Ethical Marketing: Myth or Reality?
by Alf Nucifora
The marketing profession has always been accused of self-interest. Scratch a church-going advertiser or marketer and you will be accosted by all manner of self-justification, couched in language about the legality of otherwise harmful products and the economic well-being that good old fashioned capitalistic marketing generates for society at large.
As one who has practiced in the marketing profession for more than 30 years and worked in the advertising business for 15 of those years, I can say without equivocation that the industry has much to answer for when it comes to the issue of ethical behavior. Let me not come off as a moralist. I've done things and worked on campaigns in the past that, today, I am ashamed of and genuinely regret. Everything from cigarettes to kid's cereals to name but a few.
In the broad sense, advertising is, as Jean Kilbourne says in Killing Us Softy, "...one of the most powerful, socializing forces in the culture. Ads sell more products. They sell images, values, goals, concepts of who we are and who we should be... they shape our attitudes and our attitudes shape our behavior." The best proof of Kilbourne's premise is the enormous success of Nike's Phil Knight in creating an obscenely expensive, keeping-up-with-the-Jones' solution ($120 designer footwear) to what is an otherwise basic need (functional sneakers).
Then there's the issue of 'legal' products. The argument states that if it's not banned by government, it's fair game for marketers. A rational point of view, one would say. Applying that logic, any number of socially unacceptable practices could be deemed appropriate from the segregation laws through the 60s to Phen-Phen marketing of today.
From Worst to Questionable
The best way for the marketer to confront the ethical conundrum is to address the specific case. Nothing focuses the mind better than to apply the principle to the application.
The case can be made that the 'sin' categories, including cigarettes, liquor and gambling are least able to justify their aggressive marketing practices, the law be damned. Marlboro and Budweiser have done as much to damage American health as have Smith & Wesson or heart disease. Look how much effort it took to drive a stake through the heart of cigarette icon Joe Camel.
In spite of the admonition that their product should always be 'served with fruit juice and toast as part of a healthy and nutritional breakfast,' children's cereal marketers are still essentially pushing sugar-laden carbohydrates with vitamin supplements as a parental sop. At least the candy and soda companies are honest in their intent and practice. They're selling sugar and lifestyle, nothing more. And, they're proud of it to boot.
For calculated dishonesty and marketing cynicism at its worst, nobody can beat the politicians. From the masters of the art, the GOP's now-deceased Attwater to the Democrat's Carville, we've learned that demagoguery and negativism, concealed in the sheep's clothing of democracy and the American way of life, is fair play. Electoral dirty tricks are admired and encouraged. George Bush, Sr. did it successfully with Willie Horton; George, Jr. carried on the family tradition in South Carolina last week. Even though everything's fair in love, war and politics, one still has to ask the question, how do these politicians and their strategists sleep at night?
And let's not forget the media. They're the first to scream about the malfeasance of our politicians and the decline of our values. Yet, it's acceptable to wallow in a pool of gratuitous sex and violence as long as high ratings are sustainable, particularly during sweeps. We're not talking here about the otherwise tame, bodice-ripping soap operas. Look instead to the blood and core of any local evening news broadcast, the soft pornography of the average MTV music video, the aggressively promoted car crash and animal attack footage of the FOX network, not to mention the over-the-top mayhem of WWF and its other prowrestling cohorts. And, we wonder why are kids are prone to anti-social behavior.
Other extreme examples abound. The funeral home industry deems it acceptable to take advantage when the customer is most vulnerable in spite of the fact that there is no justification for funeral arrangements running into the thousands of dollars unless it's for heads of state. The law may allow 'rent-to-own' companies to charge usurious, double-digit interest rates, because of higher credit risk or words to that affect. Others would call it preying on those in need. Celebrities tout products that they never use and corporate bottom-feeders, such as Bennetton, appropriate issues that should never be part of the marketing domain.
Then there are the less clear-cut cases. Is it wrong for the otherwise conservative and respectable mega-bank to lure the consumer with attractive credit card offers? It seems that even the minimum wage earner or college student can be a lucrative candidate for a barrage of upscale credit card application forms. Is it ok for marketers to imbed cookies on web sites or track customer purchase information with the belief that more effective one-to-one marketing means a better-serviced and satisfied customer. Are state realtor associations really justified in legally mandating (as they do in some states) a 6% residential sales commission fee, even though other sales intermediaries can do it for less? This is, after all, the deregulated age where aggressive competition is supposed to deliver the best benefit to the consumer.
And what about the fast food industry? Studies show that by age 20, 70% of the population has already developed some degree of coronary artery disease and one out of three children have high levels of cholesterol. 80% of America's kids now eat more fat than is recommended by the American Heart Association. If by the time they are 18, kids watch an average of 20,000 food commercials, 80% of which are for products of low nutritional value, can the hamburger and pizza chains morally justify their advertising and marketing aggressiveness? That heroic product shot of the bubbling cheese and the golden, deep-fried patty may inflame the taste-buds, unfortunately, the product itself blocks the arteries. In the end, someone dies, including 400,000 Americans from heart disease each year.
Truth be told, the majority of marketers are honest business people just trying to make a clean buck. And while business ethics may be on the decline, consumers are now more cynical, more educated and better able to judge for themselves. They're not the patsies they used to be.
Ultimately, there is only one course of action, the "family member" test. Ask yourself, can you, with a clear conscience, recommend that a close family member buy, use or consume the product?