Marketing is manipulation. But that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Photo by  Moss  on  Unsplash

Photo by Moss on Unsplash

We’re in a hip, dimly lit bar, hovering over bright drinks.

I’m a copywriter, and she’s a Marketing Coordinator at a fast-growing company.

We’re talking about an article I was working on about the ethics of copywriting, when she acknowledges exactly what I’ve been wrestling with for the past few months.

“…it’s manipulating people.”

And she’s right.

As marketers, we’re in the business of manipulation.

The thought makes me squirm a bit, and honestly, the only reason I’m becoming more comfortable with it is because I keep writing about it.

I believe copywriting is like magic. It’s incredibly powerful — and how you use that power is up to you.

Marketing is the same way.

It can change people’s world-views and get them to spend money on your product — all because of an image or message you put in front of them.

Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of “psychological manipulation.”

Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the behavior or perception of others through deceptive, indirect, or underhanded tactics. Such methods could be considered exploitative and devious as they may advance the interests of the manipulator, often at another’s expense.

Marketers work to influence people’s viewpoints and behavior — often indirectly — to get them to buy a product, which advances the interests of the marketer/the company he or she works for literally at the other person’s expense (they have to spend money to get what you’re offering).

I’d argue that good marketing isn’t deceptive, exploitative, or devious. But bad marketing certainly can be.

If you’re like me, this makes you at least a little uneasy. Feeling the weight of that power isn’t exactly comforting.

And it’s a tough position to be in, because, on the one hand, marketing is your job — and it’s fun. It’s cool to see that your efforts have a measurable effect (more sales, more engagement, etc.).

But on the other hand — 

Manipulating people’s thoughts and emotions to get them to spend money doesn’t exactly sound sexy.

So, what’s a marketer to do? And…

Is Manipulation Inherently Bad?

Truth is, we all use manipulation, whether we realize it or not.

We only post the most attractive pictures of ourselves on social media. We use filters, captions, and angles that play up our best features and downplay the less flattering ones.

We choose our words carefully in meetings (“I haven’t had a chance to do that yet” vs. “I decided to watch Game of Thrones for 7 hours straight last night instead of checking in on that project.”).

We say “Oh no, I don’t mind,” when someone asks to cut in line because they’re in a hurry. (We don’t want them to think we’re rude!)

The uncomfortable truth is — we all use manipulation, on some level, to affect the way others think of us and what we accomplish in life.

Most of the time, we don’t even have a second thought about this. We want to present the best version of ourselves and be as successful as possible.

Well, so do the companies we work with.

Here’s my viewpoint:

Manipulation isn’t inherently good or bad. Like many things in life, it falls in that gray area between right and wrong.

It’s powerful. It exists. And we use it — often.

If we acknowledge that truth, the question changes from:

Should we use manipulation in our marketing?


How can we use manipulation to actually help our customers live better lives?

The first question fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation.

The second question, however, acknowledges that reality and works to use it for good.

We won’t get anywhere by plugging our ears and closing our eyes.

Marketing is manipulation whether we like it or not. The solution isn’t to ignore this fact. The solution is to use that fact to create better lives for our customers…

And that requires taking on a lot of power.

Abraham Lincoln said:

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

The power is in your hands now, what will you do with it?

Robert Lucas