’re going to take a look at manipulative marketing techniques.

Search4Local’s Stance On Marketing Strategies

We want to make it absolutely clear from the start that Search4Local’s stance is that marketing should always be done ethically. We never use tactics that are dishonest, bad practice or underhand. This commitment is part of our belief that marketing should be fair for all. By using techniques that are honest and legitimate, we know that the advertising packages we offer are built to stand the test of time.

Manipulation Vs. Influence

Before exploring manipulative marketing techniques, it’s worth making the distinction between what’s manipulation and what’s influence. Both are designed to persuade people.

Manipulation can use deception to change a person’s beliefs or behaviours. Techniques can range from straight-up lying to shock tactics and guilt-tripping. It can be a bit sneaky and difficult to spot, especially if you find yourself a victim.

Visualisation Of The User Journey, From Search To Shopping. A Woman Running On A Magnifying Glass With Shopping Bags

Influencing tactics aim to provide information, which then allows people to make their own decisions about the subject. It’s much more transparent than manipulation, often resulting in a better relationship between the influencer and their target audience.

Can Manipulative Marketing Be Ethical?

This is a good question. While lying is almost never an ethical practice, there are marketing techniques that could be considered as ethical while still being manipulative. Let’s take a look at a couple of tactics you could use – perhaps sparingly – which employ manipulation without being deliberately misleading.


FOMO – or fear of missing out – is a feeling people get when they are left out or have missed an opportunity. You can create FOMO by giving your audience a time restraint or by offering exclusivity to a select number of people. If you have a special offer on, reminding people that it’s going to expire soon generates FOMO.

Countdown Clock With 24 Hours On Timer On A Yellow Background

Giving people a fear of missing out does manipulate their feelings and can encourage them to act faster than they normally would. However, it shouldn’t deceive them or make them make a decision that they wouldn’t usually make. You shouldn’t lie about the time restraints on your offer. If you’re telling people that they only have 24 hours to make a decision, but persist with the same offer week after week, they’ll soon get tired and realise that you’re trying to manipulate them.



Clickbait is usually a shocking or attention-grabbing headline. It’s designed to be compelling, which generates user interest and clicks. Sometimes it can be sensationalist. In the worst cases it might make a false claim or promise. Newspapers have used clickbait-style methods for centuries. Its name is very much a 21st century thing, making reference to the habits of internet users.

To use clickbait responsibly, you can create headings that utilise things like ‘your ultimate guide’, ‘the best restaurants in Exeter’, ‘the secret to being the best’ and ‘here’s why you should read this’. So long as you don’t lie or make a claim that you can’t prove, any catchy heading is fine.

Targeted Ads & Privacy Concerns

Targeted ads are incredibly useful. By selecting your audience, you can reach the people who you know are most likely to interact with your business. You can refine your ads until they only reach those who fit your exact demographic. Filter by age, location and online activity – among other things.

Being able to be so selective about your advertising audience doesn’t come without caution. There are concerns as to how this affects user’s privacy, and whether these adverts are ethical. To collect the user data required to deploy this type of advert, their permission must be granted. This is why you see cookie policy pop ups on most new sites that you visit. Because approval is sought from the second a person enters the site, the webmaster doesn’t need to do anything more to ensure their targeted ads are ethically done.

Target With Arrow In

Honesty Generates Genuine Interest

We consider honest marketing to be the best way to reach your target audience. This ensures that you build a solid relationship with your audience and are seen as trustworthy. The best way to do this is to approach all your marketing strategies with a sense of purpose. Think about what you want to achieve and how you think your audience would best be drawn in. If you’re solving a problem, make it clear what your business can do to help. Informing your audience of the benefits of your service is one of the best ways to spark genuine interest.

What Is Ethical Marketing?

You’ll be relieved to hear that ethical marketing is much easier to carry out than its shady counterpart. It should be simple to ensure your strategy is built on the following qualities:

If you’re ever in doubt about how ethical your marketing practices are, you can refer to those four core values to make improvements.

Would You Like Ethical Online Advertising & Digital Marketing For Your Business?

If you want to outsource your marketing but still ensure it’s done in an ethical way, you can rely on us. The team at Search4Local are well-versed in many marketing practices. We pride ourselves on being at the forefront of modern techniques. We know what works, and we commit ourselves to ensuring that all of our strategies are ethical and trustworthy, without sacrificing on results. Get in touch today to start your journey.

Written by Alice Farley


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