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If you are a creative whose job involves making content for a business like in sales, or marketing – then you’re probably quite familiar with the conundrum of ethical conundrums in promoting for-profit businesses.

To complicate things, straightforward selling isn’t enough anymore. Meaningful marketing revolves around building personal relationships. A competitive advantage requires integrated, advanced technology. Manufacturing those authentic relationships can be tricky and feel downright deceptive when technology is the vehicle you’re forced to use. Studies show that consumers respond well to an integrated marketing focused on the consumer experience – they want to feel like they have a relationship with the brands, and that brands have personality and voice.

But brands must weave a unified personality through the tangled thread of social media, online advertisements, tv commercials, and a website. As creatives, this can be exciting and daunting. There is more media to display our work but ultimately, is our content serving consumers, or creating unnecessary visual noise?

Persuasive tactics from the marketer and the behavioral scientists
Marketers and behavioral scientists on persuasion

Robert Cialdini’s book Influence details a plethora of manipulative ways to influence people to make decisions. The case studies among the book were chilling, but the scariest perhaps, were the simplest, found in everyday advertising. I highly suggest the book to every and any creative. Whether you use it as a tool in your work, or a cautionary tale to remind you to respect the autonomy of others, is up to you.

As a designer I can predict I’ll be required many times over to create media that generates a sense of urgency in people, and then continues to capitalize on it. No better example of that than the feeding frenzy that is Black Friday in the United States. Marketers, designers, writers, and anyone with a consumer audience, have different methods to promote work ethically. Some people get choosy about the projects. Some people can’t choose the project, but they can be choosy about their strategy, down to the language used in copy. We’re not always in control though. Sometimes what we do is so much more subconscious and subtle than we like to think.

Altering Perceptions of Reality

Often to get a creative idea across, we have to change the way people perceive the world. This can become manipulative pretty fast, or it can seem harmless, and a commonplace practice.

While writing a piece on the persuasive techniques in Stokley Carmichael’s “Black Power” speech, I marvel at his ability to completely alter perceptions of social reality. It staggers me because I realize creatives do this probably more often than they think. When we break down his words and actions, we can see that he is creating a new framework through which white moderate students can interpret the daily reality of America, and act upon.

Designers do this sort of thing all the time. Media creatives often use the verb “storytelling” to describe the common thread of purpose in a rapidly evolving digital world. It’s a comfort verb for me to use in interviews. “Storytelling can be a powerful means of altering perceptions of the present” (Cialdini, 53). You tell a story right, people see the world differently.

Creativity isn’t simply expressing a feeling. Many projects are successful because the audience is equipped with a new system of navigation. It’s why a persuasive writer redefines terms with handpicked words and connotations before they dive into their point. It’s why a designer decides on a whole visual identity made of colors and typographic hierarchy – it makes their project (website, publication, what have you) more navigable.

A great example is social media. Social media apps aren’t just designed well – they’ve taught me a specific way of interacting with apps. Now, I have specific visual expectations on almost any app. If there’s a border on a round profile picture, I expect to be shown an image story sequence when I click on it. I expect videos to play when I swipe to them without having to manually hit play. I double tap with my thumb to like stuff.

This comes back to the question – how can creating for business media be ethical? If you’ve rewired the way I choose to interact in a space – is that good? Is that invasive to my thought process? Is it bad? As creatives, how do we feel knowing our creative output often becomes part of these larger systems? Convincing people to act is powerful. How do we do it well?

Resisting coercion in commerce

When Black Friday arrives, many underhanded persuasive techniques rear their ugly heads. It’s interesting to see some businesses compete by refusing to participate in black Friday at all. In many cases, it feels authentic and genuine. Southeast Market here in Grand Rapids closed on Black Friday, simply posting “Closed this weekend for rest, cleaning and joy” They followed this up with offering holiday gift boxes full of small local businesses to raise support during Small Business Saturday.

Lamarel, a sustainable fashion brand with a vintage flair, also pushed back against Black Friday sales. They actively avoid overproduction in their business model by keeping small inventory, which means they make very little margin on their profits. In an Instagram reel they explain the process, concluding “These decisions don’t come cheap and neither should our clothes”.


There are two extremes in creating media in the business world. Some businesses are painstakingly transparent, some use every manipulative trick in the book. Businesses (from freelancers to large corporations) must advocate for themselves, and employ creatives to do it. That means we creatives get caught in the ethical crossfire. I have no answers, but as a designer I’m ready to wrestle with this consistently throughout my career.

If you do any type of content creation, whether it be writing, sales, design, illustration – what’s your input? Where do you draw the lines? How do you use your creative skills to help people reinterpret their reality?

Olivia Mason

Olivia loves the creative process, so she studies graphic design & writing. It is why she is so curious about the artwork & designs made by others. She loves the fresh smell of soil when repotting her plants, the crisp smell of paper when reading, and the sultry smell of smoke from a campfire. She enjoys hands-on artwork like collage or painting and listening to 50s jazz ballads and lo-fi mixtapes while she creates. Currently, Olivia is working in Grand Rapids, Michigan while she finishes her degree at Calvin University.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I can’t answer your final questions, but I recognize this as important stuff. Not just for commerce, but for the manipulation of democracies.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    You raise some good questions and challenges and reminded me of an old textbook. I think it was titled, The Art of Persuasion, by Em Griffin. He wrote that in seeking to persuade you can figuratively push someone up against the wall, because they can still slide out either side. But you can never push them into the corner, because there is no escape. You’ve taken away choice.
    The person in the position of power – boss, pastor, parent, sales rep, etc. – must always allow a way for the other to “slide out.”

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you, Olivia, for your thoughts. Some of the terms are pretty arcane and require slowing down to chew on them carefully. Still, I think I get it and am (more or less . . .) happy to recognize in most recent forms the way marketers try to shape our brains and habits. I have had conversations w/ my son-in-law in years past about the wiles of marketing, b/c he used to work for a church magazine and had to sort through the swamp of quasi-ethical methods of hooking people (the image seems violent) to read and subscribe. I have often said that Jesus had wounds, not brands, and I’m not sure that organizations promising to follow Jesus should make themselves into brands that might well hide those cosmically important wounds.
    Related to this issue, while in college in the late ’60s I read what may have been the first popular book to analyze (expose?) the manipulative process of organizations’ marketing, namely Vance Packards’ *Hidden Persuarders.* Much more recently I’ve listened to many podcasts by Terry O’Reilly, who now is independent, but for several years was contracted by CBC to produce a program so aptly and scarily named *Under the Influence.* O’Reilly is exceedingly clever and analyzes all time winning TV and radio “hidden persuaders” of the past such as “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, O what a relief it is.” He doesn’t seem to advocate a particular ethical perspective, but he surely exposes all kinds of marketing ploys for better or worse. Thank you again.

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