Lewinsky: Marketing Ethics?

Marketing Ethics in humiliation

Ethics in Marketing

Ethics in marketing is a crucial point briefly called out by Monica Lewinsky in her powerful and poignant TED talk: The Price of Shame. If you have not watched it, please do – regardless of which side of the debate you were on 17 years ago. It is well worth the 22 minutes, and gives you a perspective from the side very few people had an opportunity to consider. For those of us in marketing, she highlights an important and often forgotten point, that there are critical impacts that marketing can have on people’s lives – behind the stories that bring the crowds to the advertisements. This is particularly so and of concern in the new era of digital marketing.

Pay Per Click (PPC)

Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising can easily gravitate to finding the hot story of the day featuring the most prominent trend. This is true regardless of how unsavoury, tragic or humiliation-filled the story for those lives directly involved. In Lewinsky’s case an indiscretion of youth brought an overwhelming shame and burden of infamy to her life and career. All of which was exacerbated by websites in a frenzied pursuit of controversy to draw more traffic to their site. More traffic meant more eyeballs, and more potential clicks to drive PPC advertising income.

Recall that this scandal broke in 1989, roughly 17 years ago (Clinton – Lewinsky Scandal). This scandal was arguably the first major internet frenzy on one story. Since then the pace and frenzy has only intensified with the evolution of social media.

Lewinsky’s talk focused on the need for compassion on the internet and the horrid dangers of the dark side of the web which feeds on shame, embarrassment, and the easy expression of negativity toward a person. Tied to cyber-bullying this is truly important issue. Not often considered is our role in this as marketers. Regarding the Lewinsky scandal, it was marketing and the drive for PPC that fueled much of the frenzy. Certainly the scandal was a news-worthy topic, and should be addressed by the news outlets. However the frenzy and overexposure of this scandal was fueled by advertising.

Ethics Gap

From a marketers lens, Lewinsky’s story highlights a gap in the market. The green revolution has caught on strongly with the rise of solar and wind power generation, hybrid and electric cars, and a focus on conservation, recycling and reducing our global carbon footprint. In the green revolution, companies have leveraged their recycling, renewable energy focus, and ‘green-ness’ as part of their ethical marketing approach. Perhaps it is time to consider a higher level of marketing ethics, which reaches out to monitor from where we are gaining our Click Through Rates (CTR), backlinks and impressions. Perhaps we have a responsibility to run our businesses with cleaner advertising that does promotes the legitimate news stories, but does not fuel the frenzy of scandal regardless of the source.

A Future of Digital Marketing Ethics?

I leave this post wondering whether there is a market for a Digital Marketing – clean bill of Marketing Ethics body or certification. Is there room for a program or association that ensures that a Google’s Adsense or other programmatic ads are being posted everywhere and anywhere… or only to sites which adhere to Marketing Ethics principles?

No doubt, this will not solve the problem, but could it make things better? Is there enough consumer interest to make such a seal or service a brand enhancer?


  1. Courtney Madigan

    Funny, Charles – we made similar posts on this topic (https://ethicspop.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/fighting-shame-with-empathy/) but you posted first, so I’m the biter here! Interesting to examine it from a marketing lens. While the battle to improve the ethical standards of digital content is not easy, I think it starts with educating the public on the dangerous effects of this kind of mean-spirited content and how, seemingly innocuous actions, like clicking on an interesting article, actually foster an unethical marketplace.

    1. cdimov@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Courtney – this is a fantastic broadly encompassing ethical case. It is an interesting ethical case from the users responsibility NOT to click. Ultimately, I think you are right that it will take educating both the public and the firms advertising on questionable or over-frenzied content sites… to get to this challenge.

      Great perspective. Thanks – Charles.

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    1. cdimov@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Thank you Allison. Appreciate the feedback. I had not previously thought much about Marketing Ethics until coming across this TED talk. This is definitely an important topic in marketing, and we as marketers need to be more aware of our impact on our subjects and audience.

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