past and ethics

Are marketers evil?

We have all endured them — jingle-ridden radio commercials, intrusive television ads, billboards, logos, product placements in movies. We are exposed to hundreds of commercial messages each day. Estimations range from 247 (Consumer Reports ) to 3,000 (Union of Concerned Scientists ). By the most common estimate of 600 per day, we are exposed to more than 200,000 messages per year.

Behind each campaign, each piece of copy, and each painstaking photo, is a mad marketer who consumes research about why we buy. They read white papers exposing how tweens influence the purchases of their parents. They use color to influence behaviors. They create new car smells in a laboratory so that they can make sure that car triggers the right feelings of newness, or pipe aromas into the lobbies of bakeries to increase our hunger and our impulses to buy more than we should.

They study heatmaps of our behaviors on their websites because they know the correlation between mouse movement and retinal movement. They endlessly tweak wording on buttons to see which one makes sure we submit our digital shopping carts for payment. They track what we look at, open, click and respond to so that they can create lead scores to measure our engagement.

Thanks to neuromarketing, they may even know more about why we buy than we do. After all, we still think we make rational decisions — even as marketers know that rational decision is still emotion dictating that we should justify our choices with a rational decision.

Banks and feed stores buy billboards on little league fields. The position of that jar of peanut butter beside the grape jelly at your local grocer isn’t coincidental. Nor is the permanent location of milk at the back of the grocery store. The glowing Apple logo on that shiny laptop is by design. That free t-shirt you received, or even the latest shirt you purchased, turns you into a walking billboard.

But, we’re blissful.

We answer surveys about the evils of email and the wastefulness of direct mail. Yet, they remain among the best performing marketing methods for many industries.

We know they are tracking us, and while we don’t like it, we still engage in behaviors that permit it. We buy devices and implore Alexa or Hey Google to assist us in choosing music, inviting marketers into our homes for the sake of convenience.

I have often heard friends remark that they think companies are listening to them on other mobile devices. They swear they are seeing ads online after doing nothing but mentioning a product or show in the office — having never searched the topic online. (Mobile companies deny this and explain that it is simply acute awareness, much like when you learn a new word and then suddenly notice everyone uses that word.)

Are marketers evil?

I ask a bit in jest. After all, I am a marketer. I have used many of the tactics listed in this blog.

I have often told folks that, if not for marketing, I would have studied psychology. I love learning the role of scarcity, exclusivity and reciprocity on buying behaviors.

But, I am a self-loathing marketer.

By day, I consume everything I can about the industry.

After hours, I avoid marketers and salespeople like the plague. I never fill out contact cards to win a prize, and I roll my eyes at my wife when she does. I canceled my satellite subscription years ago and avoid television ads (except during the superbowl, or on Adweek by my choosing). I block ads in my web browsers and ban cookies on my mobile browser. I turn off location services, because I don’t want to see geolocational ads.

On my mischievous days, I call telemarketers back to have conversations for grins (though it is getting harder to access a real human). I enjoy timeshare sales presentations, saying “no” at every turn, because it is fun to predict the next method they will employ.

It is a bit like looking in a mirror.

Is marketing good or evil?

Is technology good or evil?

Is financing good or evil?

Is government good or evil?

As it turns out, marketers are people. How we use our craft is determined by our own values, morality and ethics. I am grateful that marketing organizations make an effort to enact industry ethics for what we do.

For example, the American Marketing Association publishes ethical norms:

As Marketers, we must:

  1. Do no harm.
    This means consciously avoiding harmful actions or omissions by embodying high ethical standards and adhering to all applicable laws and regulations in the choices we make.

  2. Foster trust in the marketing system.
    This means striving for good faith and fair dealing so as to contribute toward the efficacy of the exchange process as well as avoiding deception in product design, pricing, communication, and delivery of distribution.

  3. Embrace ethical values.
    This means building relationships and enhancing consumer confidence in the integrity of marketing by affirming these core values: honesty, responsibility, fairness, respect, transparency and citizenship.

They continue with a list of ethical values:

  1. Honesty
  2. Responsibility
  3. Fairness
  4. Respect
  5. Transparency
  6. Citizenship

The pain in the ask is — as a marketer, do you abide by these tenets?

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