Consumers increasingly expect brands to uphold high ethical standards or risk large-scale uprisings against their businesses. But what basics do marketers need to understand to define ethical marketing and then put it into practice? We talked about it with Amber Burton, Course Facilitator for MA Marketing and Digital Communications from Falmouth University (online)and the module leader, Dr. Steve Dumbleton.
What is meant by the term ethical marketing?
Steve Dumbleton (DS): It’s hard to get to the heart of what is meant by the term ethical marketing, because it means so many different things to different people, and it tends to be experienced from a personal perspective. However, I think legality versus morality is a useful way to approach thinking about marketing ethics, and also to examine it in terms of both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Take the example of cookies. If you just look at the letter of the law, it allows marketers to use it – it’s a legal way to collect data. But the spirit of the law, the way [data protection legislation] was written, was to try to steer people away from using this technology.
So there are things out there that are legal to do, but they’re not necessarily the right thing to do. We teach students to always think about how consumers and society are affected by marketing and to identify gaps in laws designed to protect them.
Amber Burton (AB): There is also something authentic that falls into this space. A discrepancy between what a brand says it will do and what it does creates a credibility gap, and if that gap is too big, it can be unethical to make certain claims.
Many brands – whether in their advertising campaigns, social marketing or wider communications – struggle to talk about their environmental and sustainable credentials – aka greenwashing.
The other specific area we look at in terms of marketing ethics is representation. Are we really giving voice to different people in our campaigns and marketing messages? Is it a true, accurate and fair representation? This is where we look at brand responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, representation of people with different abilities, issues surrounding the #MeToo era.
How have ethics become more visible in marketing over the years?
A B: It’s tempting to say that it’s become more of a problem because of social media in recent years — because of the ability for the public to speak out publicly. We can all think of social media storms that have pushed a company into an embarrassing descent. However, I think this has always been a visible problem. Consider the era of marketing activities for cigarettes. It was aimed at young women, making smoking synonymous with being cool and fashionable. It was completely legal, but even then it was recognized as unethical.
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think the landscape and the technology have become so complex that there is no longer a way to develop a comprehensive understanding of the activities that take place within organizations. We do not have the opportunity to dissect many contemporary ethical puzzles, because they are simply hidden. The extent of customer data that some companies have access to – and the “goosebumps” of it – is not well understood by consumers. This is a problem that will only get worse.
Currently, Google Analytics is moving away from cookie-based tracking to a form of AI-based tracking. They will essentially make predictions about people based on best guesses, which is a way of saying consumer privacy is protected by not tracking them. But in another way, the AI is now making assumptions based on what could be inaccurate information – potentially even more intrusive and damaging.
Marketing can be a data-intensive profession, so we need to carefully consider consumer expectations and the trust they place in us to do the right thing.
What are some of the current ethical challenges facing the marketing industry?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think the hustle culture is a challenge for marketers. Facebook pioneered the “move fast and break things” approach, which influenced a culture of rule-breaking in Silicon Valley in particular, permeating smaller startups over time.
Hustle culture and growth hacking are two nice buzzwords you see referenced, especially for entry-level marketing positions. It’s both a cultural and an ethical question, this idea of always being “connected”, of always trying to exploit things and find the fastest paths to growth, and that everything else can fall at the water.
This poses problems, both for individuals – people who burn out – and also when it becomes a corporate philosophy. We have seen what happens when companies go fast and break things: scandal, violations of people’s rights, lack of consideration for the end user.
This is a huge ethical issue, not only in itself, but also because it often comes with the co-opting of other political and social issues, such as the environment or Black Lives Matter – exploiting these issues solely for the growth.
A B: Some brands’ answer to this is authenticity. In the face of challenges related to greenwashing or jumping on trains like Black Lives Matter, authenticity and brand purpose in particular are terms that come up. They are very misunderstood and easily misused. But a good brand goal is to authentically align brand principles with the things the brand wants to be known for.
Personal satisfaction and well-being also present an ethical challenge for early-career marketing practitioners. Taking your first step into a job in the marketing industry will make most people think about their ethical choices. What industry do they want to work in, what practices do they want to employ, and how can their voices be heard?
There are a lot of jobs where you have to ask yourself if you really want to be involved in the activities of this company or sector. Fast-growing and profitable industries tend to offer plenty of entry-level jobs for people who want to learn more about digital marketing. But is it something you want to do? You will definitely learn a lot by getting involved. But how does this particular sector sit with you ethically?
I think it’s our business on the course to provide a safe space to have those discussions. It’s very difficult to have this discussion with your employer or when you’re about to pitch a case.
A student recently gave me an example where she was participating in a photo shoot to help a brand develop content, and she realized that she was not comfortable with selecting models. She felt she had no power to say anything because it would have been the end of her career, at least in the very short term. But she could bring that into the class and have a conversation about it. And we can start debating.
Can you give examples of ethical marketing campaigns?
A B: A common example that students like to cite is the Patagonia brand. They launched a campaign called “Don’t buy a jacket”, which promotes their repair service over their new products. We love it because it’s a fashion brand that recognizes that its core problem is that it’s part of a polluting industry, but it’s doing its part to minimize the impact on the planet.
A lesser-known example is a phone case company called Pela, and how they’re tackling the problem of plastics. There are now more phone cases than phones. And so there will be more discarded phone cases than discarded phones. And since phone cases are usually made of plastic, and certainly not biodegradable materials, Pela focused on that and found a way to produce phone cases made of biodegradable materials. This is an example of a company that has gone through every step of its supply chain, to ensure that it can really raise its hand and say that it is doing everything it can to be a sustainable business.
SOUTH DAKOTA: There are no brands that we can stand up for and say 100% ethical – there are so many gray areas. And I think it’s our responsibility as practitioners and as consumers to understand those gray areas and strive to be better.
To learn more about putting marketing ethics into practice, apply for Masters in Marketing and Digital Communications from Falmouth University (online).