How to Avoid Manipulation in Your Marketing Messaging

April 21, 2023

6 Minute Read

In today’s world, there are plenty of ways a business can connect with its consumers — through targeted Google ads, TikTok videos, email sequences, and more. The good news? This means there are more ways for our brands to grow. The bad news? This also means we’re walking a fine line between ethical marketing and manipulative marketing.

We see it all the time — brands that make lofty promises (i.e., “Make $1,000 in just 24 hours!”), use overly edited images, and write a plethora of their own testimonials. And to the average consumer, these things might look real. But to the businesses behind them, they understand what they’re doing (and they’ve crossed that fine line mentioned above).

So as marketers, we need to ask ourselves: Are we here just to make money or to help our customers solve a problem?

The last thing your brand wants is to be referred to as a “scam” (we *shudder* at the thought). When marketing effectively, you’re convincing people to work with you solely based on the value you bring to the table — not the fear you can instill in them or the promises you can make to trick them.

It’s not manipulation if you’re being genuine in your pursuit to satisfy a need. However, it quickly becomes manipulation if you’re only in it for your own good. Being convincing and building a case for something is much different than being manipulative and not forthcoming.

So if you want to ensure your marketing is ethical, here’s what you need to know.

Get Clear on Your Values

Before you create your message and dive headfirst into marketing, you need to start with one thing: your values. When you firmly understand your values, you can avoid manipulation in each aspect of your business — not just marketing (and if you need inspiration, here are ours).

Having a value system in play will allow you to rely on that often underrated gut check before you market to your audience. Does this feel right? Look to your values. Is this something we support sharing? Values, again.

Build something attainable that works for your brand. And, most importantly, make sure your team is on board. Your values should fit with the people you hire — as it’s these people that will help you foster genuine connections. They’re there to live out those values and put helping others at the forefront of your business.

If you have a strong set of brand values, your employees become your internal gut check. They can then help keep you in line with your marketing message. So check in on your values, and don’t be afraid to change them as you grow.

Map Out Your Message

Now that you have your values, you can move into your actual marketing message. Because before you invest in paid media, SEO, or analytics, you need to understand what you want from your message. How do you want others to perceive your brand? What do you really want to be known for?

It sounds obvious to say that you need to think your messaging through — but we’ve all seen it: brands that post without thinking, “Hm, someone might find this offensive.” or asking themselves, “Will our audience actually enjoy this?”

Marketing falls flat daily. It’s the ad that people scroll past and the email that never gets opened. And often, this is because that brand didn’t take the time to look at its messaging from different angles. So, if you haven’t already (we won’t judge), ask yourself:

  • How would different segments of our audience perceive this message?
  • Are we leading with value or trying to trick someone into taking action?
  • Does this represent who we are as a brand and how we want others to think of us?

Once you take the time to map out your message and its true intent, you’ll find it much easier to avoid manipulation — because your content is coming from a genuine place.

Think About Where You’re Showing Up

Let’s be honest: Brands aren’t posting hour-long podcast episodes as videos on Instagram (yes, Instagram limits video to 10 minutes, but just stick with us — we’re making a point here). Likewise, we aren’t sharing each piece of content the same way on each of our marketing channels. And that’s because not all content fits across the board.

So if you’re hoping to foster connections through your marketing and avoid being manipulative, you need to ensure your content goes live in the right places. The best marketing puts your offers in front of the right person at the right time. And if someone sees something that just doesn’t fit, it won’t come across as genuine.

We’ve all fallen victim to a giant ad on our feed that isn’t what we’re looking for (and it doesn’t exactly make us want to hand over any hard-earned cash to the brand at fault). But when you customize your content for each channel and meet your audience where they’re at, your efforts aren’t in vain.

Look at your channels and ask yourself: Are we providing value in the right places? Or are we not actually reaching who we want to reach?

Come from A Genuine Place

Consumers want help. They don’t want to feel like they’ve been duped. And to ensure you’re not the brand people refer to as ~spammy~, you’ll need to look inward.

No, this isn’t us getting sappy on you — to foster genuine connections, you need to come from a place of help (rather than a place of “Pleasegivemeyourmoneyrightnow”). How can you do this? By understanding the problems your audience is struggling with.

Now’s not the time to be sneaky. Instead, it’s time to provide value in all its different forms — whether that’s a blog post focused on educating or a video focused on entertaining. You want to be convincing, of course, but you can do so by demonstrating your expertise rather than relying on sneaky headlines that induce clicks.

When you come from a genuine place (rather than a black hole of greed), you’re much more likely to connect with others and ensure you’re a brand people can relate to.

Avoid Problem-Shaming

Yes, your consumers have problems. And (hopefully), your brand helps them solve those problems. But the problem with problems (stick with us) is that when you focus on them too often, manipulation will enter the group chat.

Manipulative brands tend to only focus on the weaknesses of their audience — not their strengths. We hate to put anyone in the spotlight, but the insurance industry is a fantastic example. This industry, along with others (we’re lookin’ at you, wellness!), often preys on fears people have about things they could potentially experience.

We love Mayhem as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day, he’s still preying on the fear that something bad will happen. There’s no value in that — and viewers feel prompted to take action to avoid a bad outcome rather than experience a good one.

So now ask yourself: Are we hyper-focused on the negative our consumers experience? And can we ensure our marketing isn’t an endless cycle of doom?

Know that you don’t have to make people feel bad about themselves to take action. When you lead with value and tell your story, users are more likely to stick around for the long haul.

Don’t Be That Guy

We all know a brand — one that has perfected the art of clickbait. We’re talking about the brand that makes statements like, “50% off your next hotel stay!” only to tack on that 50% in the fine print. It’s clickbait. And nobody’s buying it.

To avoid manipulation in marketing, try not to let the idea of more traffic and clicks consume you. Even if your offer does miraculously change someone’s life all in the span of one hour, it’s probably not going to go over well if you use that exact wording in your messaging. Tactics like these mask your true intentions and trick people into taking action (and that’s not what you want — at least, we hope!).

Just Think It Through

A wise person once said, “Just don’t be a jerk.” We’re not sure who said it, but they were onto something. Because if you want to avoid manipulation in marketing, you need to think things through.

Marketing can be beneficial when there’s intention behind it — especially when that intention is to make someone’s life better rather than to make your life better. The truth is, it will take time to build trust between you and your audience. But it’s a whole lot better than the alternative — using manipulation to ensure people take action.

If you’re hoping to work with an agency that embeds its values into everything they do and believes in the power of bringing good into the world wherever possible, we’d love for you to reach out to us here. Let’s talk more about how you can show up in a way that’s both genuine and effective.

Kyle Geib - Director, Marketing & Digital Communications

Kyle Geib

As Director of Marketing and Digital Communications, Kyle brings an extra layer of enthusiasm to BFO’s incredible team of experts. Dedicated to continuing to cultivate BFO’s presence as a unique and knowledgeable voice in the industry, he leans in on his experience marketing in both the B2C and B2B spaces.