Emotions and Ethics in Marketing

August 2020 | By Gregory F. (Greg) Zerovnik, EMBA, PhD

marketing_GkoWxPDO.jpgCompetition is a rough-and-tumble world and many businesses, especially small, entrepreneurially owned and operated ones, survive by “learning the hard way” how to sell what they make.

When I took classes with Peter Drucker in Claremont’s Executive MBA program, he used to say that if firms would do marketing the right way, they wouldn’t need a sales force at all—their products would sell themselves. Peter, of course, was prone to exaggeration from time to time, probably just to get us riled up enough to start a good discussion.

The point Peter was making, was that organizational leaders had two primary responsibilities to their firms: marketing and innovation1. As a matter of practicality, any other tasks a CEO or Exec VP might find herself needing to oversee, should be delegated to someone else. The top exec should manage the top two jobs.

Drucker viewed the marketing side this way: The company that successfully provides products and/or services that customers need and want, is treating its customers the right way. Take care of your customers, and they will take care of you.

I have been a part-time professor of management and marketing since 1989. I’ve read a lot of academic research that has directly led to many of today’s marketing and management practices. Typically, though, the research focuses on rational theories, things that can be subjected to the force of reason and statistical analyses. Emotions are harder to deal with in such a manner, as they are qualitative concepts, not quantitative ones.

That’s a shame, because emotion can really seal the deal2. Here’s a good example: The Apple iPad. Tech writers and analysts pretty much all panned it when it debuted. Technology website Gizmodo.com said, “My god, am I underwhelmed,” and Bloomberg averred that it was “…nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks.” Sales were predicted to be dismal.

So, of course, sales immediately took off and once again Apple had shown that despite coming up with a product for which there was no rational need whatsoever (emphasis mine), it could achieve remarkable sales success. It was irrational. Anyone who had a laptop or a touch-screen smart phone already had more combined capability than an iPad would offer. Yet people showed up in droves and waited in long lines to buy them because they were emotionally hooked. And the newer iPad iterations have been even more emotionally engaging—lighter, thinner, and more powerful.

David Pogue, then the highly regarded technology columnist for the New York Times, noted it’s what happens when you hold the darn thing in your hands that turns the trick3. It’s an emotional experience. Emotion, emotion, emotion. You have got to have emotion. Advertising genius Jerry McGee, formerly the boss at WPP Group and currently Executive VP for the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), always said that giving consumers rational reasons to buy your product was never enough. You need an emotional hook4. He was talking about advertising strategy, but what he said is just as relevant to your entire marketing strategy. Master emotions, and you master profitability.

In the course of mastering the use of emotion to help market your products or services, it’s essential to do so ethically. Peter Drucker felt that it was incumbent on businesses to take the lead in creating what he termed a “functioning society,” as he observed that governments were not up to the task. In order to do so, firms need to practice management in such a way as to bring about satisfactory outcomes for all of their “stakeholders,” which we understand to include employees, suppliers, customers/clients, and society or community, in addition to the shareholders/investors. While the enterprise must turn a profit to survive and prosper, it has to do so ethically. The necessity for ethical or moral behavior has to start at the top with leaders who exemplify personal integrity. When that’s missing, the result all too often leads to disaster. Examples abound, from Enron to Wells Fargo, Exxon to Lehman Brothers. Considerations of the ethical deployment of emotional content in advertising have been the subject of a good deal of scholarly research. As Mizerski and White point out,

  • …the stimulation of emotional reactions by advertising appear to play three separate, but interrelated uses. Perhaps the most familiar use of emotion is to produce an affect-based attitude or image of the brand or product class….An equally important application is the presentation of emotions as a distinct benefit resulting from consumption of the brand or product class. Finally, emotions can be used to enhance the effective delivery of the advertising message.7

Moreover, as Phil Kotler and his colleagues point out in 2010’s Marketing 3.0, today’s consumers want to patronize firms that they see as reflective of their values5. If the price is right but the values are wrong, people will find other providers. This is the underlying reason why the Business Roundtable on August 19, 2019 turned away from the Friedman doctrine of return on investment to shareholders as the sole proper goal of a for-profit company in order to embrace stakeholder theory instead. They put it this way: “The purpose of a corporation [is] to promote ‘an economy that serves all Americans.’”6

Playing upon consumers’ emotions unethically runs contrary to societal ethical norms and is an inherent violation of stakeholder values. So, by all means, learn to use emotion to market your offerings, but do ethically and strengthen the odds for your company’s long-term survival.



1Cohen, W. (2012). Drucker on marketing. McGraw-Hill Education: New York

2Bagozzi, R.P., Gopinath, M. & Nyer, P.U. (1999). The role of emotions in marketing. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, (27)2, 184-206.

3Pogue, D. (2010, March 31). Looking at the iPad from two angles. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/technology/personaltech/01pogue.html

4McGee, J. (2011, March 16). Tap into the right emotions and a good product will sell itself. Press Enterprise. https://www.pe.com/2011/03/16/tap-into-right-emotions-and-a-good-product-will-sell-itself/

5Kotler, P., Kartajaya, H. & Setiawan, I. (2010). Marketing 3.0: From products to customers to the human spirit. Wiley: New York.

6Business Roundtable. (2019, August 19). Business roundtable redefines the purpose of a corporation to promote “an economy that serves all Americans.” https://www.businessroundtable.org/business-roundtable-redefines-the-purpose-of-a-corporation-to-promote-an-economy-that-serves-all-americans

7Mizerski, R.W. & White, J.D. (2015). Understanding and using emotions in advertising. Journal of Consumer Marketing, (3)4, 57-69.

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