Marketing, 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
|–||Negative||‘Evil hand’||Group pressure||Egalitarian|
|+||Positive||Invisible hand||Perfect market||Individualist|
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