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Can marketers become more ethical?

Last week at the WARC networking event, Tom Morton (Chief Strategy Officer at R/GA) brought up the topic of ethics as it relates to implementing behavioral science in advertising. 

One of his slides said: “The building blocks of digital design both incredibly powerful and morally ambivalent.”  In his talk, he identified questions that planners need to ask when developing a campaign:
From that slide:   

  • Thwarting a goal or helping to achieve a goal

  • Worst intentions vs. Best self

  • Exploiting the users vs. Respecting the user

All great questions.  It’s interesting to think about ethics in light of the fact that advertising executives are rated at the very bottom of all occupations on ethics.  Tom Morton is sounding a wake-up call that marketers' reputation might sink even lower, if that is possible, as they apply behavioral science principles.  Kudos to Tom for bringing this up.

But there is a different question that I recommend adding to Tom’s list that might help.  The question:  Is the advertising systemically responsible?  This question is an advertising related application of a question that was developed by an ethical adviser to Citigroup after the financial crisis. This issue is not routinely considered.  Thinking about this question might be useful in helping to raise the ratings of advertising professionals.

One answer to the systemically responsible question is that a campaign isn’t if it creates rancor.  The Chiat award winner campaign for Baby Shop could have been that sort of campaign when it created a new word for parenthood that included women.  (see my post about the campaign here.) But it avoided a longer term backlash because the advertising planners thought through potential reactions and prepared for it.  Looking at this from a big picture perspective, in general, any time a brand takes a political or social stand it might be exacerbating societal divisiveness.  Doing that is not systemically responsible! 

Full disclosure:  This post duplicates the comments I made from the audience at Tom’s presentation.

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Karen Tibbals @KarenTibbals

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