The Four Cultures of Marketing Ethics

smoking-santaMarketing, whether of a product or an idea, can be overt or it can be covert.

In the former everyone can see what’s happening and can willingly consent to it. The latter, though  can become out and out manipulation. Mostly, there’s a big grey area in between.

There’s been some popular discussion of this issue on the internets recently. Marketing writer and blogger Seth Godin wrote an insider’s view of marketing ethics: Is marketing evil?


In response, ‘Sales & Marketing guru’ Bob Poole came up with a truly awe-inspiring example of greenwash: a recent magazine advert/insert with the word ‘organic’ repeated 23 times! And as you already guessed, it was an ad for cigarettes.

Egalitarian Marketing Ethics

Poole recounts his personal dilemma with ethical judgement:

“And then I thought, “Who am I to preach to people about what is right and wrong?”‘

He managed to overcome his reticence because:

“This blog is about sales, marketing and leadership. And, I think you read it because you and I are alike and believe in many of the same things. And, I think you’ll agree that when marketers use their talent to sell products or services that they know have a chance of causing pain, suffering and death, we need to shine a light on them.”

Having identified a group whose members are alike and agree, Poole adopts an Egalitarian activist strategy in engaging this group for the cause:

“I believe that most of us can look at either of these ads and see an evil hand at work. Let’s make sure we let others know too. Let Wired [magazine] know you don’t appreciate this type of advertising.”

Hierarchical Marketing Ethics

But Egalitarianism isn’t the only approach to ethical decision-making in marketing.

Poole wouldn’t be the first to get upset by Natural American Tobacco. Following an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission the company agreed to add the following caveat to its advertising:

No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette.

In other words, the Hierarchical approach to marketing attempts to have it both ways. Ads can say ‘100% natural’ as long as they also say:

No additives in our tobacco

does NOT mean a safer cigarette.

Outside the Hierarchical frame of reference this may seem nonsensical. Surely these ads are either OK, or they’re not! But the hierarchist approach is more concerned with procedural rationality than with substantive or normative rationality and so, for Hierarchy at least, there is no contradiction in the displaying of contradictory messages. This way, on the one hand the proponents get their ad and on the other hand the opponents get their warning. Problem solved! Where Egalitarianism sees an ‘evil hand’, hierarchy seeks to ensure an even handedness.

Individualist Marketing Ethics

But Hierarchy isn’t the last word on ethical decision-making in marketing.

Let’s go back to Seth Godin. Ever the optimist, he argues that it’s not about marketing, it’s about invividual marketers.

“Just like every powerful tool, the impact comes from the craftsman, not the tool”.

Marketing itself is ‘beautiful’, ‘powerful’ and ‘magical’. Since its invention, “it has been used to increase productivity and wealth.”

For this Individualist approach to decision-making, ethical dilemmas are resolved in the perfect market, in which perfectly symmetrical transactions are informed by perfect knowledge:

“marketing works for society when the marketer and consumer are both aware of what’s happening and are both satisfied with the ultimate outcome.”

Like Bob Poole, Godin also has his own legitimacy crisis: “I’ve got a lot of nerve telling you that what you do might be immoral”. Happily for him, though, he doesn’t have to make the call:

“The good news is that I’m not in charge of what’s evil and what’s not. You, your customers and their neighbors are.”

Clearly, for Godin, evil-handedness and even-handedness alike are no match for the invisible hand of the market.

Fatalist Marketing Ethics

We’re nearly done, but not quite.

There’s one more thing you can do with your hands and that is to raise them in the air in a gesture of surrender or resignation. This is the Fatalist approach to decision-making and it proceeds from the assumption that it doesn’t really matter what we do or think because it’s not really us who are in control anyway. Fatalists, by definition, are resigned to their fate. But that certainly doesn’t mean they are inactive. Fatalist activism can be seen in the low-risk ethical opportunism of the maxim ‘if I don’t do it someone else will’. Another fatalist response to organisation is to increase the incidence of random events, as though to confirm randomness as the structure of the universe, and therefore the market. Trying to stop it will just make it worse. The best you can do is to patch it up. The perfectly ethical Fatalist response to smoking adverts would be to start marketing nicotine patches.

An example of Fatalism in action is the US Surgeon General’s guidelines, which list seven ‘effective pharmacotherapies for smoking cessation’ – surely a marketing playground! Note that in the guidelines lobbying elected representatives, regulating smoking ads or improving market intelligence are no-where listed as effective therapies.


Summary: Marketing’s role in society

Sign Role Metaphor Mechanism Culture
Negative ‘Evil hand’ Group pressure Egalitarian
= Balanced Even hand Regulation Hierarchical
+ Positive Invisible hand Perfect market Individualist
? Unknowable Raised hands Lottery/therapy Fatalist

For the Record

The World Health Organisation predicts a billion smoking related deaths this century. My own view is that the promotion of smoking is wrong in all its guises and that if there is a Hell those who profit from smoking will go there, where they will choke on their own fumes throughout all eternity. But the theory of Four Cultures, described here, is my way of forcing me to recognise my own biases. It tells me, quite clearly:

  • “That’s exactly what an Egalitarian like you would say! Stop behaving like a caricature and come up with some better arguments – unless you want to end up preaching to the converted.”
  • “Self-righteous anger is just one strategy. If you’re serious about change, you should expand your repertoire into the other three cultures, however dangerous or counter-intuitive it may seem”.
  • “The most successful movements for change create solutions that can appeal to all four cultures, rather than sticking with just one cultural bias”.
  • “The argument isn’t going to end. Just when you think you’ve got it fixed, it’s going to pop up somewhere else. Better stay prepared and keep debating.”

See also: The Dark Side of Cultural Theory

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5 thoughts on “The Four Cultures of Marketing Ethics

  1. okay, but questions:

    1. Would the individualist think it’s beautiful if he knew the tobacco company was trying to get him to form a low perception of the risk of cigarettes through the company’s invention of the the individualist iconography of Marlboro Man? Surely he would recognize this is going on, so it’s not really being tricked that he’d resent. I suspect he (or she–consider Virginia Slim) might still resent the self-interested *agency* of another in the formation of his cultural meanings & in the management of his cognition of risk. I think in fact the emergence of the view that the tobacco companies were trying to shape culture as a way to manage risk perception is what led to the downfall of the cigarette in the U.S.

    2. Is there a way to have a moral position that doesn’t presuppose one or another cultural worldview? Or are you willing to bite down hard on the relativist bullet (I guess this is what Marlboro Man would do!). In the spirit of WWMDD (“what would Mary Douglas do?”), she and Wildvasky suggest that relativism isn’t the necessary outcome of CTRisk. See Risk & Culture, pp. 187-95. Frankly, though, I don’t quite see their way out. Maybe you could help me and others if you can explain what they are trying to say?

    3. Is it naive–from a CT standpoint–to believe that individuals of *all cultural worldviews* would likely oppose anyone’s self-conscious exploitation of their disposition to form perceptions of risks that match their worldviews? If so, can’t that be a foundation for an ethical view that persons of all worldviews would accept, or that would leave one confident that one’s own ethical appraisal is not merely a culturally partisan one?

  2. Thanks for the questions DK. I’m going to think about them.

    Question 1 seems to be assuming the cigarette companies were behaving immorally. I’m not convinced they were, in their own terms. They were behaving self-interestedly, which may be different. At least I’m entertaining this possibility, against my non-individualist instincts. To put it another way, if the cultural biases come complete with diverging moralities, then everything three of four cultures attempt will be by definition immoral. Michael Thompson (2008) reconfigures the ‘group’ axis into a scale of accountability, high to low. On this basis, being accountable is not highly prized in the Individualist worldview (and don’t we all know it). So holding tobacco companies to account is something that has to be done without the aid of Individualist institutions, because they can’t understand what the fuss is about or where the ‘wrongdoing’ lies.
    I like your suggestion that it was cultural distrust that did for smoking in the US, rather than, say, a recognition that it gives you cancer. I agree.

    2. Personally I’m biting the bullet, with a Rortyan kind of bite. For me, it’s argument all the way down. I like Chantal Mouffe’s (or Bonnie Honig’s) idea of ‘agonism’. That’s why I’m not at all sold on the idea of a ‘hermit’ culture that somehow stands above it all by not getting involved. I think culture is the sea we swim in and there’s no getting out. But GGCT shows that it’s a constrained relativism, in the sense that it’s far from being ‘anything goes’. Douglas used GGCT to promote her vision of hierarchy, while Wildavsky used it to help him denigrate environmentalists. Most others use it to downplay Fatalism. My take is that many institutions currently need to be more Egalitarian. But the theory forces me, I think, to concede this may be more a balancing act than any kind of Egalitarian revolution, and also to recognise Egalitarianism in places I would otherwise take for granted. I need to re-read the passage you cited. Is it perhaps that Egalitarianism entails or encourages relativism, whereas the other cultures, for varying reasons, don’t? I think there’s a good fit with agonism, or something like it, but I’m fairly sure GGCT doesn’t require this.

    3. Well, in practice there clearly is an ethic of basic respect being lived out, wherever people decide to turn from killing those they can’t live with, to living with those they can’t kill (in Michael Thompson’s phrase). That’s the turn from antagonism to agonism. As I think I’ve said, I’m not convinced GGCT has an adequate concept of power, of how this turn can happen. In the concept of ‘clumsy solutions’ it seems to proceed on the basis of case studies, which is encouraging, but still for me not fully convincing. Bent Flyvbjerg has said, ‘Power has reasons that Reason knows nothing of’. My more modest hope is that GGCT can change that to ‘Power has reasons that Grid group cultural theory knows a little bit about’.

  3. Pingback: Half the cheese or double the cheese? Why not have both? « Fourcultures

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