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The Fakegate scandal: Social marketing ethics in promoting a difficult-to-sell good cause

Erik L. Olson (Handelshoyskolen BI, Oslo, Norway)

Journal of Social Marketing

ISSN: 2042-6763

Article publication date: 13 March 2018

Issue publication date: 23 July 2018




Although ethics are frequently debated within the social marketing literature, there has been very little empirical study of deliberate ethical transgressions in promoting a good cause. The current study therefore aims to contribute by examining public reaction to the Fakegate scandal involving a climate scientist’s use of ethically questionable tactics in the “selling” of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) cause.


Content analysis catalogues the Fakegate justifications and criticisms used by eight UK and US print media editorials and 1,010 associated reader comments.


Among the argument classification categories, the most common Fakegate justifications rely on a utilitarian “greater good” ethics perspective, while the most frequent criticisms rely on a normative “violation of rules” ethics perspective. AGW believers represent nearly all the scandal justifiers, while AGW skeptics and a substantial minority of AGW believers represent the critics.

Research limitations/implications

Content material is limited to only the Fakegate case and people with enough interest to contribute a relevant comment, although the expressed viewpoints may be more widely representative because they are generally consistent with findings from the AGW public opinion polls.


This study provides an understanding of the ethical dilemma that social marketers face when assigned a “difficult-to-sell” good cause. The findings of the widespread public skepticism toward the AGW cause suggest that social marketers should resist the temptation of using ethically questionable tactics in such difficult cases. Unfortunately, honest and effective AGW “selling” may be impossible until current technology and policy tradeoffs are reduced.



Olson, E.L. (2018), "The Fakegate scandal: Social marketing ethics in promoting a difficult-to-sell good cause", Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 8 No. 3, pp. 297-313.



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