Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ethical Implications for Marketing: Why Lying, Violence, and Sex Don't Work

When we think about marketing ethics, what do we think of? From my point of view, there are the glass-half-empty people who shout ‘oxymoron’, there are the optimists who believe that all advertising is helpful guidance, and there are the realists who think that it is a part of business, for better or worse. I’m going to take a look at a few areas of ethical concern for marketers, and how they can endeavor to win over the pessimists in each category.

Issues over truth and honesty

In his bestseller, “All Marketers are Liars,” Seth Godin makes the assertion that there are two ways to communicate: to rely on facts and what’s right and to tell a story that fits our worldview. In his opinion, the storytellers (read: marketers) win every time. According to Amazon’s description of the book, “Successful marketers don't talk about features or even benefits. Instead, they tell a story. A story we want to believe.”

The problem lies in the fact that lies are inevitably exposed, muddying the good name of the brand, product, or service. Some lies are more transparent than others. Godin’s blog exposes some of the more futile efforts of marketers to position a product, such as Red Lobster’s claim to be from Maine and American Spirit’s leading (not quite an outright claim, just not a denial of the assumptions) that all-natural tobacco is better for you than regular tobacco. The answer here, is just don’t lie or mislead – obviously, it looks bad. Red Lobster doesn’t have a single restaurant in Maine, and this isn’t difficult information to find. Red Lobster has plenty of other positive attributes for the marketing department to make valid claims to.

Issues with violence, sex and profanity

Everyone has heard that sex sells – and it really does for many companies. It attracts attention in ways that other methods simply cannot do. American Apparel has come under fire for its provocative advertising (among other things). In fact, it has an entire section of its Web Site dedicated to displaying its controversial advertisements. American Apparel’s advertising is famous for another reason: they use only non-models and they do not usually airbrush. Therefore, there is an air of reality in them that other ads do not have which is praised by some (for not creating the “perfect woman”) and criticized by others (for making them less of a fantasy and therefore more pornographic). Who is right? Roberta Clarke, branding expert and marketing professor at Boston University, states that the CEO “is intent on getting the awareness with the billboards, but with some people the perception is that this guy is engaging in pedophilia by virtue by having fairly young girls in pornographic positions. Yes there are freedoms, but there are also responsibilities. This seems irresponsible."

The FCC has specific rules for obscene, indecent, and profane material (yes, those are three separate categories). Obscene material is not protected under our First Amendment rights, indecent material is protected and therefore can only be prohibited in certain time slots, and profane material seems to be at the discretion of the Commission. Advertisers should follow these rules and regs, particularly if they are looking to air content that will be viewed by minor audiences. Some commercials that have been found to be too steamy for American audiences are here, here, and here (note: too steamy might mean that you should be 18 to click).

Issues with negative advertising

“To attack a rival is never good advertising. Don't point out others' faults. It is not permitted in the best mediums. It is never good policy. The selfish purpose is apparent. It looks unfair, not sporty.” Well said, Mr. Hopkins. Negative advertising is still apparent, though – people watch it for the same reason they watch intently as they drive by an ambulance.

Having just come off a record-breaking election, Americans are very familiar with negative advertising. Does it work for politicians? In a word, yes. Attack ads ask us to vote against someone rather than for someone, and it is a very convincing tactic. Sometimes, it is easier to make a decision based on what you don’t want. Does negative advertising work for companies? Not usually. Unlike politicians, companies hardly ever mention specific competition let alone run negative ads. Why is it different? A war of words would turn off consumers of both brands in the end; you don’t want to consume a product that is found to be undesirable, as the outcome would inevitably prove to be for both warring brands. Unless you are running for office, keep it positive and raise the brand up – don’t tear another one down.

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