The dark side of Marketing

Raluca Mihăilă
14 min readJan 16, 2021


Suicidal flower | Raluca Mihaila Photography

I’m starting this article having in mind that almost any big concept developed today has the human as a center piece. Even more so, we live the most vibrant years of an era nourishing individualism, a period when human’s endeavours, desires, wishes and drives are the milestones of any community development. Of course, Marketing is no exception. To the contrary, it even covers a dual perspective: it is done by people, for people. Before going into details with it, I suggest we take a look at ourselves … more specifically, at some personality traits that we, more often than not, avoid looking at and which most of us encounter, unfortunately, more frequently than we’d like to. I am referring to the dark personality traits derived from dark featured and destructive behaviours holding us back in moments of high tension. They don’t just pup up, they are built and become inbuilt after intensive occurrence, just to be occasionally reactivated in the presence of disruptors of our daily routines, big concerns about tomorrow and uncertainty about finances or family well-being. These “accidental stimuli” are meant to raise the level of stress to unprecedented levels and to facilitate the dance floor for our dark traits.

Dark-side personality traits were first identified by Robert Hogan, who defined them as counterproductive behavioural tendencies that emerge when people are not actively managing their reputations. According to Hart Consulting, “dark-side personality traits emerge during times of high stress and are essentially coping mechanisms people use to manage these situations. Hogan noted that seemingly normal people can blow their tempers, disappear, avoid making decisions, or micromanage others when stressed.”

So where can we identify the dark side of our personality and what should we do, once we spot it?

Here are some examples relatable to international leaders


Probably most of the above personality traits sound familiar, because they are part of our lives and they have specific and very important roles in the relationships we cultivate with other people. We can start considering them as “weak spots” of our emotional equilibrium, tending to highjack our behaviour, only in moments of tension when we usually lose our sense of control and they take over us. One important aspect to be taken into consideration is that we shouldn’t feel bad or blame ourselves for spotting them in us or in our loved ones. What’s important for our wellbeing and for the people around us is to acknowledge them and what triggers them while trying to keep them under surveillance.

I asked Mădălina Bălan (Hart Consulting), a professional benchmark in the analysing and interpretation of the dark side in personalities, which are the two most common dark side traits encountered in Marketing people.

Mischievous is the first one- taking unnecessary risks, testing limits, misinforming through eluding important information that may not play in the favour of the producer, manipulating. You may emphasise, for instance, the benefits and minimise or elude some risks or negative implications of the use of a certain product. One could see this behaviour during the recent election campaign for City hall when some parties’ representatives were asked to comment on their specific recent loss and how they assess the poor results. Their mischievous answer was focusing on their positive evolution from last tour of elections and their satisfaction for the gain in sympathy among population.

Bold is the second- being narcissistic, egocentric, charismatic, self-confident, having a sense of entitlement, believing that winning is done by dominating others, aggressiveness and imposing own views on them, being unconcerned about others feedback or input. A campaign designed by a narcissistic could project a lot of confidence in the products by bringing in important public figures using or positively reinforcing that product or by claiming supreme authority in that field. Take a look at Guinness advertising “Surprisingly smooth. Choose greatness”. GUINNESS IS GOOD for you, they say in the old beer commercials.

Especially the combination of these two above mentioned derailing tendencies can lead to campaigns that are too much focusing on personal quick gains and not taking into account consumers wellbeing or interests”.

Coming back to the subject in the title, I would raise a question: so, what is Marketing? Is it a guideline of creativity or is it rather a method mixing craftsmanship, designing, pricing, promoting and selling something? And even more so, isn’t it a means by which over time, we aim to sell more, to more people, for more money, in more places and with more visibility? Roughly, it is a bit of all of the above to which we add a little bit of creative and strategic ordering the chaos of ideas. Of course, if we were to look at Marketing more thoroughly, ethics, sustainability, responsibility, liability, civic filters, eco-bio trends and many other positive and “bright” aspects show up, because regardless of how much money one wants to make, he can’t keep himself outside of a reliable circle of so much needed morale.

Considering Marketing a service done by people for people, I draw attention to another question: To what extent is Marketing related to our own dark side? My answer to this is a candle that burns at both ends: Marketing is related to our own dark side as much as it is related to our own humanity. First of all, in the mix of Marketing, the elements that drive all actions are the basic needs and desires of the customers, so marketers rely on Psychology, Sociology, trends, neurological research and behavioural sciences. Secondly, the same mix speaks the language of the needs and desires of the ones building it, because all strategies, plans and even the new reality they build through Marketing, are interpreted through the filters, troubles, positivity, negativity, fears, drama, love and stress of its owners. If we take into consideration the fierce competition of the marketers, we add an additional layer of stress. Would it be, therefore, fair to say that the dark side of Marketing is an extension of our personal dark sides? I believe so.

Is it OK to use Psychology rationale to determine compulsive buying behaviours? Is it OK to use Neuroscience to human’s own disadvantage, mental breakdown and emotional imbalance? Is it OK to start paying for NOT seeing advertising when browsing on YouTube? What is OK?


If you haven’t seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I recommend you should. And not for the symbolistic so-called Evil that’s been deployed in the world through social media channels and internet itself, but for a special type of critical thinking encouraged by the movie and able to lift a veil over our eyes. I consider this movie a practical guide into how to best and invisibly manipulate humanity through Marketing tools. It is a very good representation of where the dark side of Marketing can be found. Why? Because internet and social media are both products willing to sell more, to more people, for more money, in more places and with more visibility. How they do it, though, is another thing. Just a quick list of ideas making the movie worth watching to better understand the dark side of Marketing in a nutshell:

· Social media platforms started with the intention to create addiction. Software industry and drug industry are the only fields where we speak of users. The same dopamine effect from heroin consumption arises with every notification, tag, invitation, confirmation or online unsolicited online interaction. When feeling bad, we use the online pacifier: social media.

· Our attention is the product sold to advertisers. Because we don’t pay for the product, we are the product.

· Social media is a marketplace for human futures traded through constant and imperceptible manipulation of our online behavior and later on, in real life.

· The chain of command is machine learning — AI — better predictions — more accurate data — selling the data for bigger revenues.

· Faking reality through filters and showing off with false excerpts from one’s life can induce low self-esteem and provoke real life inadequacy, identity conflicts and a false sense of connection (anxiety, depression, addictions, unrealistic standards of beauty).

· The uniqueness of our feed comes from customised info based on our induced behaviour and online preferences. This feed can mislead us into believing that is real life and determines critical thinking on real life.

· The speed of processing data has grown by trillions, while our brains’ speed remained the same. This usually leads to exhaustion and a general feeling of overwhelming while browsing the social media.

Why do all these things happen? Why the cyberbullying, stereotyping, dark theft, use of fake bots, ambush Marketing, addiction programming, click baits, the online witch hunts, the fake news or the privacy abuse, all representative for the dark side of online Marketing, are in place and at such high rates? It might be mostly because the ones doing it lost control over their own balance between what’s good and what’s wrong or because they have the power and contexts to undermine our own. Through exclusive access to information and data and subjects to pressure from advertisers all over the world, they face a huge level of stress. Under these rather imperfect circumstances, they are in charge over what we see and perceive online as users, a prerequisite able to build the framework of dark side traits coming alive.

Of course, keeping a realistic vision and a balanced overview of things, we have to unappealable recognise the bright side of social media. After all, that’s why we are all leaving our traces online and we contribute to its supremacy. Many people, brands and organisations have benefited from social media as it connects people with one another and often with advertisers. But as we may see, not all of it is good or well-intended.

Asking Mădălina Bălan about the negative common psychological ground of leaders in the communication industry, I found out that:

“Creative industries attract people with a certain pattern: eccentric thinking, creative, out of the box, but in the same time odd, impractical, difficult to follow, unstructured etc. Leaders profile may add to this imaginative derailleur (mental eccentricity) also the narcissistic tendencies, quite common for those who get ahead on top of organisations or start one”.

It impacts both the consumers and brands

The unintended consequences of social media hit both the consumers and organisations advertising online. For consumers, apart from what I mentioned before, we can think of the incidental dramas going viral due to streaming technology or the occurrence of negative online behaviours such as revenge pornography or trolling.

In terms of brands and organisations, they can be easily be the target of opportunistic behaviour or counter activism. Social media, even at times harmful to customers, officially passes the mike to users and gives them the power to easily start any defamation campaign against a blameworthy brand. And that’s OK because it puts ethics where it should be. The problem is when this is done through fake news.

So, regardless of how much Good is put out there throughout the globe, how can one still be a fan of Marketing, when things can become so easily questionable and volatile? Is Marketing a means of manipulating people into purchasing products or is it, like anything else, the most powerful tool adjustable by the character of those using it? Nuclear energy can be used for both creating and destroying. If done within ethical frames and with a focus on humanity and sustainability, it becomes good Marketing and becomes gold.

Possible solutions

How can we, as consumers, become less affected by the addiction instilled in us by online media and, therefore, remove ourselves from the darkness? For starters, we can

· turn of our notifications and alerts that defocus us from activities in real life

· define (and respect) the time spent online

· appreciate what we have every day. A small exercise of gratitude makes wonders.

· don’t go back online when we feel like we need to. We actually, don’t. The mind needs comfort, certainty, so it addresses the easiest way out. We should try out-minding it.

· use social media as a reward, not as an idle activity.

How can brands escape the trap of their own dark side? They could:

· stop deifying SEO as the God all mighty for poor quality content, and just start writing good texts. It’s the only way to remain relevant, so they should eliminate keyword stuffing.

· stop relying on people’s passive behaviour when promoting their products and start getting people out of numbness through qualitative communication.

· start thinking more about authenticity than about positioning. Plus, they should keep in mind that size makes them more vulnerable than safe.

· learn courage and be insurgents, not incumbents.

· stop using irrelevant words for their business, just because they are heavily used. If they don’t want to be penalised by Google through Latent Semantic Indexing , it’s better to stick to who they are and use relevant keywords for that.

· prevent the spinning of articles and stop trying to “sell” new content out of an older one. It is better not to write anything new, than to write the same ideas, but in different order. Regardless of winning backlinks and establishing their website as an authority, it is unethical and they might be penalized by search engines.

· stop link farming by setting up many small sites or blogs for the sole purpose of linking back to their site with the intent to improve their ranking. Instead of this, they can consider publishing qualitative texts directly on the website.

· stop paying people to review them with the intent to improve your sales. Shoppers trust the opinions of their peers more than they trust product descriptions, but ultimately truth will get out and their reputation will shrink.

· avoid “cherry blossoming” by buying followers, email lists and links and also exchanging links with other websites. It is unethical and it violates the terms and conditions of online usage, they will be downgraded, seen as spammers and remain with a bad reputation.

Marketing is not evil, although many signs could indicate to that, but it can be used for personal evil or opportunistic purposes. For instance, pricing your product very high just to look superior but without placing an upper level of quality can be considered unethical. Even though there might be people willing to buy your product, the price doesn’t rely on good quality products. Another example to get people to pay more without getting measurable value is to offer three products of a specific type, two of which they don’t expect people to buy: a cheap but clearly inferior one, a very expensive one, and a wildly expensive one. That makes consumers feel they’re being wise in choosing the middle one even though it offers worse value per dollar than its juxtaposition implies. It’s misleading in a bad faith manner.

Any marketer and even economist could say “but it’s a free market, if someone buys it, someone else should sell it”. That might be true, but being possible doesn’t make it right.

Another unethical tactic could be, for instance, to create a feeling of false scarcity with a tagline like “only 10 products left” when you know for sure that other 100 pieces are waiting in the back.

“Who shall rule?”. This is one of the fundamental questions of nowadays, either we refer to business or politics or social communities. “Human beings are the most consequential beings on Earth”, as dr. Robert Hogan said. Leadership is even more crucial as a small group of human beings has the power to make others to do what they want. Getting ahead in a company is not always the same with being effective at taking good decisions such as what budget get spent on what, what marketing messages get out in the market to ensure sales revenues etc. Some dark side characteristics such as “boldness” (self-confidence, egocentrism, charisma) or mischievous (charming, limit testing, good at using words and getting out of any trouble just by talking, being a good ”politician”) are appealing to others in the first place, therefore these people mesmerise others, convince them to support them in their ideas. The negative implications unfold like a virus, in time and the effect gets bigger and bigger. So, organisations should pay attention who gets in charge. That is the first mechanism to prevent too many bad decisions and money spent on toxic campaigns. Secondly, people, as they grow in their careers and take leadership positions should understand that knowing yourself through the lens of others is the best investment in self-development. Understanding their reputation and the consequences of their actions on others is crucial for preventing starting toxic marketing campaigns. (Mădălina Bălan)

Marketing is rather dual, than driven by a double standard principle

Are people manipulated by Marketing tactics into buying products they wouldn’t have bought otherwise?

The bright case.

If the Marketing strategy promotes the great quality and features of the product or if it educates and elevates the public, then the purpose of these actions is solely to make the product stand out based on the evidences that it should. In a market full of commodities, every product worthy of attention should and can stand out within an ethical and fairness frame. This is what makes Marketing beautiful, powerful and magic, because it has the unique power to change communities for the better through creativity, innovation, disruption and society growth ideas.

The dark case.

If the Marketing strategy is used to promote inflated and sometimes false features of a product just to get more money, it is conducted under the wand of bad will. For instance, selling a patented medicine when a cheap one is just as effective, persuading teenagers to smoke, manipulating the political elections or selling medical services at a high price just because you know people can’t get treatment otherwise, are behaviours derived from the dark side of people doing guerrilla Marketing.

There is another type of dark side of Marketing if we think about the one done poorly. Seth Godin used to say about this that “more people are doing Marketing badly than any other profession I can imagine. What an opportunity…”. Some things to look at here, if in the position to do it:

- see it as a tool, and not as an end

- don’t obsess about the customer until competition becomes a threat. Customers are not always right, provided you are able to know better.

- brag about your product, not about how great you are

- don’t compromise your credibility through shiny advertising, when everybody knows the truth you’re trying to hide.

“They told me to do it”

Just because we can market something doesn’t mean we should, nor does if the CEO tells us to launch something we don’t believe in. The one who gets something out there is the one responsible for it.

“In the age of social networks, content evolves hand-in-hand with the mode of dissemination. What matters is pass-along potential, and nothing gets passed along like humor, particularly sarcasm or the thrill of the ‘gotcha’ moment. Sound bites have always been part of political communication, but decisions about which bites to air used to be in the hands of at least half-way responsible and accountable editors. Now everybody has a say in deciding what gets disseminated, and everybody seems to like passing along the put-down more than the uplift.” (Harvard Business Review).

Introducing a devil’s advocate for this, Eileen L. Wittig, a journalist for Foundation for Economic Education, believes that “I’m glad businesses have to compete with each other via Marketing in order to win my money”. Aren’t we all? Wittig also thinks that “If you buy something unnecessary, that’s not the marketer’s fault (sorry). In fact, it means they did a good job”. They used to say that people love to buy but they hate to be sold. From this perspective, the best Marketing is the one that catches attention and drives revenue. We now know, nevertheless, that it is important what’s behind of it. Value oriented campaigns deserve the stage.

One final thought for those who want to stand out

What about the extinction of companies promoting products everybody can leave without versus why make art when nobody sees it? Good Marketing is necessary for the health of any organisation selling a product solving a human need. Without it, innovations would have never found their way outside the laboratories they were created in. Charities would not be able to raise money for disadvantaged communities, students would have little motivation to learn, good people would not be heard, great books would not be read.

People reviews, if informed and fact based, are also Marketing.

So how can we stand out in a meaningful way in a context of over polluted communication? I choose to quote Seth Godin again: “The genius work of marketing is to bring a voice into the room that makes something that changes us, that changes our choices, that changes our dreams, that’s what we marketers do. We make change happen”.

This is how we can stand out. And like Philippe Petit used to say “Before we can stand out, we must first get clear on what we stand for. If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”



Raluca Mihăilă

I use multidisciplinary thinking to spot the creative differentiator in ideas & products worthy of a future of meaning.