Every week, we answer a common question about marketing, or an aspect of business. This week, our question comes from a fan who entered our giveaway contest for a Fire 7 Tablet. Today, we will answer the following question: “Why is marketing so sleazy?”

(Going for the easy questions, huh?)

Welcome to the world of marketing, for better or worse

At its core, marketing is about getting people to buy stuff.

Yes, it’s true that you have to create real value. You have to genuinely meet the needs expressed by your customers. It’s very difficult to succeed without actually making someone’s life materially better.

But let’s be brutally honest. Competition is intense. The global market is a very big place. When your competition acts bad, it’s tempting to do the same. Like it or not, you have to market your business to succeed. It’s unavoidable.

So does marketing deserve its reputation for sleaziness? Sometimes.

Is marketing actually sleazy?

Like we said earlier, marketing doesn’t necessarily have to be evil. In fact, when you’re meeting customers’ needs for a fair price, it usually isn’t. Indeed, you’re just letting people know that you can help them, which is a net positive for the world at large.

But what happens when you can’t actually meet needs? Empty promises.

Empty promises made by marketers are far too common. Marketers often times will make claims and promises to a potential customer that they are unable to back up. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. Not following through with those claims is part of why many people feel that marketers are sleazy.

As a result, marketing is viewed by some as dishonest. When you are trying to grow a business – your own or someone else’s – exaggerating is easy. It’s often easier than actually being good at your job.

But there’s more to it than that. Here are some other reasons why marketing or marketers can be sleazy.

The product or service is garbage

This is a simple point, so we won’t waste a lot of time on it. Quite simply, marketers’ whole job revolves around making their products or services look good.

And if the product or services are objectively garbage? There is basically no ethical way to succeed.

Now do remember: just because a product is low-quality, doesn’t mean it is low value. A low-quality product that’s known to be low-quality but is sold for a low price to a knowing customer is fine. A bad product sold for a high price is irredeemable.

Marketing jargon is complicated, but lying is easy


Marketing these days is full of acronyms and jargon. That means it’s very easy to confuse customers and clients. Talented but unethical marketers can make a small fortune by essentially pretending to be doing more than they are.

When selling to customers, this means emphasizing features that are too complicated to understand. When pitching work to clients, this means rattling off buzzwords and numbers without context to conceal how little is actually being done.

Jargon is not necessarily evil. In fact, it’s very useful when used correctly. It’s just so happens to be a tremendous smokescreen for bad actors.

Marketers have different incentives than the public

Marketers aren’t paid to give an honest overview of products or services. Their goal is to move units and generate revenue. When it comes time to actually make sure the goods are worth the money, well, caveat emptor.

You can think of this like a zero-sum game. Oftentimes, in the short run, a marketer benefits when someone else loses. I sell you a bad product and walk away with a pocketful of change at your expense.

You can get away with this for a long time, too, but not forever. People are smart and do eventually realize when they’re being had.

Talented but sleazy marketers can fake quality work

Some marketers are exceptionally good at branding and public relations. With these two skillsets, you can beautifully polish garbage products. Really bad marketers can create a product, fake reviews, and spam the media with press releases to fill up Google results.

The end result? It’s practically impossible to tell that the product is actually bad. The brand, the reviews, and the press all agree that the product is great!

Some marketers work for longer just to run up the hourly bill

One of the easiest ways to make money is to overbill your existing clients by selling them stuff they don’t need. It’s a very good way for those with broken moral compasses to generate revenue.

If you are hiring a marketer or an agency, our advice to you is simple. Don’t be cheap, but also don’t just sign off on every project. Ask for a rationale for each project, and make sure it’s a good one that doesn’t just lean on jargon.

How to market without being sleazy

Good marketers are focused on getting results for your business while meeting the needs of your customers. Marketers who are focused on getting you the results you are looking for will be making progress throughout the journey, showing you step by step how what they are doing is affecting your business and its growth.

So with this in mind, we’ll leave you with five basic rules for marketers to follow. Marketers, take heed. Business owners, hold marketers to these rules.

  1. Don’t try to sell garbage. If the product or service is bad, walk away.
  2. Use jargon sparingly and only with context that a layperson can understand.
  3. Make sure your well-being does not come at the experience of your client or their customers.
  4. Never fake quality work.
  5. Don’t run up the bill by providing unneeded services.