Thursday, September 14, 2006

Morality, Ethics, Marketing

Let's take a brief break from the day to day marketing issues to think big thoughts.

Nearly every business activity has ethical implications, and marketing has more than most.

Seth Godin recently tackled some of the ethical questions of marketing in a blog post called "Marketing Morality."

Your marketing changes the way people act.

Not completely. Of course not. You can't get babies to start smoking cigars and you can't turn Oklahoma into a blue state. But on the margins, especially if your product or service has some sort of archetypal connection to your customers, you can change what people do.

Now it gets tricky. It gets tricky because you can no longer use the argument, "We're just giving intelligent adults the ability to make a free choice." No, actually you're not. You're marketing something so that your product will have an edge over the alternative.

Everyone knows about milk. The milk people don't need to spend $60 million a year advertising milk in order to be sure we all get a free choice about whether to buy milk or not. No, they do it because it makes milk sales go up.

What a huge responsibility.

If you're a good marketer (or even worse, a great marketer), it means that you're responsible for what you sell. When you choose to sell it, more of it gets sold.

I have no standing to sit here and tell you that it's wrong for you to market cigarettes or SUVs, vodka or other habit-forming drugs. What we do need to realize, though, is that it's our choice and our responsibility. As marketers, we have the power to change things, and the way we use that power is our responsibility--not the market's, not our boss's. Ours.

The morality of marketing is this: you need to be able to stand up and acknowledge that you're doing what you're doing. "By marketing this product in this beautiful packaging, I'm causing a landfill to get filled a lot faster, but that's okay with me." Marketers can't say, "Hey, the market spoke. It's not my decision."

I've never believed the canard that advertising is just about offering information. It's nonsense, and we al know it. It's about making people do things. As Seth notes, there are limits on one's ability to do that, and good marketers are keenly aware of them... but we should never pretend we're not trying to influence behavior. Because if we make that argument successfully, we've just argued our way out of our jobs.

And like Seth I'm not going to lecture anyone: just make sure that you are comfortable with what you do.

One of the marketing issues that fascinates me is what our marketing activities do to the cultural environment in which we operate. I'm a marketer, but I'm also a person who lives in the world we create, and like many other people I find the intrusion of marketing into everyday life troubling. There's the obvious stuff, like telemarketing calls and endless badly-targeted direct mail. There's spam. And of course there's also the appearing of ads everywhere from over urinals to on eggs.

As I marketer, I understand why it's done and that it works, but as a member of society, I hate it. And so I found this item from Wired News rather interesting.

Using symbols and slogans and logos to sell a product or a company has been around for as long as there have been products and companies to sell. But selling, like so much else in this increasingly hyper and over-hyped world of ours, has mutated into something uglier -- call it consumer marketing.

Technology's march only serves the beast. Each advance (if advancing is what it is) diffuses the way we get our information. If we now have 3,089 ways of taking in news and information, the marketing swine will find 3,089 ways of shoving their "buy this" message down your throat, whether you want to hear it or not. There is no escape.

With hundreds of thousands of marketers out there, clamoring to be heard over the din of their collective, orgiastic whoring, you can't read anything, watch anything or go anywhere without a ceaseless assault on your senses. The message, regardless of how subliminal, never varies: Buy this, own this, drink this, drive this, wear this, be this. In order to be cool, you must consume consume consume.

The irony of a writer complaining about "marketing swine" in a piece that appears on a web page that is able to exist because of the surrounding advertising is not lost on me. But the irony doesn't mean he's wrong.

It should tell us something that someone whose paycheck doesn't bounce because of ad revenues resents advertising so much. In the same piece, there's a link to this page, which tells people how to get logos off of their cell phones.

With some risk of damaging the phone. Think about that: there are people who so resent the appearance of a corporate logo that they will risk damaging an expensive piece of electronics to rub it off.

That, too, should tell us something.

Am I suggesting that we all renounce our evil marketing ways and change careers? Of course not. I'm simply suggesting that, like all good businesspeople, we should never forget the implications of what we do - and for marketers, that means asking if our exciting new marketing channel is something we really want to live with.

And, in practical terms: if people hate it that much, how well will it work?

1 comment:

Nelis said...

I agree with the proposition for marketers to take responsability for their deeds on a intrapersonal level. My question is - is this relevant to anything - out of an philosophical point of view.

The mere nature of our reality is consumer based. Thus in times where we promote ourselves as assets - how can a marketer's decision to pursue the occupation be objective.

My point is - it is good to realise the implication of your actions, but were the basis for moral justification is so harshly influenced by the subject, consumerism and it's effects, the acceptance of responsability on an intrapersonal level - is of little value to society as a whole.