On ethics in marketing

Last week, one of my favourite marketers (and marketing analysts) Seth Godin wrote on the ethics of marketing as follows:

Seth Godin Photo for Blog (Dec 2014)

Placebos, manipulation and preying on the weak

Marketers make change happen. Good marketing can change governments, heal the sick and bring a new technology to the masses. Marketers spend money (sometimes lots of it), take our time and transform our culture. It’s quite a powerful position to be in.

Who decides, then, what and how it’s okay to market?

At a recent conference for non-profits, a college student asked me, “What right does a public health person have to try to change the behavior of an at-risk group?” That one was easy for me. How can they not work to tell stories and share information that will help those at risk change that behavior?

And then, just a day later, I heard the story of a marketer who intentionally bankrupts the elderly by loading them up with worthless ‘investments’. He said, ‘Hey, if it makes them happy in the moment and they voluntarily buy what I’m selling, who cares? I’m not doing anything against the law, and if it’s not against the law, I’m not going to stop.’


Or the spam phone banks that steal brand names and generate tens of thousands of calls a day, tricking small businesses into buying fake SEO services, or the e-cig makers who market to kids, looking to build a long-term business based on addiction…

For me, the line is clear. If the person you’re trying to change knew what you knew, would they want to change? And so the placebo is ethical, because in fact, it makes people better when they believe. And the expensive wine is ethical, because it’s a placebo, purchased by people who can afford it. But the fraudulent penny-stock scam is wrong, because the withheld information about the fraud being perpetrated is a selfish lie.

If you’re okay saying to yourself and your family, “I tell selfish lies to the weak, the young and the uninformed for a living,” then I guess we need better laws. I’m hopeful, though, that we’ll figure out how to do work we’re proud of first

(© Seth Godin, Blog for December 4, 2014).

I want to go one point further than this, on the ethics of marketing.

We as consumers also need a heavy dose of common sense, preferably administered as we were raised by caregivers, to provide a crucial capacity for resistance in us. If you or those you know can’t financially afford the placebo (e.g. the particularly costly cortisone shot that rarely works or the expensive wine) but still give in to interpellation (in Althusser’s sense)  by the medical system, the education system, the church, the police, social structures, such as marketing and advertising, etc., then you likely will feel yourself victim to these forces. And I don’t think we should avoid the “v” word here, at least temporarily. There are many organizations (what Althusser terms Ideological State Apparatuses) that prey on the vulnerable or weak.

And if that happens to you, you shouldn’t stay the victim, but defend yourself, try to master (not repress) the lesson of exploitation and keep fighting. Fighting is the right metaphor for the psychological resistance we should provide to marketing and being “sold to,” not only by the shady, unethical kind. Why–because altruism doesn’t actually exist, even in good actions taken by good people (including good marketers) who may act because it makes them feel good to help or to justly “make change happen,” as Godin’s says. And I include all marketers like him (and me) in this. We need the acts of justice, to be sure, but not the assumption that they come without their own interests or agendas.

So what’s the upshot? For the consumer, be shrewd and surround yourself with good people. But (and yes it’s Christmas time, as I write) know that in business, selling is the bottom line. Altruism is a myth. The best people (even if they deny it) act because it makes them feel good (or to feel a related positive motivation) to do good. Which emphatically does not mean to stop doing that good, but simply to question yourself (be you marketer or buyer), when you have fallen into assuming that you’re altruistic, or that your motives are “pure.”  It’s a call-to-action worth remembering.

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