Ethics in Marketing – A Social Responsibility?

My Mass Communication professor climbed on to her desk, which seemed so small and far away in one of the large lecture halls at the University of Delaware. It was at that point Associate Professor Juliet Dee yelled something I will never forget. “If you remember one thing from this course,” she pleaded. “Watch television with your children!”

Her words did stick with me and I took them to heart while raising my own children years later. While at school, I did learn of all the studies done about the influence of media in our society. In fact, Professor Dee wrote books and gave lectures on the very subject and I wonder if she would be happy or disappointed with what I am about to say.

First, let me start by stating I believe media does influence both children and adults, both the developing minds and the most learned. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be in marketing, trying to influence behavior through different types of media. The shows and movies we watch, the books and advertisements we read, and the songs and presentations we listen to all make an impact, no matter how small.

Want an adorable example of young minds mirroring what they see? Watch these two toddlers act out their favorite scene from Frozen.

As a marketing professional most of my career, I have seen all sides… B2B, B2C, mass media, social media, print, digital, public relations, crisis management, direct mail, e-mail, events, promotions… the list goes on and on. Since I believe media influences thought and thoughts influence action, should I worry about what message I promote?

Fast-forward ten years after the lecture hall to my early career as an Account Executive at an advertising agency. My clients were new and used car dealerships throughout the country. I was responsible for over half a million dollars in media budget and produced radio, television and newspaper ads, as well as direct mail and other campaigns. Each state had it’s own laws and each required different ways to provide disclaimers. No doubt, you are used to hearing the low, fast talking disclaimers at the beginning or ending of radio spots or the fine print at the bottom of television and newspaper ads. Some of my accounts would really stretch those to the point I started to question my career choice.

During a long road trip with my boss, I asked him his thoughts on how the disclaimers no longer seemed black and white, but fell into this gray area. His feeling was, as long as we were not breaking any laws, we were okay. While I respected his feelings (and still do), I decided to leave the agency shortly thereafter, as I didn’t feel I was staying true to my personal ethics.

It goes without saying; advertisers and marketers should abide by all laws required of them. But, is there some sort of moral or ethical standard they should practice, as well? I believe the answer is yes, however each person’s morals or ethics may be different, so there is no way of standardizing it. To each their own.

I believe in the First Amendment and the freedom of speech and expression of ideas. I also believe the content marketers provide should be presented fairly and honestly so to respect everyone’s option to not be included in your content if they choose not to. In other words, have boundaries for age-appropriateness and social and religious values.

It is a slippery slope we travel. On one side, media is powerful and can influence and shape minds, society and a culture. At the same time, our society provides a freedom to exert our voices in so many different types of ways and that freedom is imperative to keep our society honest.

Our defense against the content we may not agree with?

It starts at home. Watch television with our kids. Listen to their favorite artists. See what they are viewing online. Be there to answer their questions and provide them nurturing guidance through the onslaught of messages they receive.

And if you find yourself involved with the type of content that makes you question your own morals or ethics… it is up to you to do what you think is best.

Perhaps my old professor may be happy with me after all.

Rick Verbanas has brought his passion for marketing to Fortune 500 companies, small businesses and not-for-profits. He strives to stay current in the latest marketing best practices, and provides a weekly roundup for your news and enjoyment. To subscribe to future blogs, please enter your email address on the left hand side of the page.









4 thoughts on “Ethics in Marketing – A Social Responsibility?

  1. Wow, I was blown away by the video of the twins recreating the scene from “Frozen!” Yes, the mass media *do* have a powerful influence on our behavior, and I really appreciate your raising the question of how to be true to your own ethical principles in the ultra-competitive world of advertising.
    University of Delaware alumna Jacquie Jordan has published a book that touches on these questions; the book is “Heartfelt Marketing: Allowing the Universe to Be Your Business Partner” (2010); I would strongly recommend this book!
    At the risk of stating the obvious, I would say that of course the Federal Trade Commission *does* permit “puffery,” meaning harmless exaggeration in advertisements, but it also draws the line at false advertising, which the First Amendment does not protect. The best thing that advertisers do is to provide us with information that we had not known before; in this way, advertisers are certainly providing a valuable service.
    In terms of cultural impact, perhaps we might think of every print ad, television commercial or web site banner we have ever seen as a kind of huge family photo album; here, the “family” is American culture in general, and advertising provides a powerful reflection of our cultural aspirations and values.
    We desperately need advertisers who think very hard about the ethical and moral implications of the ads that they create, so I would say that we need more advertisers like you, Rick Verbanas!

    • Thank you, Professor Dee! I appreciate the kind words, as well as the interesting comparison of the family photo album. Once again, you gave me another way to look at communication!

  2. I suspect there is an increasing amount of ‘fact fudging’ in my industry (graphic design). Much of the work I do now comes via web portals (like Elance, Design Crowd etc) and so gone are the days of sitting down with a client and establishing a relationship. Now, when a client asks me to put ‘100% organic’ on a food product label or ‘leader in the industry’ in an ad, I have to take their word for it but it seems everybody and their goldfish these days is an ‘industry leader’ and uses ‘only the very finest ingredients’. Perhaps these marketing messages are looked at now only as marketing tools (because they do work) but are not first passed through the ‘honest communication scanner’. We (modern consumerism) have collectively become too much hype… too little heart.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gary. I’m afraid it may only continue to get worse. With the average person receiving an unnatural amount of messaging/images per day, the competition for eyeballs will continue to increase and that will likely lead to more hype. It is up to us what we feel comfortable in contributing. Ethics still have a place in our world.

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