On Morality in Marketing

In my column for a consumer publication, I recently wrote: If you bought a car you can’t afford, fed your kids fast food until your spouse mistook them for the minivan, blew the budget on a video game system, or bought clothes that went out of style as you were paying for them, I’m truly sorry. But neither my marketing colleagues nor I made you do it.

I intended the article to be an empowering piece on personal responsibility and to bust a few myths about marketing’s alleged powers of mind control. But readers recoiled, taking it for a unilateral defense of marketing, abuses included, and a disavowal of marketers’ responsibilities for what and how they sell.

Fair is fair. Insisting that our markets accept responsibility for their buying decisions in no way alleviates us marketers of responsibility for how we use our marketing knowledge.

The knowledge itself is neutral. Knowing that a P.S. in a sales letter pulls high readership does not make it immoral to put compelling copy points there, nor does knowing the power of limited-time incentive offers make it underhanded to use them. It is in the content of marketing that abuses can and do occur.

To be sure, much if not the majority of today’s direct response marketing is forthright and honorable. But some of it resorts, if not to out-and-out lies, to the classic subterfuge of stating what is technically true in a manner that is designed to mislead. Don’t believe me? Consider the number of products that makes fantastic claims in body copy — which the fly type directly contradicts.

I watched a direct response commercial that did exactly that. While the video and voiceover implied that a so-called “energy product” beats a cup of coffee for helping sleepy workers slog through an afternoon, the fly type at the bottom of the screen revealed that the product’s secret ingredient is — guess what? — “…caffeine comparable to a cup of the leading coffee.” Not only that, the product shown making people alert and productive is “…not proven to improve physical performance, dexterity or endurance.” For that matter, it “…does not provide caloric energy.” That last one is interesting. The energy that bodies run on is measured in calories. What is not caloric is not energy.

Some marketers justify subterfuges with, “Our customers are intelligent people who research our claims.” Nonsense. That is caveat emptor in a new suit of clothes. Nor can we count on the oft-quoted maxim that “effective advertising only speeds a bad product’s demise” to weed out abuses. To take just one example, consider magnets with purported health benefits, a popular direct response offering. Blinded tests show that magnets have no therapeutic effect, a Federal District Court has ordered at least one magnet marketer to refund up to $87 million to defrauded buyers, and the iron in our bodies doesn’t respond to magnets in the first place. Yet millions of people continue believing in and buying so-called “therapeutic magnets.” Effective marketing has built, not killed, this flimflam line of products.

Hopefully you agree with me that out-and-out deceptive practices are harmful. Short of those extremes, there are varying shades of gray that will require judgment calls. David Ogilvy said, “Surely it is asking too much to expect an advertiser to describe the shortcomings of his product. One must be forgiven for putting one’s best foot forward.” Fair enough. Were full disclosure required in every exchange, none of us would ever have gone on a first date, much less sold a product. And while we can expect disagreement as to when putting one’s best foot forward becomes misrepresentation, the very act of engaging in the dialogue beats failing to deal with the issue at all.