Marketing Ethics: First, Do No Harm

marketing ethicsGuest Post, Mike Smith

Nonmaleficence (derived from the Latin maxim: Primum non nocere, meaning “First, do no harm”) is a foundational medical ethics precept taught to all medical students. It is a fundamental, guiding principle for medical professionals worldwide.

What’s that got to do with marketing?

I’ll get to that in a minute, but I was curious as to the impact this phrase/precept had on doctors who are years removed from medical school. So I asked several of my physician friends how often they think about this—and whether it affects their behavior. (Why these “smarter-than-the-average-bear” individuals hang around with a word strumpet like me is one of life’s unexplainable mysteries)

My physician friends—who have been practicing medicine as long as I have been pedaling pronouns and verbs—all attested the fact that that these words (which, by the way do not appear in this form in the Hippocratic Oath) do indeed govern how they conduct themselves. While none of them recite this phrase first thing after arising every morning, they think about and apply the principle daily. One friend even admitted that he repeats this phrase silently before performing surgery.

But what’s that got to do with marketing?

Maybe those of us who make our living in the field of marketing would benefit from some kind of ethical code or precept. But what would it say?

The other day I happened upon a television pundit who was taking one of the major political parties to task over a controversial (is there any other kind?) issue. While I agreed with him in principle, I was bothered by how he used only the information that strengthened his position to make his point. I thought that perhaps TV pundits should have some kind of ethical code. Maybe: “First, tell no untruth.” This would apply, not only to what they say, but to what they omit as well.

That’s great for television journalists, but what about those of us in marketing? What should our code look like? Where do we as marketing types get ourselves in trouble? I believe it’s when we think we have to try to convince people to do something they don’t really want to do. That’s why so many consumers associate marketing with arm-twisting, trickery, slight of hand, and coercion. And I don’t think that’s what marketing is about.

Perhaps our Primum non nocere should be: “First, sell nothing.” As marketers, we should put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer and ask what would help them make the right decision for them when it comes to buying goods or services (rather than asking what would help us sell more widgets). Maybe instead of trying to convince someone to buy something, we should help them to understand whether or not the goods or services we’re describing will really benefit them.

Maybe that wouldn’t work, though. After all, who wants to buy something from someone they trust—from someone who tells them the truth? We can always fall back on another familiar Latin phrase: Caveat emptor, “Let the buyer beware.”

What do you think?