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Marketing–Confronting Ethical Dilemmas Is Tough for Marketers

The marketing profession has always been accused of self-interest. Scratch a church-going advertiser or marketer and you will be accosted by all manner of self-justification, couched in language about the legality of otherwise harmful products and the economic well-being that good old-fashioned capitalistic marketing generates for society at large.

As one who has practiced in the marketing profession for more than 30 years, and worked in the advertising business for 15 of those years, I can say without equivocation that the industry has much to answer for when it comes to the issue of ethical behavior.

Let me not come off as a moralist. I’ve done things and worked on campaigns in the past that, today, I am ashamed of and genuinely regret everything from cigarettes to kids’ cereals, to name but a few.

Ads sell more than products. They sell images, values, goals, concepts of who we are and who we should be they shape our attitudes and our attitudes shape our behavior.” The best proof of this premise is the enormous success of Nike’s Phil Knight in creating an obscenely expensive, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses solution ($120 designer footwear) to what is an otherwise basic need (functional sneakers).

Beer and cigarettes

Then there’s the issue of “legal” products. The argument states that if it’s not banned by government, it’s fair game for marketers. A rational point of view, one would say. Applying that logic, any number of socially unacceptable practices could be deemed appropriate, from the segregation laws through the ’60s to the Phen-Phen marketing of today.

The best way for the marketer to confront the ethical conundrum is to address the specific case. Nothing focuses the mind better than to apply the principle to the application.

The case can be made that the “sin” categories including cigarettes, liquor and gambling are least able to justify their aggressive marketing practices; the law be damned. Marlboro and Budweiser have done as much to damage American health as have Smith & Wesson or heart disease. Look how much effort it took to drive a stake through the heart of cigarette icon Joe Camel.

In spite of the admonition that their products should always be “served with fruit juice and toast as part of a healthy and nutritional breakfast,” children’s cereal marketers are still essentially pushing sugar-laden carbohydrates with vitamin supplements as a parental sop. At least the candy and soda companies are honest in their intent and practice. They’re selling sugar and lifestyle, nothing more. And they’re proud of it, to boot.

For calculated dishonesty and marketing cynicism at their worst, nobody can beat the politicians. From the masters of the art, the GOP’s now-deceased Lee Attwater to the Democrats’ James Carville, we’ve learned that demagoguery and negativism, concealed in the sheep’s clothing of democracy and the American way of life, are fair play.

Electoral dirty tricks are admired and encouraged. George Bush Sr. did it successfully with Willie Horton; George Jr. carried on the family tradition in South Carolina a few weeks ago. Even though everything’s fair in love, war and politics, one still has to ask the question, how do these politicians and their strategists sleep at night?

And let’s not forget the media. They’re the first to scream about the malfeasance of our politicians and the decline of our values. Yet it’s acceptable to wallow in a pool of gratuitous sex and violence as long as high ratings are sustainable, particularly during sweeps.

Sleight of hand

We’re not talking here about the otherwise tame, bodice-ripping soap operas. Look instead to the blood and gore of any local evening news broadcast, the soft pornography of the average MTV music video, the aggressively promoted car crash and animal-attack footage of the Fox network, not to mention the over-the-top mayhem of the World Wrestling Federation and its cohorts. And we wonder why kids are prone to antisocial behavior.

Other extreme examples abound. The funeral home industry deems it acceptable to take advantage when the customer is most vulnerable, in spite of the fact that there is no justification for funeral arrangements running into the thousands of dollars unless it’s for heads of state. The law may allow “rent-to-own” companies to charge usurious, double-digit interest rates, because of higher credit risk or words to that effect. Others would call it preying on those in need. Celebrities tout products that they never use, and corporate bottom-feeders, such as Benetton, appropriate issues that should never be part of the marketing domain.

Then there are the less clear-cut cases. Is it wrong for the otherwise conservative and respectable mega-bank to lure the consumer with attractive credit card offers? It seems that even the minimum-wage earner or college student can be a lucrative candidate for a barrage of upscale credit card application forms. Is it OK for marketers to imbed cookies on Web sites or track customer purchase information with the belief that more effective one-to-one marketing means a better-serviced and satisfied customer? Are state Realtor associations really justified in legally mandating (as they do in some states) a 6 percent residential sales commission fee, even though other sales intermediaries can do it for less?

Truth be told, the majority of marketers are honest business people just trying to make a clean buck. And while business ethics may be on the decline, consumers are now more cynical, more educated and better able to judge for themselves. They’re not the patsies they used to be.

Ultimately, there is only one course of action, the “family member” test. Ask yourself: Can you, with a clear conscience, recommend that a close family member buy, use or consume the product?

Alf Nucifora is an Atlanta-based marketing consultant. Lorraine Spurge is away this week.

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