Is Marketing Evil?

Recently a college student I know was talking to a minister. My college student acquaintance told the minister,”I'm going into the marketing business.”

The minister responded, “Oh, so you're going to sell people stuff they don't need for a living? And you're okay with that?”

My young college friend was stopped in her tracks. She promptly changed careers.

I wonder what would have happened if that minister had, instead of making a blanket judgment (um, what happened to “judge not, so that you will not be judged”?)… if instead of crushing a young person's dream… had said something like:

“Wow! That's great. You're going to earn your living by telling people how companies add value to their lives? I admire you for taking on such a challenging and rewarding profession.”

I wonder.

I'm not saying there isn't a lot of sleazy marketers out there – because we all know there are.

I am saying we need more people who will bring honor to our profession. What do you think?

Ray Edwards is a world-renowned copywriter and communications strategist, writing for some of the most powerful voices in leadership and business including New York Times bestselling authors Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) and Tony Robbins. Ray is a sought-after speaker and author, hosts a popular weekly podcast, and blogs at

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  • Good Grief! When will we ever learn? Lets see if we can still help this young lady???
    Fortunately, I was redeemed from this same fate only it took a crisis in my husband’s cardiology practice for this to happen. When his referral base was drying up, he asked me to ‘do something’ to increase traffic into our office. So I started to study marketing and found that it truly is so misunderstood… Thank God for all the wonderful people teaching marketing that are at my fingertips via the internet!
    Sunita Pandit (a site in development)

  • Kate Faulkner

    I think the problem is many marketeers have forgotten their job is to market products and services that people want and need at a profit, rather than just ‘sell’ anything. Certainly in the UK property market there isn’t anywhere near enough spent on market research.

  • Paul Marriott

    I don’t think there’s any getting away from the fact that the overarching agenda of consumer marketing is to keep the people in a perpetual state of discontent, if not out-and-out unhappiness… about themselves and their material circumstances.

    The last thing Marketing wants is a contented poulace; it is in a sense a massive consumer ‘psyop’.

    Is that necessarily ‘evil’? No; we’re all complicit in the ‘game’ to some degree; we can all think freely and purchase freely.

    But in some cases, I think it is; particularly where product claims are exaggerated or even falsified.

    Tobacco marketing, for instance, with it’s distortion and supression of medical research, deserves to spend all eternity in Hell. Camel in the 50s/60s used to tout: “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette” in their ads? No. Really!

    And companies still peddling flouridated brands need to be tried in the highest court in the land for crimes against humanity.

    A body of scientific research now shows unequivocally that flouride never has had any beneficial effect on teeth; rather it’s actually hazardous to many other aspects of health (see ‘The Fluoride Deception’ by Christopher Bryson). Yet the ‘flouride is good’ message is still pumped out ad infinitum.

    And I say these things as a former ad agency executive, by the way.

    Ha! If advertising isn’t evil — it’s merely the bullhorn through which corporations hector us with their Marketing agendas, after all — then it could reasonably be said to be criminal… its practitioners committing ‘crimes of persuasion’.

    Paul Marriott, ex-Advertising-con
    Birmingham, UK

    • Douglas

      Marketing is a strategic process. It cannot be either good or evil. Marketing is the act of crafting and delivering a message that is intended to get people to take some kind of action.

      Using your vernacular — nobody says a bullhorn is good or evil — because it is simply the delivery medium through which politicians lie or firemen shout life saving instructions.

      Perhaps many define marketing as “crafting a message sufficiently deceptive to persuade people to give us money for products that we know are overpriced, inferior, and probably a bad deal for them”. But to me that is a definition that has not been thought through.

      Why would anyone automatically ascribe negative intentions to marketing? Aren’t we grateful for marketing when it conveys a message that connects us to a superior product that we benefit from? I’ve been thrilled with every Toyota, Volvo, and Mercedes I’ve bought.

      Lying while marketing is the most likely way to commit a crime — but marketing itself is not a criminal activity. Lying amounts to crime if it is done to get money that people would not have parted with if they knew the truth. But marketing itself is crafting a message that connects with peoples motivations in a way that they discover they want what is offered. If you knowingly lie while doing so — it is the lying that is evil — not the marketing.

  • Tim Hoeffel

    I have sometimes had the same struggle with marketing. But I have come to realize that people are looking for answers to their problem or situation. I have better solutions than most in my niche, and it would be in their best interest to see my marketing message. Given this approach, marketing can be beneficial.

  • Breen

    Mmmmm. Somebody in the religion business talking about selling people what they don’t need.


  • Susanchartock

    Hello Ray,

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that you need to evaluate what is being offered before jumping on an offer with both feet. I believe marketing is a form of persuasion. The consumer who is receiving the information has to make the choice as to whether it’s a good deal for them or not, that’s more of a common sense issue. Although purchases are not always made with common sense in mind. As always I enjoy reading your posts since they are well thought out.

    Thank you for emailing them to me.

  • Anonymous

    As usual Ray Edwards reads my mind from over 3,000 miles away. I think about this “integrity”:issue often…probably too often. When an Internet Marketer proclaims from the seat of his new Ferrari: “I Will Teach You How To Make $138,000 a Month on Autopilot” and a consumer buys the pitch, two Commandments were broken in the transaction: for the seller he violated “thou shalt not bear false witness” and the purchaser broke the “thou shalt not covet” commandment. Then the government steps in and commits an even more heinous yet more subtle sin: Spiritual pride. Big brother does not really care about helping the ignorant from being cheated. Instead, their payoff is the warm feeling of self-righteous superiority over both parties. Bottom-line: the government is the most guilty: spiritual sins are far more grievous than carnal.

  • Bill

    True. And also more “men of the cloth” to bring honor to their profession. Too many have had the wool pulled over their eyes, and in turn pull it over others’ eyes. And minds, to mix metaphors. I’m willing to assume they mean well (where was it that road paved with good intentions led to…?). But being neither scientists nor economists, they have junk science and junk economics all rolled into their psyche, so it somehow becomes a matter of faith. And they misuse it to— are your ready?To SELL, SELL, SELL harmful (Non-religious) lies that people don’t need. And they’re OK with that?

  • Stuart

    Agreed we need more people to add honour to hour profession.

    But, who knows? Apparently, she stopped cause she saw the truth in what he said, needed his approval, and had no convictions of her own about doing otherwise.

    It’s sad but true (at least in my experience at the bottom of the ladder – or pecking order perhaps?) that so many people who we might do copywriting for don’t really add value, or as much as they’d have us to think, to people’s lives.

    Life, I think, isn’t quite so simplistic but usually more complex and messy.

    Everyone judges, you can’t live without doing so. I mean, judging someone for judging is judging, no? And, even approving judgements are judgements too.

    What;’s needed instead, I think, is not not judging but making more accurate judgements. That’s judgements less affected by our greed, fears, and socio-cultural conditioning – pure judgements. Hard work, mentally and otherwise, but surely worth it if it helps overcome or even just makes a puny stand against the all the mental laziness and cowardice of prejudice and helps make us and the world a better place, no?

  • Douglas

    We are all marketers. It is unavoidable because persuasion is so built into our DNA that being a marketer is as inescapable as our need to eat food.

    From getting up in the morning to going to sleep at night we are persuading those around us to do things we want them to — and they are doing the same with us. We are born spreading the message of our needs and wants to anyone who will listen and respond to us. Throughout the entirety of our lives we daily shape our personalities to expand that message so that hopefully we not only survive but prosper in life.

    Some of us craft a message that is based on meeting the needs of others and therein find our own needs met — and others of us shape a more corrupt message based only on getting our own needs met at the expense of others — serially exploiting peoples insecurities instead of producing value that resolves their insecurities.

    Most of us have a mixture of the two and spend our lives working to eliminate the corrupt (self centered) aspects in ourselves and those around us — and produce a product and message with increasing integrity and substance.

    Marketing is the art of crafting a coherent and inspiring message that activates the possibilities within us. Sometimes the message is crafted by corrupt means and sometimes it is crafted with integrity. Either way marketing is the art and science of getting that message to the people to whom it has the most meaning and relevance.

    I think we all need marketers who don’t compromise ethics for profit. But for that to happen we must first produce people who don’t compromise ethics for profit. That includes ministers with cynical messages — who presume to shape morality of others.

  • Ray,

    Great post.

    For some reason, we’re raised with little respect for where one person’s rights end and another’s begin.

    And we’re also raised to favor the opinions of others (which are often formed by fear, judgment or some other weakness) over our own.

    I’m not sure which is worse, the attitude of the minister or the fact that the college student listened.

    Either way, this can change by one person making a decision at a time. By one person at a time choosing to follow their own heart and the direction they feel is right for them.

    Either way, the solution is to stop doing this to each other. And for each of us, that starts with the person in the mirror.

    I’m pretty sure you can change the world that way.

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  • Dan Tredo

    I believe that if you have a valuable product or service, you have an obligation to offer it to the market. If you don’t – you’re actually depriving others of your help! For example, I was incredibly blessed one day in 1989 when my best friend ‘stuck his neck out’ and presented the gospel to me. As a result, I received Christ that day and my entire life changed. Imagine if he chose to keep that message to himself and had not ‘marketed’ it to me? I might never have become aware of the ‘product’ of salvation and remained completely ignorant of its ‘benefits’ – namely – foregivness, restoration, and new wisdom for living. When we choose not to market our value – it’s a missed opportunity of the highest magnitude.