14. The Ethics of Marketing to Deep Needs

When activists question the ethics of marketing and sales, what they are often questioning is the ethics of appealing to someone’s deep needs. I understand that concern. I also understand that marketing and sales can be conducted exploitatively or even coercively. I hope no one reading this book thinks that I am advocating that.

My view is this: there is nothing wrong with appealing even to the deepest needs, provided you do so honestly and responsibly.

“Honestly” means you don’t slant or shade the truth at all, not even a little, no matter how high the stakes are or how much you might want to. Not only is slanting unethical, it is also bad activism, for two reasons:

• Your audience will invariably find out that you lied, with dire consequences to both your reputation and your cause.

• Your opposition will also invariably find out, and when that happens, then you’re really cooked. Lie once, even a tiny “white” lie, and your opposition will take that lie to the bank, using it to discredit you and your cause for years afterwards. In fact, your opposition is probably waiting for you to slip up in just this way.

The fact that your opposition may be lying, by the way, does not in any way justify your doing the same—or make it any less risky a tactic.

Not lying doesn’t mean that you have to divulge every single aspect of the topic under discussion. It means not leaving out the big or meaningful things—or, if you are leaving something big out, acknowledging that fact. Many activists feel that admitting to the weaknesses in their argument undermines them, but the opposite is usually true: telling the whole truth confers a lot of credibility on you as a speaker. It is a powerful persuasive tool.

Sometimes activists don’t mean to lie, but they neglect to be absolutely clear and unambiguous about the dividing line separating fact from opinion, so that their audience becomes confused. Try to avoid that mistake.

Selling to deep needs “responsibly” means, first of all, not pushing anyone further than they are comfortable going, especially if you are not trained to handle the consequences. Deep needs often exist at a semi-conscious or subconscious level because they are too intense or painful to confront head-on. Forcing someone to confront a deep need who is not fully prepared to do so is an aggressive and often abusive act. Alinsky again:

There are sensitive areas that one does not touch until there is a strong personal relationship based on common involvements. Otherwise the other party turns off and literally does not hear.

Since you don’t want to be too timid in promoting your viewpoint, and also don’t want to risk harming someone by being too aggressive, it’s important to locate the middle ground. A good way to do this is to let the person you’re talking with lead the conversation as much as possible. Let her introduce personal topics, and when you question her about those topics, do so delicately and a little at a time. If you notice her pulling back, or looking angry, fearful, sad or otherwise uncomfortable, back off immediately.

At their worst, dishonesty and irresponsibility become a form of bullying, a topic serious enough, and detrimental enough to progressive movements, that it merits its own chapter.