Business marketing often gets a bad rap and not without some legitimate cause. Some businesses still use deceptive but legal promotional tactics to bring customers into the stores. Unethical promotions hurt not only the businesses that employ them, but the image of business and marketing in general. Promoting in an ethical way, on the other hand, helps a business to build trust as a brand and with individual customers.

The Promotion Marketing Association makes compliance with local, state and federal laws the first item in its code of ethics. Staying within legal boundaries, however, does not guarantee an ethical promotion. Promotions that highlight the phrase “half off,” when the business actually means “buy one-get one half off,” stay within legal boundaries, but customers often regard these promotions as misleading. Businesses should probably regard legal compliance as the minimum baseline, rather than the goal line, for ethical promotions.

Product Honesty

Every business wants to show its products or services in the best possible light, which leads to highlighting benefits. For example, if a new kitchen appliance performs 15 separate functions, the business can and should feature that information. If it takes five minutes to switch parts in order to change functions, however, that information bears on consumer decision-making. Withholding or disguising relevant information robs consumers of the ability to make informed choices and ignores ethical best practices.


Ethical promotions employ claims that viewers can substantiate. If your business offers to send a randomly selected customer to a particular hotel in the Caribbean, customers should be able to verify that the hotel exists and in the place you claim it exists. Businesses should handle endorsements and testimonials in much the same way. The selected content should not fundamentally alter the original meaning of the endorsement or testimonial. For example, pulling one complimentary sentence out of an otherwise disgruntled customer letter and posting it to your website as a testimonial violates this tenet of ethical promotion.


Some degree of imitation becomes inevitable in promotion. In some cases, though, promotional materials bear such a close resemblance to another product or service that customers might confuse one for the other. A burger joint might design its logo, for example, to closely resemble that of Burger King’s. Doing so infringes on the intellectual property rights of Burger King Corporation but also serves little purpose except to trick distracted drivers into stopping. Any such purposeful imitation, which violates the legal rights of another business and deceives customers, fails to provide a business with ethical promotion. Developing original promotional materials, either in house or through a third party, helps you avoid both the ethical and legal issue.