Ethical Debates for Marketing/ Marketers

I was teaching a 4th semester class this week; when we reached the topic of Needs & Wants, a thoughtful a student interjected to ask if what marketers do, is ethical. Really good question, and well worth debating.

Most ethical decisions are yours to make one on one. An exec recruiter was offended I wouldn’t take an interview 15 years ago to create a brand growth strategy for an entire continent. That’s a skill I had proven quite adept at and the compensation was almost twice what I was then making. Lil wrinkle for me- it was marketing cigarettes to Africa. Growth opportunity, no doubt, but not a role I would pursue. Personal choice- I’m sure a colleague took it (and hopefully did an ineffective job).

At a HABA firm, I allowed a product be packed in ‘form, fill & seal’ packaging; what’s inside was a high value item ($20 retail), compact in size & stocked mid-aisle. A theft risk, so the company insisted packaging be ‘bulletproof’. It certainly was! Even I detested it! Opening the pack at home required scissors, ti  snips or a a carpet knife, and protective gloves. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be cut on the sharp edges of freshly cut rigid plastic packaging while struggling to open a purchase. I could have refused to carry it, or quit, but I launched it as recommended; a personal choice, and probably not a good one.

A colleague who went from HABA Marketing to a global liquor firm faced ethical dilemmas. Grandson of a Rabbi, with laudable values, he was hired to work on prestige-priced gin, and reveled in doing so. At its premium price, he reasoned, the brand didn’t create any new alcoholics. Then he was assigned a Value Brand whiskey; he squirmed mightily, and soon left the firm.

Ethical one-off dilemmas are nothing new to most marketers.

But what ‘industry-wide’ dilemmas does marketing face? I’m open to suggestions (email me, or add a ‘Comment’) but I see 3 current (but not new) ethical dilemmas:

1. Privacy. How do we use personal data or inferred data on you the consumer? Where do we draw a line? If I have enough data on you, I  can do predictive lifestage models or ‘lookalike’ models. How can I use that info? In what situation? Using how aggressive a tone & manner? You might be surprised how much info is out there on you. Marketers store it ‘blinded’; data is not stored alongside a name, but a number. But that number is linked to tons of data on a consumer (are you married or single? what is your income? have you bought condoms in the past month? Kwell shampoo in the past 12 months? how often do you drink milk? do you subscribe to GQ? what is your credit rating?).  I worked for a firm that, for each of >50 Million households, had >1,800 ‘data points’ (called ‘selects’; a marketer can ‘select’ the exact data points to use to target a consumer & tailor a message). It’s not outrageous to say that, if I have enough data on you, I might be better able than you, to predict eg

  • you will buy a new car in the next 6 months;
  • your daughter would suffer from bone loss and calcium depletion;
  • you are very likely to upgrade your mobile data plan within 3 months
  • for your next travel vacation, these 3 destinations are most likely to appeal to you
  • you’re gonna be alone & have no need to buy a box of chocolates as a gift this year.

Errr… how might I use that info to better market my products or services? At what point am I infringing?

2. Depicting Society. Ad agencies develop the creative, but marketers set ad strategy & approve the creative. Marketers are the ones who can push for an ad to depict society in a certain way. It’s an old old debate- do we depict society as it is, or as we want to see it? or as we expect it to be going? If an ad includes a hospital scene, are 90% of nurses in it Female, as in Western society now, or do we hold 50% of those roles for Men because ‘we’ would like to see that, or expect society is heading that way? If I’m working on Brand X, isn’t it about time for us to have an all-African American ad? Do we have enough physically challenged people in our ads? It’s a quagmire. Federal & provincial governments fall over themselves trying to cast members of every minority, gender, culture, ability, etc in ads from savings bonds to vaccination programs. Even THEY found trouble recently, after selecting a ‘too-Asian-looking’ person for a scene on the new $100 Bill on a scene depicting an R&D laboratory. The feds are accused of perpetuating a stereotype that Asian immigrants are better at science.

This dilemma won’t be over any time soon. Expect governments to stay ahead, pushing to depict society as they think/hope it will be. They won’t be alone. More inspired ‘future society’ depictions have long come from Private sector firms bravely ahead-of-the-curve eg Coca Cola’s famous  hilltop ad from 1970  better known as ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing’ which harmoniously depicts a global village. Or my fave from 1979  in which a sweaty post-game Joe Green accepts a coke from a hero-worshipping young white kid. Those 2 ads did tons for worldwide racial harmony, at a troubled time in society’s evolution.

3. Manipulating Needs & Wants. Do marketers create needs? Debatable. I say that marketers leverage existing needs & wants. Marketers will highlight & raise your sensitivity to a specific need, if their product is better at serving that need. They may try to raise your awareness of a ‘need’ you thought of little consequence. Up until the mid 20th Century, most ketchup was made fresh & light; thickness was an attribute of ‘cheaper’ ketchups. Heinz knew making ketchup from paste was cheaper & easier to manage logistically than making it from fresh tomatoes. They created ad campaigns showing how ‘painful’ it was to wait for their oh-so-good gooey pasty ketchup; consumers bought into ‘thickness’ being a positive attribute of a preferred ketchup, putting the entire ‘fresh ketchup’ industry out of business. Heinz deserves kudos for turning a weakness into a strength. Michelin heightened concerns about tire safety with their ad inquiry “What’s riding on your tires?”- taking parents everywhere on a guilt trip  (no pun intended) if they didn’t arm their vehicle with Michelins.

Are there cases of Marketers outright lying & misleading consumers? When the Ontario energy industry was deregulated a decade ago- it caught everyone unprepared, especially consumers. The ‘privatizing process’ was so chaotic it made the Opening Of The Wild West look orderly. Unethical  new energy firms sent ‘Service Reps’ door-to-door to ‘inform’ unsuspecting homesteaders that the hydro bill was sure to double, or their power would be cut off, if they didn’t sign a contract with their ‘reputable’ energy distribution firm immediately.  A sleazy free-for-all perpetuated by those firms’ execs and executed by their Marketing Dept. Over the line, in my view

As a marketer, I draw my line on Heinz’s side; in that case: they heightened your interest in slow ketchup, but did not mislead you or lie to you. Whereas the door-to-door energy marketers invented panic-inducing lies on the spot (many were paid 100% commission, on the basis of the number of signed contracts they brought back).


So let the debates rage on!- discussing & reassessing these issues is good for Marketing as a profession.

It’s healthy, though often uncomfortable.

Name a profession that doesn’t debate behavioural limits for its members; I’ll show you an occupation that isn’t a ‘profession’ [Yes, I realize that by this reasoning, I grudgingly admit 'Politics' is a profession. I also note that, by this reasoning, 'Ontario High School Teacher' and 'Lawyer' wouldn't qualify as professions- go ahead & debate THAT!]

Steven Litt