Ethical Marketing: Will All Pop-Up Users Burn in Hell?

April 22, 2019 ​- 40 Comments

Which animal do you find scarier: a shark or a cow? 

Chances are, you answered "a shark". After all, those sharp teeth and serial killer eyes do look kinda intimidating. But would you believe that way more people are killed by cows than sharks? And we haven't even mentioned mosquitoes...

We're designed to judge a situation by the most overt signs and let ourselves be fooled without taking a closer look.

This could be even more challenging when we're about to spend our money online. 

We're trying to avoid scam so desperately that we boo anything slightly salesy while falling prey to the real predators.

In today's episode, we're asking the question: what is ethical in marketing? What's the deal with marketing tricks and weapons of influence? Where is the line between a clever sales hack and a dirty scam?

How can you make money online and keep your conscience clear?

This and more is waiting for you in this episode.

Listen in! 


Note: this is the audio version of today's podcast episode. It's the same content as the video version at the top of the post. Watch, listen or use an app (see below) - whichever you prefer!

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Episode Transcript

What You'll Discover in this Episode:

  • Why you shouldn't always trust your fears.
  • Is it unethical to use the common marketing hacks: interruptive pop ups, pre-recorded webinars, limited time offers that never expire, and the like?
  • What does it mean to be ethical? We give you two questions that will help you decide whether you're on the right path.
  • Why we often call annoying things "unethical", and why it's far from the truth.
  • How to be more honest and upfront with your marketing.
  • Examples: comparison of two business models.
  • The three key ways to keeping your business ethical.


Dear Philosophers

In case you're coming to this content and you have a degree and/or deep interest in philosophy, this bit is for you:

I know that you're horrified at how simplistic the model of ethics is, that I laid out in this podcast episode. And I know you can easily poke holes into it and present me with scenarios that would fulfill my criteria for being ethical, while also clearly being undesirable.

Please remember that this content is made of an audience of people with no background in philosophy. I'm trying to bridge the gap between what is usually presented under the term of "ethical marketing" and "real ethics", if you will.

Having said that, I'm still interested in hearing your take on my take on this topic.

Is Your Business Model Ethical?

Do you agree with this episode? What is your opinion on the given examples? How do you keep your business and your marketing ethical and honest? Let us know! 

As always, we'd love your feedback, questions, tips and stories. You can leave them in the comments section or leave us a voice message by hitting the "Start recording" button below:

See you soon with another episode!

About ​Alexandra Kozma

Alexandra is a traveling marketer. When she is not editing podcast episodes or writing blog posts, she's out there exploring a new city. She's the creator of the Morning Mindset daily mindfulness journal.

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  • “Pup-up”? Is that a puppy video that appears? I love it!

    Just kidding.

  • I use a simple rule in my marketing – “Don’t Lie!” Recorded vs. Live Webinar is an example – let people know it is pre-recorded. In my opinion, a recorded webinar should be better, cleaned up and edited, and I state that it is pre-recorded, and that I will be live in the chat area during the broadcast time. The viewer gets a better presentation and gets me live in the chat to ask questions and get my responses without worrying about all the tech behind the scenes of a “live” broadcast.

    That is not unethical. Pre-sale for a course is nothing more than audience research, and if evaluated and incorporated into the course – everyone wins.

  • Totally agree. Marketing is just a means to an end. Its the aim that makes it unethical. Interestingly this is what came up when I typed in means to an end in google:

    a thing that is not valued or important in itself but is useful in achieving an aim.
    Example: “higher education was seen primarily as a means to an end”

    Isnt the example ironic? Higher education… with the empasis on WAS it might be true.

    I really like how you put this in a broader perspective of the sometimes fake world we live in. Lets keep it real with some slightly annoying puppies here and there ;-)

    • Yes, well said. It is indeed strange that “higher education” is used as an example of a means to an end. Although I guess that really is how it’s usually seen. The passionate academic is fairly rare.

      • FWIW…I like to think of myself as one of those “rare passionate academics” ;-)

        [degree in Archaeology/Anthropology doesn’t pay the bills, so I’m a solopreneur in the tech industry — LoL — But, it’s all good because marketing — and human psychology in general — fascinates me!] :D

      • I disagree. Academics are just people with all kinds of characteristics just like any other population.

        Passionate – not passionate, ethical – crooks, smart – dumb, dedicated – lazy … whatever. I have seen the whole bandwidth.

        Academic degrees serve two purposes in my mind:

        1. Entry ticket – particularly if you’re looking for a corporate job. There are certain things you don’t have to prove to your prospective employer as you have already proved them by virtue of getting that degree.

        2. Work ethic/skills – I learned how to work incredibly hard and efficient, how to research and debunk BS, how to acquire knowledge quickly, even a certain way of thinking & approaching problems and to keep pushing when life – frankly – sucks.

        The actual content of my degrees (Engineering & MBA) is totally secondary. I have not used much of the content from my degrees out in the work world. But I certainly have used the skills I acquired.

      • What I mean by “passionate academic” is someone who studies for the love of learning and who usually becomes a career academic. I agree that this is a small subset of all people who pursue an academic education.

  • Just FYI – author box looks incorrect – says it’s Alexandra. Interesting podcast!

    • Thanks for the notice, Jake. Alexandra edits the podcast audio and writes the post summaries, that’s why it’s her author box you see. After I stop talking to the microphone, my work is basically done, thanks to Alexandra. :)

  • Great episode! You bring up so many important points. The distinction between ‘annoying’ and ‘unethical’ is spot on. And I agree that we there are many unethical practices we take for granted because they’re common place. To me it’s about being honest. I’ve pre-sold my courses, but I’ve been clear with people that it’s a pilot and you get a discounted price because it’s a pilot. I also offered a generous refund in case it didn’t work out (no one asked, so I’m happy).

    • Thank you for your comment, Nata! I’ve done the same. I found that when its clearly communicated, people are happy to pre-order a product in exchange for a discount.

  • Marion T Davis says:

    Yes, Shane, I think there are many ruthless underhanded and lying people presenting webinars, which is why I am about done with webinars, most are nothing more than shameless pitch fest, they con you into signing up with a false promise to learn and nothing is further from the truth I’ve never walked away a webinar with useful information!!

    • Sorry to hear that you haven’t had good experiences with webinars. They were heavily pushed as a promotional and sales tool for a long time. It’s a bit of a shame, because I think webinars are great for teaching and interacting, not just for selling.

      • I’ve had a similar experience with MOST webinars, Shane!

        My biggest complaint, beyond what Marion has mentioned, is wasting my time with needless “chit-chat” in getting the thing started… “too-long” introductions, too much “self-promotion!” General time wasting, as if they don’t know how to actually get going… :-o

        The one exception — so far — is yours! You respect your viewers’ time investment and get right to the point! You also educate…way beyond expectations! Thrive webinars are truly beyond useful! :D

        I’ve stopped watching any others which probably means I may be missing out…but I just don’t have the time to vet other people!

        Which is why your webinars are always “packed” I’m sure! :-)

        The icing on the cake is that all the “other” marketing trash out there makes your “real value” content stand out even more! ;-) LoL!

      • Same here.

        So much so that I mostly don’t attend them.

        If on a rare occasion I think there might be anything of value in a webinar – I download it (or wait for the replay and then download it). This allows me the control to skim through it quickly to see, if any parts are worth listening to.

        I absolutely refuse to waste 1 hr+ on a webinar that may or may not deliver anything of value

        Sadly, most of them are hype (I call them screamers – “I am so excited to be here …”) that develop into a lot of blabla with nothing of value. Needless to say I don’t buy from anyone wasting my time and lying to me.

        OTOH there are some folks, you Shane for example, that I have no problem whatsoever listening to. You have proven over and over that what you say is packed with valuable, well researched information. And – extra bonus – you are calm. It is a pleasure to listen to you.

      • But don’t you know HOW EXCITED I am when I do a webinar? :D

  • Hi Shane
    I know you want to hear from those who disagree, lol. But I can’t. I totally agree with what you’ve said.
    My philosophy is honesty. I’m in the make money online industry, and I review many lousy product. Their sales pages are full of the usual false scarcity tactics but it’s the outright lies that I hate. They promise the moon and deliver a rock. If that!!
    I always tell my readers to protect their reputations because once people lose trust in you, there goes your business!

    • Thanks for your comment, Suzanne!

      “Promise the moon and deliver a rock” – I like that expression. :)
      Indeed, that happens a lot. Although I think it happens outside of the “make money” space as much as inside it. Insurance companies come to mind…

  • Hi Shane,

    I’m very happy to see the topic of ethics in business discussed! IMO, these tough issues are often left completely out of any business and/or marketing discussions!

    Kudos to you for getting into it! :-)

    I agree with pretty much everything you said… I think Miles’ comment and perspective is excellent: DON’T LIE! Don’t misrepresent anything to your readers…and especially to existing customers! :-o

    I have struggled internally with many of these issues you mentioned, especially the “sell-before-it-exists” model… I felt it was deceptive…until I asked you about this “post-‘focus & action’ ” and before Course Craft…

    Your response explained *exactly* how you would have addressed a case of a pre-sale not leading to a product, being very transparent about the reasons the projected product wasn’t going to happen! That solved this dilemma for me and it no longer looked or felt deceptive. I was very grateful for that honesty & openness!

    Note that I have asked countless other online “marketing gurus” about this very issue, and you’re the only one EVER who gave me a direct answer!

    I agree that the emotional knee-jerk reaction — at the consumer level (as opposed to “marketers”) — is often personal dislike and NOT truly unethical! It becomes a way of complaining, and calling a Lightbox “unethical” is a bit ridiculous, IMO!

    You made many other great points here as well. I think business ethics should be discussed openly and often, especially in online marketing!

    As an academic and “lifetime philosopher” myself, I appreciated your addressing a special section to those readers, should you have any in your audience!

    Interested in what other readers have to say about this!

    • Thank you for your comment, Karen!

      The pre-selling question is probably the most interesting one because there’s actually some risk involved. And for sure, there are many cases in which pre-selling is used unethically or as a downright scam (Kickstarter and similar platforms are filled with examples).

      I’m grateful that this question came up, since pre-selling is something I do and also teach. And as you could probably tell, I’m happy about an opportunity to talk about ethics in marketing. Which, by the way, I see as a separate thing from ethics in business. Ethical business is even more complicated and far more difficult to do, than ethical marketing, in my opinion. Perhaps we’ll get into that sometime as well.

      • Thanks, Shane!

        Yes, when teaching a particular strategy it’s especially important to understand and communicate the realities of implementing it.

        The way you asked for reader interest prior to launching ‘focus & action’ was new to me but made so much sense! :D

        I was actually quite appalled that several negative comments came out when Course Craft was released!

        But, in retrospect, I realized that i already expected your “build it for customers’ needs” approach (from your prior course). Others were not so “primed” for that approach (even though it was in their best interests!) I found that elite “side story” a fascinating glimpse into the realities of pre-selling! The “lesson inside the lesson!” ;-)

        I really hope you will continue this discussion, and at some point extend it to “business ethics” as well!

        I’m sure it’s an extremely complicated issue, but an important one…possibly more so in our current globally-connected world of commerce than any other time in our history…with so many opportunities for the faceless and nameless to hide behind a website!

        It gives the honest online entrepreneurs a bad name and makes it that much more difficult to garner trust! (…and even more important to create a “Manifesto” document! ;-) )

  • Hey Shane, I fully agree with everything you shared in this episode. And I also agree with what Miles said. I also find it unfortunate that this topic is mostly avoided by business owners and marketers.

    Thanks for covering this topic in depth and doing an amazing job at breaking it down into simple to understand comparisons.

    As a vegetarian, I no longer participate in the processed meat industry and I hardly use any social media, because I agree that it’s causing more harm than good. To be honest, I’ve opted out of many things in life, because I don’t agree with them or find them to be unethical.

    And as you said, the key is to look under the hood or behind the curtain in order to ascertain whether or not something is unethical and always give someone the option to opt-out of the experience. Thanks for the work you do. Your online videos are more valuable that a lot of academically constipated content being lectured at universities. Congrats and keep it up.

  • Thanks for your thoughts on ethics. I totally agree with honesty in business and in life – apart from the ‘little white lies’ told to avoid causing hurt.

    Those that use evergreen videos and an automated system while pretending that all is new and one off, usually get caught out when something in the video is recognized as being out of date. I had a recent case where a video pretended to be new material and the website shown in the video showed an EBay home page that was long out of date.

    I have some doubts, I confess, about the use of ‘comments’ which carry no date [ like the ones you use on this site and on Thrive ]. They seemingly give the impression of immediacy while perhaps being long out of date. Also, when they are used by first responders, they often get replies from the owner of the site or his team. But after the initial excitement has gone by for a couple of weeks, the ‘team’ doesn’t monitor the postings so regularly.

    For instance, I was an up front purchaser of your CourseCraft course but circumstances lead to my using the course a few weeks after launch. A comment I posted on 2nd or 3rd April is still ‘awaiting moderation’ as of today, 3 weeks later.

    This really is of no consequence to me as regards that particular posting but it causes me to reflect on the question of undated comments.

    • Hello Philip,

      Are you making the case that comments without dates on them are unethical? Or are you just annoyed by them? ;)

      I don’t think dates on comments add any crucial value. Over at Thrive Themes, we get so many comments that it’s hard to keep up. We strive to answer every question that gets asked and to answer as many comments as possible in general. We prioritize questions over other comments and questions on new posts over questions on older content.

      In the course specifically, it’s been difficult to keep up, but there too I’m trying to answer everything that comes in.

      • Hi Shane,

        I would only consider use of undated comments to be unethical if I thought I was being mislead.

        I guess they are mostly just annoying to me because I have the feeling that knowing the date indicates some degree of currency which enables me to evaluate any opinion expressed. If the comments were very old, they might no longer be appropriate.

        In many cases, even most, the date is probably quite irrelevant. And it is evident that once you take comments, you commit to a fair old workload.

  • Wowser, another reminder as to why I love your approach to business and “ethics.” You touched on some very specific things I thought about and ran from when I started online many years ago—many of them to my financial detriment.

    I had been on the receiving end of so many things that were, at best, shoddy practices (materials not living up to the hype for example) and were truly unethical based on your description here.

    When I first moved my business online, I attended an event where the presenter did the same thing…presold xyz and, if there was no interest, he didn’t build that thing.

    I was so appalled because I saw that as wrong that I have created many a digital thing that had no buyers and I had no income.

    Not a smart move and when I think about it now, I believe I had a feeling of sliminess from this person all the way ’round…and I’m sure that caused a lot of my reluctance to pre-sell, etc.

    Truth be told? I didn’t deal with no or opt-outs well either. I’m 10 years older and have made much wiser choices regarding what I do, or don’t, do. Who I do, or don’t, follow.

    Amazing how clear things seem when you share them. Thanks so very much for all you do and your willingness to tackle “tough” questions.

    Hugs&Blessings. MamaRed.

    • Thank you for your comment. :)

      You make an interesting point, there, regarding that speaker. When we see someone do a thing (e.g. pre-sell) and we don’t like the person, we can carry that dislike over to the thing they did. I don’t like this person. They pre-sold. Therefore, pre-selling is bad. That kind of thing.

      Unfortunately, there’s usually an abundance of bad examples, more so than of good ones to learn from.

      • Yup, that’s it…and from a logical stance, I know that’s ridiculous! That’s one of the reasons I so honor what you bring to the table! Blessings, MamaRed.

  • I knew you would have something smart to say about this topic, thanks for making this video, I agree with all what you are saying. I agree that the word ethical gets often misused for stuff that is only annoying but not necessarily unethical. (I find a lot of words are being misused these days).

    What surprised me on Steve’s podcast was, when he said that his webinar audience was off-put by Amy Porterfield, they found her very salesy when she offered her program at the end of the webinar. But again just because someone follows a sales formula doesn’t mean they are unethical.

    So I was wondering if older people (like for example Steve’s audience) are regarding certain online marketing techniques quicker as unethical than younger generations?

    I also love that you called us all out and said that we might be participating in unethical behavior because when everyone is doing it so it seems fine. Such a good point also about the food and the cow vs shark.

    • Thanks for bringing the topic and the podcast to my attention, Conny. :)

      Regarding the Amy Porterfield question: I think this heavily depends on the target audience, but I wouldn’t pinpoint the age of the audience as the main factor. I’ve noticed differences in people’s “sales tolerance” in different groups. For example, Americans in general seem to be much more tolerant of sales than Europeans.

      Also, if you’re talking to an audience that came to you through a lot of free stuff (free reports, free content, free tiers on a freemium product), they’re more likely to feel entitled to your work for free and might balk at the idea that you’re excluding them from something you created, by charging for it. But if you’re talking to an audience (same age, nationality etc.) of paying customers, that’s much less likely to be the case.

      Those are just some examples from what I’ve noticed over the years.

      • Interesting observation you have shared here Shane, regarding “sales tolerance” between Europeans and North Americans. I have experienced it first-hand, even in the course Facebook group. My perspective is that ‘selling’ is like breathing – we all do it every day. Sales is not the problem – people with bad intentions are. We all need to “sell” our courses, our products or even our services.

      • That’s a good point, yes. We’re all involved in some forms of persuasion and negotiation all the time.

      • yes good point about the free stuff. We are all being trained that a lot of stuff is free, that’s not always good. The saying comes to mind (not sure who coined it) if you don’t pay for it you don’t pay attention.

      • There’s some truth to that, for sure. I think we all tend to hoard free stuff without actually reading it. Like, we “keep it for later”. Adding a price to a product increases that initial enagagement (although still a surprising number of people will buy a course and never take it).

  • Anna-Maria Sanders says:

    Hi Shane, great video, as always. Just one thing: I am planning on doing webinars for parents of children with ADHD, so my target group ARE victims. From personal experience I know that as a mother or father of a child with ADHD you usually feel like a victim – of society as well as of the experts who are not in unison on what helps those children and what doesn’t … but most of all a victim of people offering all kinds of wonder solutions that will help chase the ADHD away in a matter of days, when in reality it takes 20 EXTREMELY hard years to carry your child into a happy adult life.

    So I think with a target group like this it is extremely hard for me to judge what is still ethical and what not – especially as far as the price of my services is concerned (until a few weeks ago I had always given my advice away for free to parents although I am a real expert … I only charge institutions who book me for lectures). Well actually, what it boils down to: I have a problem with asking for money for my services from parents BECAUSE they are victims. I would very much appreciate your view on that. Thanks!

    • First of all, thank you for what you do. I have mild ADHD and as a kid, it meant I really struggled in school, but all I got was bad grades and people being disappointed in me. Someone who takes my problem seriously and wants to help would have been a blessing, back then.

      Yes, your target customer is already a victim of circumstance. And I applaud you for being mindful of that and considering the ethics of marketing to them. Having said that, doing good marketing in order to reach people with a good solution is not unethical. What’s unethical is relentlessly poking their pain points and promising salvation right around the corner (right after they make one more payment)…

      Also, if you know that they’re being marketed to unethically and sold snake oil left and right, you can use that as a point of differentiation. You can make it part of your marketing message to acknowledge their pain, acknowledge that they’re desperate for a solution and that they may have been misled by too-good-to-be-true promises.

      It’s definitely not unethical to charge for your services. It’s unethical to squeeze them for all they’re worth, just because they’re in pain. But there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for your work. These people in your target market aren’t only victims. Their problem isn’t what defines them completely. And they’re spending money on things. It’s not too much to ask that they spend some of it on you.

      • Wow Shane, thanks! That advice really helps me. You are right – and my problem was that I could not see the difference through my veil of fear of charging people for something that they REALLY need.
        ADHD is so extremely complex but when people know what to do and are willing to implement advice it can make a world of a difference.
        ADHD and school? Tell me about it! We saw how much our younger boy suffered in school and encouraged him to quit when he was 15.
        We told him he was such a special person with so many wonderful qualities – especially on a social level – and we were afraid that they would get trampled to death by the holy cow of a “good school education”.
        We wanted to give him time and the chance to discover his real talents and dreams. It was the best decision ever. Today at 19, he is living his dream of a fitness trainer, is extremely good at what he is doing and absolutely loves it.
        Thanks again for everything, I absolutely LOVE your podcasts!

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