If the means are ethical and the ends are ethical, then you’re obviously operating in an ethical manner when it comes to your persuasion attempts. In other words, if — by pursuing your persuasion priority — good things will happen for your target, your company and you, why not?
If your means are unethical and your ends are unethical — perhaps you fabricated vendor research to steer your company to an unqualified supplier because said supplier gave you Super Bowl tickets — then you’ve transformed into a slimy character worthy of The Wolf of Wall Street status.
The dilemma occurs when the ends are ethical, but the means are not.
Consider stealth marketing. For a well-publicized covert marketing campaign initiated by a leading telecommunications company several years ago promoting its new camera phone, the company hired 60 actors to pose as travelers in 10 different cities and asked passersby to take their picture. Upon handing a chosen individual the new phone, the actors then casually pointed out how to use the phone and subtly mentioned some of its most impressive features, effectively giving a soft sales pitch. Marketers stressed that they wanted the exchange to feel natural.
Is this an example of an ethical means to an ethical end?
To paraphrase the late corporate performance expert Joel DeLuca, “If they knew what you were trying to do, would they let you?” The “they” in the above example is the targeted buyer (not the company’s competitors). So if your target knew you were trying to get the best reaction possible to your product, and that meant engaging in a so-called “natural” exchange on the street, would your target still play along? Yes, probably.
But if you need to think about it twice, run the scenario through your head again.
In his book, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Daniel Pink offers a powerful rule of thumb for always operating ethically: Treat everyone as you would your grandmother.