Leave the Dark Side: 6 common unethical marketing techniques (and how to ditch them)

Star wars figure walking away

Ever heard of ‘sludging’, ‘confirmshaming’, or false scarcity? Learn more about unethical marketing techniques that are widely used and how to avoid them.

1. ‘Dark nudges’ / ‘Sludges’

‘Dark nudges’ or ‘sludges’ are prompts or offers that are not in the best interest of the consumer. IGI Global defines them as:

employed for nefarious purposes, usually to trick and deceive others. They end up creating zero-sum situations and do not contribute to the welfare of the recipient.

Examples include:

Image of cookies on website
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay
  • Cookie banners that urge users to accept all pre-existing cookie settings by colouring the ‘Accept’ button bright green while hiding other options.
  • Confirmshaming. For example, a user is not interested in an offer that a pop-up box invites her to take. To refuse, she will have to click the ‘I’m not interested in getting great offers’ button – playing on the consumer’s FOMO (fear of missing out).
  • Forced continuity. Remember the membership subscription you took out last summer? Conveniently (for the membership owner, not you!) it renews every year unless you actively remember and unsubscribe.
  • Hidden costs. You finally get to the last stage of a check-out process but are then presented with costs that had not been mentioned before (delivery costs, tax, etc).

For lots of good (well, bad) examples of this, check out www.darkpatterns.org or their Twitter account, @darkpatterns.

But wait, there’s more.

I recently came across the excellent “The Ethical Move” website, which I highly recommend visiting. They list a number of unethical marketing tricks we should get rid of.

I took their pledge not to use any of these techniques anymore, and I would strongly recommend you look into this, too.

2. Charm pricing (£97 instead of £100)

If you’re anything like me, you’ll come across many special offers on social media. Most of them are priced very similarly, and never use round numbers.

Why? Because our brain is being tricked into thinking that a £99- or £97-course is priced much closer to £90 than £100.

Do we really want to trick our clients? No, probably not. So – why not ditch the charm pricing and round up or down?

I’ve done it and now the prices on my website actually look a lot more straightforward and pleasing to the eye.

Plus, do we really want to attract clients who prefer someone else because they’re a mere £3 cheaper?

3. False scarcity and countdowns

Chances are, you’ve seen digital products being sold where “only 10” items were left. This is, of course, nonsense. But it works, as the user is being urged to make a decision based on fear of missing out.

Similarly, a sense of desperate urgency is used on many sales websites: we only have a day/ an hour / 25 minutes left before the once-in-a-lifetime offer expires. Sometimes this is accompanied by a menacing red countdown clock in the background, urging us to make an even faster decision to part with our hard-earned cash. Is it worth it? Not really. Most of the time, similar offers – if not the same – will come along in future.

More transparency is needed in these cases. Why not give generous deadlines (if any) and tell potential clients that they will have a chance to take up this offer again (e.g. you may run it twice a year).

Yes, maybe you’ll get slightly fewer people buying, but those who do buy will be a lot happier for not having been forced into a decision that, in many cases, they weren’t actually ready for. I know I regret quite a few of the purchases I’ve made.

4. Mediocre lead magnets that are only after one thing: an email address

I think pretty much all marketers use them, and we’ve all bought into them: lead magnets. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them at all, but when you do, use them wisely.

Ensure that your lead magnet is actually worth your potential client’s email address and time. Pack as much value into it as possible.

Also, why not offer some of your high-value lead magnets for free? I’ve come across some very respected social media experts who do this sometimes (e.g. John Espirian on LinkedIn).

And once you have the clients’ email address, please don’t bombard them daily with more emails.

5. Snake oil, secret recipes and ‘bait and switch’ tactics

Some experts out there claim that their way is the only way to success, especially in social media marketing. Take this with a very big pinch of salt. Snake oil peddlers still exist, and you don’t want to be one of them – or fall prey to them.

There’s nothing wrong with taking courses and learning from others. You can learn a LOT from good people out there! But you don’t need to pay thousands for “secret success” recipes that probably only work for the guru’s bank account. What these secrets often include are engagement pods, which is something to avoid, too.

Another thing to be wary of are ‘bait and switch’ tactics, where you sign up for a free course but then discover that it’s really only one big sales pitch.

So, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

6. ‘Woke washing’

The Ethical Move’ makes a great point about the use of ‘woke washing’ by many companies:

Woke washing is the appropriation of ethical and progressive values with the intent to leverage image and increase sales, when behind closed doors, the actions and words don’t match the reality (when a brand donates to BLM while exploiting BIPOC in their supply chain).

If you feel strongly about something, do stand up for it. What isn’t great is using e.g. a particular ‘awareness day’ for virtue signalling and increasing your sales, but then ignoring the issue for the other 364 days of the year.

‘The Ethical Move‘ really resonated with me. I still have lots to learn and I’m by no means perfect, but I’m a lot happier with my own marketing since pledging not to use the above techniques.

So, here’s to better marketing practices. Do check out the links and resources above and let me know if I’ve missed anything out!

the ethical move
“This badge represents my pledge to the ethical move in service of a new marketing standard based on transparency, trust, and honesty. Please connect with me if you see me not honouring my pledge.”
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Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling

Owner, Translate Digital Marketing

I especially love working with ethical, fairtrade and green small businesses.


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