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“What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising?

Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public.”

 

 

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

 

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Now.

Vilhjamur (from the quote) was a kick ass anthropologist (known for his description of the “Blond Eskimo” which is a Copper Inuit), his discovery of new lands in the Arctic, his approach to travel and exploration, and his theories of health and diet. And I am not sure what the hell he knew about advertising … but he did say the quote I used.

And because I opened with the quote let me address the whole marketing is evil (or ethical versus unethical) with this little “my point of view” overview.

 

I believe marketing people generally fall into three buckets.

 

1. Those who fabricate unimportant truths and tell you that they are important <these people are hacks and should be fired and told to pick up trash on the sides of highways>

 

2. Those who use existing unimportant truths and convince you that they are important <this is the largest group and will vary on a spectrum between those who do this knowingly – which puts them close to the highway garbage category – and those who are blissfully ignorant of what they are doing>

 

3. Those who take important truths and tell you that they are important <scarily this group may have the toughest job because we people are consistently uninterested in many important truths>

 

And it would be nice to suggest this is a simple 1 to 3 scale or, at minimum, a one to 5 scale. But I believe someone could quite successfully argue this three group scoring would be a 1 to 10 scale with lots of broadness in terms of interpretation and lots of caveats and excuses. And before any marketing person starts blathering about with caveats & excuses please make sure you read Bill Bernbach’s “Do this or Die” advertisement he wrote to advertising & marketing people (see marketing is evil part 2).

 

All that said … I empathize with people who suggest marketing is evil (evil being a broader term for “convincing people to buy shit they don’t really need or want to buy before they saw the marketing”).

I empathize because if I were to do some scoring I believe I would tend to see a lot of 4’s and 5’s.

I empathize because I just don’t see a lot of marketing that seems to approach selling stuff from a “what is in the best interest of the people” perspective.

 

Look.

I am all for capitalism and selling stuff … but a lot of marketing seems to lack a deeper moral/ethical substance. Not all … but some <a lot>.

 

And what makes it even more difficult to defend and discuss is that it is really difficult to put your finger on the core issue that seems to creep into the internal moral compass one would hope marketers would have.

 

Why?

Because of what I called ‘unimportant truths versus important truths.’ Both of which are truths just with some interpretation issues thrown in to make it all fuzzy.

 

About marketing truths

 

A beginning thought:

 

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“Record companies are in the marketing business.

 

Fashion probably wasn’t evil before marketing people got involved and tried to invent themselves and sell it to America’s youth by convincing them that the rest of America’s youth was already partaking. Fashion probably began as a groundswell of beauty: the tribe enjoying the way the buildings look and music sounds, right now, in this moment.  That’s valuable because it allows for substance to shift styles.  But marketing will do anything to avoid substance and engage only in style. No longer beauty that falls from trees like apples, fashion becomes shiny, scary chemical candy, unnatural and unhealthy.”

Kristen Hersh

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Ok.

How awesome and insightful is this thought?

There are so many great thoughts within it … well … it is scary.

 

‘fashion probably began as a groundswell of beauty.”

 

Think about this one. This is a big thought … much bigger than just about the fashion industry. Relevant to all of marketing. This whole thought revolves around substance versus style as the issue.

And suggests marketing has no substance … hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm … or, maybe better said, it thrives less on substance than style. Here is the bigger thought hidden in there … “valuable because it allows for substance to shift styles.”

 

So.

Substance creates beauty all on its own … and marketing creates style to showcase that which may, or may not, have substance. Or, as earlier noted, maybe marketing becomes dependent upon unimportant truths.

 

Oh, even worse, “created truths” (a creative way of saying ‘lies’).

 

Ok.

 

Does this alone make marketing evil? No.

Ok, well, not all the time.

 

Because the key is substance.

 

And marketing truths.

 

 

Marketing has a habit of “creating truths.” Yeah … yeah .. yeah … someone is gonna come back and suggest “no, we aren’t creating truths … we are simply uncovering truths.”

 

Semantics.

 

Marketing is in the business of tearing apart the fabric of thought and identifying specific threads within the fabric that may be worth pointing out to people.

In the end? It is a thread. And not the fabric.

 

An example?

 

Let me try this on for an example:

 

“Stores Create More Holidays; Tissues Made for Summer, Pink Irons for Fall”

(Wall Street Journal in august 2011)

 

People see 4 seasons (unless you live in California or the North Pole) but retailers see anywhere from 13 to 20 seasons. All designed to get shoppers into their stores and buy stuff.

 

The fabric? The season. The threads? The 13 to 20 “seasons” retailers see.

 

Once again … is this evil, or lying, or even “unimportant truths”? This is a really really gray area. Creating more holidays. They are creating more sales … inevitably they are just trying to create more interest. And they do all of this because retailers want impulse purchases (oh, by the way, which naturally happen to any of us … and marketing doesn’t create this … you <your own head> creates this).

 

Anyway.

Suffice it to say what they do is try to get you in the store more often. Because the more often you visit the more likely you are to buy stuff. And they do all of this quite thoughtfully.

 

So.

Research says the average retail shopper visits a store once every two to three weeks. And shoppers go to the grocery store every seven to 10 days.

 

That means traditional retailers added grocery items hoping to make people make more frequent shopping trips.

Do I begrudge retailers this? Nope. They have a business to run. And by being so “thoughtful” are they evil <in their quasi-manipulation of us shopping folk>? Nope.

 

And are they lying? Nope.

 

Let’s tear apart the fabric a little more.

 

In other words … let me try and and help you understand why there are a boatload of people out there who say marketing is evil. Because this next example really starts talking about “unimportant truths” and, in the end, we are talking about some sense of mental manipulation.

 

Let’s look how they do it to see if its lying or evil … let’s look at a retailer’s 4, oops, 13 season year:

 

–          Superbowl

–          New Year’s Resolutions (January)

 

–          Lawn and Garden (April)

 

–          Back to School/College(July through August)

 

–          Gifts for children; early entertaining décor (October, November)

 

–          Last-minute gifts, stocking stuffers, food/entertaining (December)

 

–          Health and Wellness January features exercise equipment, supplements and vitamins, items tied to shoppers’ New Year’s resolutions

 

–          Spring (March to May) includes Easter, Graduation Day, Mother’s Day

 

–          Pink/Women’s Health October includes displays of pink products and stores offer women’s health screenings.

 

–          Fall Gatherings (Late September through November)

 

–          ‘the day after Thanksgiving event,’ aka Black Friday. Includes gifts and splurge items. (November)

 

–          Holiday Entertaining and Gifting (November, begins the day after black Friday)

 

–          Organization and Storage(January)

 

(and I am sure I missed a couple in there … as well as I probably got some of the dates wrong … but … you get the point)

 

Why do they do this? Research shows that people are usually willing to spend more during “special seasons.”

And even more dollars if they are spending on their children.

 

Look. I don’t believe marketing is evil … but it is surely “wily smart” in that it is always seeking to find conscious or subconscious triggers to motivate behavior.

 

No.

Here is a truth. Impulse or not … marketing cannot really make someone do something they don’t want to do.

And, in today’s world with return guarantees and such … it is almost next to impossible to maintain what could be construed as impulsive behavior decision (because it can so easily be “undone”).

 

Marketing is a business.

 

You can certainly expect a retailer, and marketers, to make shopping as much of a science as possible. And by “science” I mean by often “managing unimportant truths.” In addition … they will build model stores, displays and end-caps (things at the end of the aisles) to see what makes people buy the most.

 

Once again, is that evil? Nope. It’s just being smart about your business.

 

In general I don’t think marketing is the embodiment of the Evil Empire. I think most people just try to do the best they can.

 

Now. “The best” can be pretty bad at times.

Simplistically. Bad marketing is bad. And ignorance, or doing what you believe is the right thing to do, is no excuse for bad marketing or making the unimportant important.

 

Good marketing sells substance or (still good) expresses the existing emotional relationships people have with products.

On marketing’s good days it ultimately helps the best companies and products win over the bad stuff.

On marketing’s BEST days they actually get people to believe the important truths.

 

Next.

Evil: confusing evil messaging and evil actions

 

I brought up the unimportant versus important truths upfront because I believe marketing‘s evilness really should be defined by that. But. issues gets compounded not just by what they say … but also by how and when they say it.

So beyond the message we shouldn’t get confused by marketer’s actions (which are not evil … just absurdly annoying … which I imagine could be construed as some level of evilness). I do wish more marketers would pay attention to information available to them.

According to Pitney Bowes research, consumers surveyed in France, Germany, the UK and the U.S. have indicated which marketing activities draw them closer … and which act as a repellent. If marketers would pay attention, people are quite clear about what they want from marketing interactions.

And if marketers would pay attention they would clearly see many of their actions are simply not having the intended effect. Worse, inappropriate communications often diminish a brand’s attractiveness, thereby losing people’s interest and ultimately even existing customers opt out.

 

So.

The good things? Customer satisfaction surveys. 75% were fine with them. Great opportunity for marketers to “not sell” but rather learn and create customized messaging/experiences based on each consumer’s preferences.

“This survey confirms that brands should listen to consumers before they send out their communications. Every interaction must honor the interests of the customer first, only then is a relevant offer or call to action acceptable to consumers. Each conversation between a brand and a customer is an opportunity to delight or disappoint. We’re all learning how to do more of the former and less of the latter.”

PitneyBowes Reasearch

 

On websites, 59% say they appreciate personalization such as “Welcome <name>.” For transactional sites, especially where purchases are being made, it can be reassuring to know that the site recognizes your personal account details and has a record of interactions to draw upon.

 

Okay.

Now the annoying stuff. And where marketing, I believe, just doesn’t help itself.

 

Efforts which are meant to be inviting but are just plain irritating to most consumers.

 

–          Asking customers to support a brand’s charity or ethical concerns (84%)

–          Sending offers from third-parties (83%)

–          Encouraging interaction with other consumers via an online community (81%).

 

Is this stuff evil? Of course not. But if you add these actions on top of the fact a marketer is most likely communicating an “unimportant truth” it is not only annoying but it is irrelevant. You have been intrusive and unimportant.

The double kiss of death.

 

Anyway.

 

Evil is always associated with people.

 

 

Truth or lie.

 

Annoying actions or relevant actions.

It all comes down to who is pulling the trigger.

 

And here is where marketing runs into its most trouble … marketing people.

 

Ok. Maybe it’s not the people … it’s just their common sense decision-making that seems to run into trouble.

 

All too often it seems the marketing people manage to run into troubling ethical dilemmas … and inevitably make some really bad, or certainly questionable, choices (with a consumer’s perspective in mind).

 

Most of the time these bad choices consist of less than the entire truth … or full disclosure of information the customer would want to know to make a reasonable decision. Let’s call this “selective truth telling.”

 

Or, as earlier pointed out, selecting one thread in the fabric to point out.

 

Or even “trying to convince you an unimportant truth is … well … important.” And, at its worst? Trying to convince you an unimportant truth is REALLY important.” This is probably the best example of “the lie of silence” (which I have written about before). It’s all very tricky because most products & services tend to be good, useful products. And the ethical dilemma is how much information is it okay to hide <not tell> from the buyer to make a sale.

 

Oh.

 

Silence. Omission. This is where many marketers will hide behind the excuse “but we only have so much time to capture someone’s attention.”

 

Shame on those marketers.

 

You always have time to tell the important truth. And, in your heart of hearts, a good marketer knows that honesty and important truths win in the long run.

 

In the end … I do believe the thought of marketing as evil (in a true sense) is absurd. In an abstract sense (like Kristen mentions in her quote I used)? Well. Possibly. Evil is a strong word.  It could be truly that marketing, when gone awry, can warp the true essence of the intent.

 

And that may seem evil but it is just wrong.

However.

 

Evil or not.

 

As a marketer myself … I would like to remind all marketers we have a responsibility. What we say and what we do DOES impact what people think … and ultimately can affect what they do. With that ‘power’ comes a responsibility.

 

And it would be evil, yes, evil for us to forget that.

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Written by Bruce