Do We Have An Ethical Imperative To Be Good? 

Morality in marketing may appear to some as an oxymoron, and whilst good business practices (or rather, their absence) aren’t the primary focus of this piece, I will attempt to make the point that these practices if left unchecked and unquestioned, can lead to inherently toxic & institutionalised behaviours, from which few come back. 

Much of the theory of morality in marketing often involves hypotheticals that invoke the behaviour of sleazy salespersons. This fails to examine certain deserving nuances, though it is at times a valid aspect. I’m going to grant this …for now …(the juvenility of enth-degree debate tactics isn’t lost on me dear readers…at least not yet.). 

What lies beneath…

Marketers & Advertisers alike often come to the realisation that they cannot manufacture desire. However, just because marketers lack the tools of magic required to make one want for something, they still can infer and predict with striking precision, and optimise the interception of, your specific desires right at the moment when you are most likely to make a purchase. 

Although this might be a cynical view, no one can deny that, fundamentally, what marketing aims to do is condition the user by exploiting psychological traits (we see bigger things first, or as contrast draws attention, etc.) with the aim to optimise and optimise until you are either trying to induce a purchase and to get the user to immediately recall what was already marketed to them, or to entice the user to give in and believe they need your product. 

For me, the moral murkiness of it all emerges when the scientific observation of the idiosyncrasies of behavioural demographics is monetised on a massive scale. 

{The predictable response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again, does it? However,  if one were to add some variability to the mix—say a different delicious treat magically appeared in your fridge every time you opened it, a desire is created. Point is, variability begets desire (imagine Pavlov’s sweet, fabled and hungry pupper, but with opposable thumbs).}

Ethicists tend to evaluate and provide recommendations and prohibitions without concern for their influence on the financial well-being of firms. This disconnect has unintended consequences: 

First, moral dictates often are naive to the standards of marketing managers, and often out-of-touch with the complexities of real-world firms and financial incentives. 

Second, scholars tend to discount prescriptions for change since they do not reflect the full range of management requirements for success. 

Some of the latest design training marketing methods and training techniques available online are based on scientific observation of the brain’s response to certain shapes and colours, the pseudo-chemical response to the story, as well as baiting readers with triggers based on brain function. 

This is vastly different from previous ad landscapes. Modern businesses not only deal with competition from other businesses from all over the world but must also contend with the shortened attention spans compared to say, 20 years ago.

To an ethicist, this might seem like a mitigating argument- one which excuses an ethical fishiness in favour of an inevitability of the tides. To a marketer, however, there’s but a skerrick of a discussion to be had in this space, as this is simply how business is done. 

One thing is clear: that, although the pursuit of social responsibility and ethical marketing is not exactly the most profitable business model, it is undoubtedly the responsibility of an agency (and its individuals) to ensure it is acting responsibly.

The Sun Also Rises?

In the early days of the renaissance, the artists, writers and poets we now credit for changing the trajectory of the western world were initially ambivalent to their roles as gatekeepers of the shifting moral dictate. This didn’t last long, however, as word spread quickly of the advances in thinking on a swathe of issues related to equity and proper treatment (much less, what it means to be good!) A profound responsibility was realised – among other fateful changes, the Florentine renaissance and the work of its titans (Greco, Copernicus etc.) ushered in a new age of intellectual accountability. 

The heroes of this era were responsible for changing the minds of the masses and, not since the present have we seen a period of such rapid ideological change. 

The founders of social media platforms (and the other kings of tech) are in some respects, our gatekeepers of change. It is disheartening to realise that even to this day, these modern curators of the moral fabric of our global society all too often deny & evade curatorial responsibility for the subsequent (unintended) outcomes of their platforms and products. 

Therefore, an argument can be made that not only engaging with these platforms is ethically dubious, but that the very engines of marketing should be moved away from what they currently lean on- which is the response of activating emotion. Instead of a system which measures engagement by proxies- i.e. things that measure your galvanic skin response- such as anger, lust, laughter, rage, should we instead try to think about what else we can optimise in this space?

A  question still very much up for debate is: when one acts in a way that elicits an action, is one partly responsible for bringing about subsequent outcomes? This question is evaded by social media giants in the form of drawing a distinction between platforms and publishers, as different regulations govern each in regards to how responsible they are for say- the spread of disinformation during electoral campaigns. 

{N.B. As of 31st of October 2019, Twitter banned all paid -for political advertising on the platform}

It is clear that this is where one of the biggest evils emerge; to incite the gamut of humanity’s worst, most divisive aspects, is to incite the opening of Pandora’s Jar (or box if you want to indulge the immense mistakes of our favourite Dutchman, Erasmus!). 

Marketers don’t exist in a vacuum

A counter-argument I often hear from marketers is usually packaged in some form of: Is it unethical to buy a knife? And, to my cynical ear, it always comes off as a tad cunning- “How can marketing be bad? People are free to make their own choices” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…

In many respects, this argument bears a resemblance to the ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ argument, deployed by NRA stooges – whose morality is often laden with catchpenny fear-mongering & ethical evasiveness. 

Unfortunately, all too many use this argument as a way to abdicate moral responsibility entirely. Business has a devilish inclination to drink from the well of capitalism and turn it into a perverse caricature of itself. Without a sense of morality or ethics governing operations, financial markets that should work with some degree of efficiency and effectiveness become damaged by ever-growing incentives. 

Bloomberg columnist Clive Crook stated:  “it is impossible to extract markets from a “wider social and political system.” “ 

And, Mr Crook, I agree.

The history of businesses in runaway capitalistic societies has repeatedly proven that left to their own devices, executives too frequently are unwilling to engage in open or free competition without deception or fraud. 

And it seems, should the two motivations ever do battle, the incentive to be good is not nearly as potent or as seductive as the incentive of capital generation. 

Morality marketing is…?

Morality Marketing is brands are using their influence, platforms and advertising reach to deliver moral lessons to society- a logical evolution of brand activism which saw brands and businesses taking a public – and sometimes quite brave – stand on controversial social issues. Recent examples include ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s support for gay marriage, ride-hailing company Lyft’s rejection of US President Trump’s anti-Muslim immigration policies and Nike’s backing of controversial footballer Colin Kaepernick.

Simply put, it is marketing constructed around an ethical stance. Morality marketing isn’t Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), although they certainly work well together. As opposed to CSR, which are focused, public-facing partnerships that better the community around a business in hopes of garnering positive PR. 

This is no doubt a net positive, though morality marketing is fraught with potential problems. For one, it can have the effect of alienating a significant portion of potential buyers, even some loyal ones as, in demonstrating a clear-cut stance on a moral issue- can, therefore, represent your brand as disagreeing vehemently with the opposite point of view. 

A number of historical cases have shown this to have a powerful effect on brand loyalty moving forward- including the Colin Kaepernick Nike AD campaign (example above), which saw thousands of product owners take to social media to share videos of them destroying the company’s products in solidarity with the great and unmatched Donald Trump- despite this, Nike’s stock value increased by nearly $6 billion dollars. 

Clearly, this was a gamble that paid off

As a consumer, however, it is sometimes difficult to figure out whether a blatant exercise of morality is genuine and truly ‘for the cause’, or a somewhat disingenuous attempt to capitalise on social movements for financial gain…i.e. Seeing a financial opportunity in exploiting a socio-political movement, just to make money. That would be evil, right?

We’d all like to think that our favourite brands and companies don’t do this, that they really care, and that the financial benefit is just an added bonus, but in all likelihood- a little of column A, and a little from column B. 

Managing Expectations & The Pygmalion Effect 

In the legend, Pygmalion harnessed his godly talents such that he created a statue so sublimely perfect in form and beauty that it caught the eye of the Cypriot Artisan King. The King was so spellbound by the exquisite beauty of Pygmalion’s creation, that he wished and prayed with all his will for the statue to become real.

Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Beauty, touched by the King’s will and ardent desire, granted him the wish, and thus, the rigid stone statue slowly turned into the most beautiful, delicate and tender woman that the Artisan King had ever seen.

The Pygmalion Effect: the phenomenon whereby changes in expectations lead to changes in performance. 

Why is this relevant? Arguably, the effects of 21st-century marketing are most cogently felt in the psychological consequences of our expectations- and these expectations are set, managed and often exploited by marketers & advertisers. 

To my mind, it is exactly the point of contemplating the expectations of customers which notions of moral imperatives emerge. Based on how they are marketed to, customers expect a product or a service to be a certain way or to provide a particular function. When that function doesn’t map on to the version of it they were sold, it is the fault of the marketer, not the service. This is indeed immoral, though few regulatory protections are in place to prevent this.  

Perhaps to define each side of this discussion by the most extreme incarnation would be useful- Marketing is at its best; the high-flying, ideological, creative pursuit of the educational promotion of a product or service. At its worst; a sneaky and insidious method by which companies take advantage of an unwitting & vulnerable demographic. 

It can be said that morality and business exist on separate, but connected islands. No market is anything BUT a market, right? These are systems without any innate sense of ethics or morals. It is the people within the systems on whom a sovereign moral duty rests. 

Transcendentalist Henry David-Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience: ‘A corporation has no conscience, but a corporation of conscious men (we forgive you, Henry) is a corporation with a conscience’.

Perhaps the most salient takeaway from this discussion is exactly Thoreau’s point- and that in order to be decent and for our work to be so, we mustn’t acquiesce to the amorality of the markets themselves.

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