Every week, we answer a common question about marketing, or an aspect of business. This week, our question comes from a fan who entered our giveaway contest for a Fire 7 Tablet. Today, we will answer the following question: “Why is marketing so sleazy?”

(Going for the easy questions, huh?)

First time marketing your small business?
We know marketing can be confusing. Download our free marketing checklist for advice.

Welcome to the world of marketing, for better or worse

At its core, marketing is about getting people to buy stuff.

Yes, it’s true that you have to create real value. You have to genuinely meet the needs expressed by your customers. It’s very difficult to succeed without actually making someone’s life materially better.

But let’s be brutally honest. Competition is intense. The global market is a very big place. When your competition acts bad, it’s tempting to do the same. Like it or not, you have to market your business to succeed. It’s unavoidable.

So does marketing deserve its reputation for sleaziness? Sometimes.

Is marketing actually sleazy?

Like we said earlier, marketing doesn’t necessarily have to be evil. In fact, when you’re meeting customers’ needs for a fair price, it usually isn’t. Indeed, you’re just letting people know that you can help them, which is a net positive for the world at large.

But what happens when you can’t actually meet needs? Empty promises.

Empty promises made by marketers are far too common. Marketers often times will make claims and promises to a potential customer that they are unable to back up. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. Not following through with those claims is part of why many people feel that marketers are sleazy. 

As a result, marketing is viewed by some as dishonest. When you are trying to grow a business – your own or someone else’s – exaggerating is easy. It’s often easier than actually being good at your job.

But there’s more to it than that. Here are some other reasons why marketing or marketers can be sleazy.

The product or service is garbage

This is a simple point, so we won’t waste a lot of time on it. Quite simply, marketers’ whole job revolves around making their products or services look good.

And if the product or services are objectively garbage? There is basically no ethical way to succeed.

Now do remember: just because a product is low-quality, doesn’t mean it is low value. A low-quality product that’s known to be low-quality but is sold for a low price to a knowing customer is fine. A bad product sold for a high price is irredeemable.

Marketing jargon is complicated, but lying is easy

SEO, SMM, CRM, ROI, PPC…

Marketing these days is full of acronyms and jargon. That means it’s very easy to confuse customers and clients. Talented but unethical marketers can make a small fortune by essentially pretending to be doing more than they are.

When selling to customers, this means emphasizing features that are too complicated to understand. When pitching work to clients, this means rattling off buzzwords and numbers without context to conceal how little is actually being done.

Jargon is not necessarily evil. In fact, it’s very useful when used correctly. It’s just so happens to be a tremendous smokescreen for bad actors.

Marketers have different incentives than the public

Marketers aren’t paid to give an honest overview of products or services. Their goal is to move units and generate revenue. When it comes time to actually make sure the goods are worth the money, well, caveat emptor.

You can think of this like a zero-sum game. Oftentimes, in the short run, a marketer benefits when someone else loses. I sell you a bad product and walk away with a pocketful of change at your expense.

You can get away with this for a long time, too, but not forever. People are smart and do eventually realize when they’re being had.

Talented but sleazy marketers can fake quality work

Some marketers are exceptionally good at branding and public relations. With these two skillsets, you can beautifully polish garbage products. Really bad marketers can create a product, fake reviews, and spam the media with press releases to fill up Google results.

The end result? It’s practically impossible to tell that the product is actually bad. The brand, the reviews, and the press all agree that the product is great!

Some marketers work for longer just to run up the hourly bill

One of the easiest ways to make money is to overbill your existing clients by selling them stuff they don’t need. It’s a very good way for those with broken moral compasses to generate revenue.

If you are hiring a marketer or an agency, our advice to you is simple. Don’t be cheap, but also don’t just sign off on every project. Ask for a rationale for each project, and make sure it’s a good one that doesn’t just lean on jargon.

How to market without being sleazy

Good marketers are focused on getting results for your business while meeting the needs of your customers. Marketers who are focused on getting you the results you are looking for will be making progress throughout the journey, showing you step by step how what they are doing is affecting your business and its growth. 

So with this in mind, we’ll leave you with five basic rules for marketers to follow. Marketers, take heed. Business owners, hold marketers to these rules.

  1. Don’t try to sell garbage. If the product or service is bad, walk away.
  2. Use jargon sparingly and only with context that a layperson can understand.
  3. Make sure your well-being does not come at the experience of your client or their customers.
  4. Never fake quality work.
  5. Don’t run up the bill by providing unneeded services.
First time marketing your small business?
We know marketing can be confusing. Download our free marketing checklist for advice.

46 Comments

Phyllis Huebbe · February 20, 2020 at 11:37 am

What’s with all the to go calls that make everyone mad?

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Hi, Phyllis. I hate those too. There’s technology out there that lets you dial multiple people at a time and answer only the person who picks up. Then they’ll spoof an area code near you so you think they’re local. So obnoxious and a waste of everyone’s time!

Maria Teresa Fernandez Ferreira · February 20, 2020 at 11:42 am

Thanks for the information, many times we do it wrong without realizing it, I was very surprised

Andy cooper · February 20, 2020 at 12:22 pm

I need to learn a lot when it comes to using PCs.

Nancy Femmer · February 21, 2020 at 12:03 am

Sleazy, Yap that’s right! They’re everywhere. We had one stop at our house. Tried to talk us into coating our Driveway. Shot a price at us, then lowered the cost cause they had extra supplies in the tank. The man tried to talk me into it, till my son appeared.
We turned it down. They said they were out of cards to prove they’re business.
My son started his business not to long ago. He always carries cards to hand out to customers. He believes to do quality work. He’s good too.
Oh yah, I was once a sales person too.
Thank you for this information.
I will remember this.

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:56 am

    Yikes! Tough to trust contractors who don’t have anything to prove they’re a business. No cards, no invoices, no documents…sketchy!

Minta Boggs · February 21, 2020 at 6:58 am

I’m constantly getting bombarded with come and listen to how you can market your business online. While that sounds all good and all they also have tactics like I see you haven’t opened the email that I sent you then they say if you are not interested then we will remove you from our mailing list to let someone else have your spot who really wants to learn. So I’m never really sure if I want to sign up at all.

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:58 am

    Yeah, Minta, that’s something I’ve noticed as well. And I say this as a guy who uses those tactics (including a “are you still interested email” that auto-unsubs people when they’re not).

    I think the missing piece is strategy. Anyone can tell you how to run a Facebook ad or send an email. But actually making stuff that people need? Making messages that people want to read and find useful? That’s the eternal battle of good marketing. And it’s so, so hard to tell who’s going to have something worthwhile to say until you’re three emails into your subscription!

tony pepper · February 21, 2020 at 8:22 am

i had a mentor from the chamber of commerce uk. learned about marketing from him. but that only lasted 3months.

Michael Grammer · February 21, 2020 at 11:02 am

There’s no substitute for a quality product and better customer service.

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:58 am

    There really isn’t, Michael, you’re absolutely right!

rachel shamion · February 21, 2020 at 6:00 pm

wow awesome info and it will be helpful!

lisa lawton · February 24, 2020 at 8:01 pm

My husband owns a pest control company he has worked for others and know some that are def sleazy with their practices! He is a very honest person!

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Yeah, Lisa, that’s something I’ve noticed too. The more complex the work, the more room for sleaze!

Michelle Fay · February 24, 2020 at 10:33 pm

I’m looking at starting a business in IT there’s some useful information here

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Good luck on your IT business, Michelle!

Javier Vallejo · February 25, 2020 at 5:15 am

always opening our minds and making us see the positive things of marketing, thank you very much

Brittany · February 25, 2020 at 5:47 am

Very interesting! I’m currently wanting to open up my own business. This will help me and doing the right things so I won’t make mistakes.

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Good luck, Brittany! Do you know what line of business you’re looking at entering into?

Kathleen P · February 25, 2020 at 3:01 pm

Marketing isn’t sleazy! Mostly it’s just connecting people to the goods and services they don’t know the want. This is an interesting perspective.

Darren Scrubb · February 25, 2020 at 4:37 pm

Important rules that will be beneficial to a small business.

Raeleen Rager · February 25, 2020 at 7:56 pm

This was very helpful. Thank you

Deborah Butler · February 25, 2020 at 10:45 pm

Thanks for the article.

Christina Harper · February 25, 2020 at 11:02 pm

Thanks for sharing a brutally honest and informative article with us. There is so much positive aspects of marketing as well as some negative unfortunately.

Minnie C. · February 26, 2020 at 12:16 am

There is a lot of sleaziness around us in todays world. One should try to be honest, nice and doing
the right thing. Very Interesting!

Tiffany Williams · February 26, 2020 at 12:38 am

Honesty and loyalty from businesses are so valuable! You can usually tell pretty quickly if they are sleezy.

Tara Shippee · February 26, 2020 at 7:20 am

Extremely interesting

Jessica wallace · February 26, 2020 at 7:26 am

Thank you for this info! I saved this page as well! So many times you get lost in the marketing and loose yourself and why you started.

Curtis · February 26, 2020 at 8:25 am

Thanks for the information opened my eyes to some things that I have been missing

Kari B · February 26, 2020 at 8:42 am

I wish more people in marketing took this to heart.

Stayce T · February 26, 2020 at 9:40 am

Love the positive outlook! keeps me going every day!

Erika Sirgenson · February 26, 2020 at 11:13 am

Very good insight

Belinda Rowden · February 26, 2020 at 4:30 pm

Very interesting, thanks for the info.

Rav · February 26, 2020 at 10:38 pm

yes a lot of it has become sleazy and with the rise of quantity over quality and mass production for more profit it tends to override peoples and companies abilities to care whether the product or service is of decent standing. Also some companies pay certain parts of the team a stipend or commission based on sales only, so the more sales the more money the less sales less or no money, keep in mind if you are having them market for you as an individual in sales they take 80% of your sale and give you about 18% of what it was sold for even though they have outsourced productions of said product to be made, so in order to get such sales a few fibs here and there are now slung around and depending on where the whole company produces your goods is where the quality comes from, until you can get your foot in the door to start your own fully owned company and manufacturers which is rare its like a cycle thats hard to beat theres always a chink in the chain somewhere and some people down the line get the blame for it.. now some places have horrible practices and have become sleazy outright .. i can agree but this article helps for when you do get solid footing into your own big shoes and pants as a company and the know how to prevent any of this

Holly · February 27, 2020 at 5:27 am

Marketing doesn’t have to be sleezy, I always choose a quality product and will pay more for it. Good read!

Jessica W. · March 1, 2020 at 11:20 am

I hate sleazy marketing. I would never work for anyone who didn’t believe they were selling a quality product and therefore did not have to use shady marketing tactics.

Becky Donnelly · March 2, 2020 at 1:44 pm

Thanks for all the great information

Vadim Lingo · March 2, 2020 at 3:20 pm

I wish every business would use a client-oriented, kind marketing solutions

    Brandon Rollins · March 6, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Same here, Vadim. A man can dream!

Maria Teresa Fernandez Ferreira · March 3, 2020 at 11:23 am

a really interesting article, thanks

Jennifer Letendre · March 4, 2020 at 11:56 pm

Sleazy marketing is a great way to not get repeat customers

Abdu · March 5, 2020 at 8:40 am

Great marketing solutions come up after reading such a great article.

paulojloliveira · March 6, 2020 at 2:13 pm

very interesting article, I like this …

Buddy Garrett · March 6, 2020 at 8:15 pm

The article was very relevant. Sadly there are far too many businesses that don’t care about their customers. They are only interested in making as much money as possible.

Miranda · March 6, 2020 at 10:00 pm

I use marketing daily to earn an income and I dislike the ones who are sleazy and who lie. It makes it difficult for the honest ones.

Lily Kwan · March 7, 2020 at 12:18 am

This information about marketing being sleazy is very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

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