Fascinating post from Seth Godin yesterday, with food marketers of all sorts caught in the cross hairs. This is no doubt fueled by the recent classification by the American Medical Association that obesity is now being classified and treated as a disease. I’m not going to tackle any of that debate here, though the AMA obviously feels that the increasing rise in obesity rates is a massive health and economic concern in the US, and there’s no doubt that it’s having massive impact on our health care costs. But what struck me was his call/challenge to marketers to employ ethical boundaries to our work, and to consider the public trust, well-being and effect on culture. Godin argues that marketing is often about efforts to change the cultural impact of products and services, and it’s not merely about marketers and advertisers being able to say what they want as a matter of free speech. Godin says,“If your organization uses terms like share of stomach or hires lobbyists, you’ve already made a decision to market in a way that changes the culture to benefit you and your shareholders.”
Our marketing technology and information has become so sophisticated that we often marvel more at what is possible to achieve rather than how we should employ these tools. And at some point these tactics will implode and create greater harm, as excess seems to do at every turn. Again I’ll turn to Godin: “We ban accounting that misleads, and we don’t let engineers build bridges that endanger travelers. We monitor effluent for chemicals that can kill us as well. There’s no reason in the world that market-share-fueled marketing ought to be celebrated merely because we enjoy the short-term effects it creates in the moment.”
For my own work, this goes back to the importance of a process that rigorously identifies and defines what it is we’re talking about and what we’re delivering. In plainer terms, are we telling our customers the truth? If not, then we are simply lying to them, and if you want to lie, then I’m not your man.
In most cases I’m referring to this as the brand promise, and asking clients what that is, and whether we are truly delivering that. I’d rather deliver more than what we say and delight people with that than promise something that isn’t going to be delivered. Telling the truth and doing even more builds trust, loyalty, and a sense of pride in the work from my clients that pushes us all to aspire to more, design things better and deliver things better.
Going back to the initial quote from his blog that I pulled, “just because marketing works doesn’t mean we have an obligation to do it. And if we’re too greedy to stop on our own, then yes, we should be stopped.”
“Greedy” can also be replaced with “desperate”, as often marketers at a loss for any effective course of action turn to whatever seems to work, even when they know that the tactics aren’t honest. And with the tables of power now turned toward customers and the ability to call companies out in real time (see: my U-Haul experience; Paula Deen; etc…), marketers should have an even keener sense of the importance to tell the truth, and advocate for this with their clients/employers. That’s as much a measure of caring for shareholder value as anything. And if you’re not willing to do so out of a sense of moral/ethical obligation, then here’s some self-interest for you to consider: if you’ve designed a dishonest campaign that gets called out, you’re also likely the first to go under the bus when the outcry begins.
Thanks Seth Godin for a great bit of thought to kick off the week.