Are you using an ethical framework for your marketing decisions?
Author: Leonhard Lades and Liam Delaney linkedin.com/in/leonhard-lades-b8678150 and linkedin.com/in/liamdelaney2016
Change for good... (says who)?
Social Marketers, Charity Marketers and Behavioural Scientists have shown that behavioural interventions can change people’s behaviour for good by helping them make positive changes in their lives . Many agencies around the world have increasingly invested in developing teams to understand behavioural change through such interventions.
However, it is also important to sit back from time to time and ask questions about the ethics of our behavioural change interventions. For example:
- Is it ethically acceptable to aim to change behaviour in this specific context?
- Is the behaviour we aim to encourage really in the best interest of the person?
- Is it possible that the techniques we are using are manipulative?
- Who gave us the right to change others’ behaviours?
Surely, these are difficult questions. And there are even more of them as discussed in the philosophical literature on the ethics of behavioural change interventions. [2–5]
In many cases, however, intuition will give us a decent first idea about whether a given behavioural change intervention is ethical or not, and we can often identify an unethical design when we see it. In some situations, all we need is to sit down and ask ourselves questions about whether a behavioural intervention is ethically acceptable or not.
So let's apply some rigour
But what are these questions that we can ask ourselves even before we implement the interventions to differentiate ethical from unethical attempts to change behaviour for good?
Based on extensive review of a wide range of literatures in behavioural science and philosophy, we have recently suggested that there are 7 broad areas to consider: 
- Fairness: Does the behavioural change intervention have any undesired redistributive effects?
- Openness: Is the behavioural change intervention open or hidden and manipulative?
- Respect: Does the behavioural change intervention respect people’s autonomy, dignity, freedom of choice and privacy?
- Goals: Does the behavioural change intervention serve good and legitimate goals?
- Opinions: Do people accept the means and the ends of the behavioural change intervention?
- Options: Do better alternatives exist, such as different techniques or policies, and are they warranted?
- Delegation: Do we have the right and the ability to use the power delegated to us with the behavioural change intervention?
In line with the first letters of the keywords mentioned above, we call this the FORGOOD framework.
The next time you are designing a behavioural change intervention, you may want to sit down for a moment and consider whether the intervention is ethically acceptable. Maybe the FORGOOD framework can help you structuring your thoughts and ensure that the intervention works to benefit people without unintended consequences.
We have developed the framework with the literature on the ethics of nudging in mind. However, the ideas are applicable to much wider contexts. It may be the case that you need to consider more than the 7 questions posed in the framework as there may be additional case-specific ethical issues. But FORGOOD is hopefully a good start.
And let's do good with FORGOOD
For more details on the FORGOOD framework, including a link to the academic paper, slides, a handout, a poster, and a worksheet, visit https://bsp.ucd.ie/forgood-resources/. We are happy for people to freely use these resources. They have been developed to be used in teaching settings and by practitioners and we would be grateful to hear from organisations who have found the framework useful.
1. Behavior Change for Good Initiative. https://bcfg.wharton.upenn.edu/.
2. Sunstein, C. R. The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science. (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
3. Bubb, R. & Pildes, R. H. How behavioral economics trims its sails and why. Harvard Law Review 127, 13–29 (2014).
4. Hausman, D. M. & Welch, B. Debate: To Nudge or Not to Nudge. Journal of Political Philosophy 18, 123–136 (2010).
5. Rebonato, R. Taking liberties: A critical examination of libertarian paternalism. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
6. Lades, L. K. & Delaney, L. Nudge FORGOOD. Behavioural Public Policy 1–20 (2020).