Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead movie poster
Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead: Documentary or promotional film?

As part of a quest to eat a more healthful diet, I recently picked the documentary “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” as the night’s edutainment.

The story resonated at first. I watched Australian entrepreneur Joe Cross shed 100 pounds and cure his auto-immune disorder through a juice diet and then take his trusty juicer on the road to spread his message.

Then I learned that “Joe the Juicer” is now selling Breville juicers—the brand featured prominently in the film—as part of his get-healthy-with-juicing program.

The film’s message lost its credibility and impact as I started to wonder whether I had just watched a feature-length commercial. I questioned the motives behind the message. I questioned the ethics involved.

Enterprises, too, risk losing credibility and impact when they don’t consider ethics as part of their content strategy.

What exactly are ethics? They are the moral principles that guide our behavior. So, even a small ethical slip can prompt people to question those principles, eroding their trust in your motives, your brand, and your products or services.

The right ethical choice isn’t always obvious. In our digital age where media and marketing content are merging, making the right ethical decision becomes even more challenging. So, let’s look at a few areas of content where ethics come into play so you can devise guidelines before problems arise.


Sponsored content, native ads, promoted posts, branded content—there are many ways these days to trade or pay to get your message out.

You’ll need to asses the pros and cons of these tactics in relation to your goals (see more on our post, Sponsored Content, Branded Content + Native Advertising), but don’t lose sight of the value of transparency.

The problem with “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” is not Breville’s possible involvement. It’s that the nature of that involvement is obscured.*

Companies can gain credibility by publishing relevant, high-quality content that their users value. In the course of doing business, companies acquire useful expertise that is worth sharing with their customers. Just look at how FootSmart shares running research and other expertise on The Running Shop and, at the same time, does not hide the fact they’re selling running products.

Your audience is sophisticated enough to understand promoted content and evaluate it accordingly. But, they will feel hoodwinked if you don’t clearly label sponsored or otherwise paid-for content as such, and you’ll lose credibility.

Photo Editing

We are all so accustomed these days to “awesomizing” our photos, adding filters and effects, that we’ve started to note when a photo hasn’t been altered rather than when it has (#nofilter). But altering photos can lead to trouble, too. Just think back to the buzz over faked photos from Kim Jong Un and North Korea, or way, way back to the controversy over a darkened image of OJ Simpson during his murder trial.

People trust photos as a record of reality, so photos should not be altered to mislead, confuse or misrepresent. Illustrations and other works created by combining or heavily editing images should be obvious and/or clearly marked as such. For help getting started on creating your own photo editing policy, check out Consumer Union’s collection of 38 photo manipulation policies. Another helpful Consumer’s Union report explains various photo manipulation terms along with examples.

Fact Checking

Is checking your facts really a question of ethics? Just ask any of the Internet-targeted Boston bombing “suspects.” Or Bob Barker, Jackie Chan or the pop singer Gotye, who are among many celebrities who’ve had to refute reports of their death. Or any subject of any Internet rumor ever.

In our connected culture, misinformation can spread like wildfire. And once it’s out there, it’s hard to correct. The more people hear something, the more likely they are to believe it (the result of a persuasive technique called amplification).

That puts the burden on you to check your facts before you put them out there—or be responsible for the consequences.

Healthcare.gov homepage on Oct. 1
Homepage of Healthcare.gov the day it went live.

User Stories

Storytelling is all the content rage these days, and your users have some fantastic ones. But you need to be conscious about how you are using those stories. Will your users feel respected, or betrayed?

For a glimpse at how things can go awry, consider Adriana. All she was expecting for being part of the Healthcare.gov marketing was some free family photos. What she wasn’t expecting? To be the butt of online jokes and hatred after being featured on the home page during the site’s disastrous launch.

Even if people have shared their photos and stories themselves, are you opening them up to a level of scrutiny they’re not prepared for? Do you even have permission to use their photo, identity or story? A quest for authenticity, noble as it may be, can lead to exploitation if you’re not vigilant. Are you representing your users’ interests as well as your own?

Steps Toward Applying Ethics

We’ve covered a few topics where ethics play a role, but there are myriad more, and new ones are emerging all the time. Guard yourself against potential ethical pitfalls with these key steps:

  • Make ethics part of your content conversation. 
  • Consider creating guidelines or a code of ethics and keep it updated. 
  • Cultivate a culture of respect for your users. Remember that a good content strategy is one that considers their needs as well as your business goals. 

And ask yourself these kinds of questions mentioned in “Clout:”

“Will your brand, idea, product, or service really deliver what your web content promises and supports? Are you helping users make good decisions that are not only in your best interests but also in theirs? If not, you risk violating your users’ trust in a big way.”

For more on the importance of credibility, check out our Content and Credibility Study.

*While the movie and its web site do not address the Breville partnership, I eventually found this statement on Cross’s “ReBoot with Joe” web site.

Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in January 2014.

The Author

Sally Taylor is an associate writer with Content Science Review. You can contact Sally at Content Science.

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